As women’s boxing joins the Olympics, Rahul Bhattacharya profiles the phenomenal Mary Kom—five-times world champion and mother of twowho has had to battle against far more than just her opponents in the ring


From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

“One plays football. One does not play boxing.”
– Joyce Carol Oates, “On Boxing”

Play, or its Hindi equivalent, khel, is the verb Mary Kom uses. She could be referring to a tournament, “when I played national”, her stance, “I play southpaw”, or her weight category, “I must play in 51kg in the Olympics.” But there is something deeper when Kom says it. Childbirth and child-rearing, that is life. Lifting yourself out of poverty, fulfilling the duties of a wife, a daughter, an eldest sister, that is life. Boxing is so much; but still it is play.

She is in the ring right now, and to be ringside when Mary Kom is in action is to feel the kinetic heat of boxing. It is molecular. She is padding against a man whom, a little while ago, in his spectacles, sweater and moustache, I took for a government officer. Now, shorn of the first two, he has transformed himself into a provocateur, a matador. He is baiting Mary, taunting her with words and jabs in the face. When their heads come together, their spit and sweat fall on each other, the blazing whites of their eyes are falling into each other’s. Kom is 5ft 2in officially, an inch more in her own estimate, but looks smaller—even more so in her headgear. Small, but taut: a packet of tensile strength.

Her muscles must be on fire. Counting her rounds against the bag, the mirror and the other women at the camp, national and international-level boxers, she has completed the equivalent of two full-length competition bouts. Those girls were heavier and taller. This is just as well because when women’s boxing debuts at the 2012 Olympics, Mary must play taller opponents, who will have a longer reach. Most of her championship victories have come as a pinweight boxer, 46kg, whereas in London the lightest class, flyweight, is 51kg.

But next to Mary, these other girls were ponderous. Their feet were sluggish, their positioning not so clever. She could fight with her guard down, testing her reflexes by offering them her bare chin as a target, and counter-attacking in angles unfamiliar to boxers who take the orthodox stance.

All around the gym the girls furtively watched her. They covet her low-gravity wound-up springiness, her pure petite explosiveness. They would love to lunge so wide and fast, and never need to wrestle or go to the ropes. Aggression is her hallmark, and it makes her exhilarating to watch.

Yeh leh Mary,” Mr Bhaskar Bhatt goads her, “take this. And this.” This too is the play of boxing.

“He tries to make me angry,” she says later, “but I have to be cool.” Her grimace is hidden by her white gumshield. You can feel her burn; it’s been 80 minutes now.

Aaja Mary, sha-baash, come Mary, come.” This is a “specific training” session, devoted to feints and combination punches. He’s making her chase him, holding up his pad for her to pull out another series of rifling combination punches, which she does with sharp yelp-like breaths.

“Phoom.” That is the sound she wants from a punch. “When it’s tak, tak, like that, it is OK, not powerful,” she will say, throwing me a mock punch. “Phoom! That is powerful.”

At last the session is finished. “60%,” says Mr Bhatt, bespectacled again, assessing a fortnight’s progress. “She has not come into her original yet. Once she does that, when she gets back her automatisation, no one can stop her. See, Mary never gets puzzled in the ring. She has killer instinct.”

To cool off, this 29-year-old mother of two does cartwheels and somersaults in the ring, and looks suddenly adolescent—copper highlights in her hair, fluorescent laces on her shoes. When she lands awkwardly on an ankle that was recently injured, she just giggles. She lies on her stomach to be rubbed down by a physio provided by Olympic Gold Quest, a private non-profit organisation which began funding India’s elite athletes in 2007.

The gym is on the premises of an erstwhile palace in Patiala, Punjab, now India’s national sports institute. In its grounds the hedges are trim, the trees are labelled with numbers, and the kerb is painted in zebra stripes, but beneath the order it is still India, no country for athletes. Kom will return to shared accommodation in a hostel, where she will boil vegetables with fermented fish on her portable stove, because the mess food can leave her with indigestion. She will hand-wash her clothes, scrubbing the blood off her socks, as there is a single washing machine for an entire hostel of athletes. Two years ago, two female boxers, one a world-championship medallist, were asked to serve tea to visitors and wash up afterwards.

Only one Indian, the rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra, has ever won an individual Olympic gold medal. A chapter in his memoirs is entitled “Mr Indian Official: Thanks for Nothing”.