Mary Kom at 38: Up for a final hurrah in the Olympic ring

As Indian boxing ace Mary Kom celebrates her 38th birthday on March 1, here’s a look at her famed career and what lies ahead.
By Utathya Nag

As a record six-time world champion and an Olympic bronze medallist, MC Mary Kom has little to prove as she turns 38.

However, the Indian boxing icon is still hungrier than ever to accomplish a dream she holds close to her heart --- winning an Olympic gold medal.

“For so many years I have been fighting. I have won so many medals. But I have not won an Olympic gold. That has been my dream. I am still not satisfied with what I have achieved,” Mary Kom told New Indian Express recently.

“I have a dream to win a gold at the Olympics. That’s what I am working for. First, I need to secure a medal at Tokyo and then go for the higher one, the highest one,” she added.

After winning her bronze medal at London 2012, Mary Kom heartbreakingly failed to secure a berth for Rio 2016 – something she considers as one of the biggest blows of her career.

She was 33 back then and for most, it would be the end of the line. Hanging up her gloves with an Olympic bronze alongside a cabinet full of medals wouldn’t have even slightly faded Mary Kom’s sheen as an Indian boxing legend.

However, her insatiable hunger has kept her going. Also, the road has been far from a smooth one.

While she qualified for the Tokyo 2020, the postponement of the Games and the ensuing uncertainty and hardships added to the challenges. Mary Kom admitted that in the first few months she was scared and was extremely cautious. It also meant she had to reset the clock and start preparing all over again.

When she started eventually training again, she suffered from a severe bout of dengue in December. Mary Kom said that it “wreaked havoc” as she lost muscle and added weight, gaining about eight kilogrammes.

Mary Kom quickly shed the weight and is now back in shape, ready to get back in the ring after almost a year starting with the Boxam meet in Spain, in what could be a first of many tournaments ahead of the Olympic Games.

Mary Kom will be back in action in the Boxam meet in Spain. Photo: Boxing Federation of India

Circumstances were trying leading up to her qualification as well. In 2019, an ageing Mary Kom’s credentials to be India’s representative at the Olympic qualifiers in her category was openly challenged by the up and coming Nikhat Zareen – a boxer approaching her prime and 14 years younger to Mary.

After a somewhat dragged out and frosty build-up, Mary Kom and Nikhat Zareen faced off in the national trials for a shot at traveling to the Asian Olympic Qualifiers.

Mary, though, proved emphatically that age was just a number. The Manipuri ace overwhelmed Nikhat Zareen in the trials 9-1 to prove herself worthy.

She followed up with a stellar showing at the Asian Qualifiers in Jordan, sealing her berth to Tokyo with a 5-0 win over Irish Magno of Philippines in the quarter-finals.

With the Olympics deferred by a year due to COVID-19, Mary Kom has been patiently waiting for her much-awaited shot and come July in Tokyo, her eyes and punches will have just one target – the Olympic gold.

“The hunger is stronger than ever and it’s only getting more intense,” as Mary puts it herself. 

In fact, it’s the same hunger, both inside and outside the boxing ring, which has made her into a legend she is today. Here’s a look back.

Humble beginnings and sparring with the boys

Born in a poor family of farmers in the village of Kangathei in Manipur, Mary Kom was the eldest of three siblings.

In the initial days at school, Mary dabbled in athletics, football and volleyball. Boxing, though, came into her life only after seeing fellow Manipuri Dingko Singh return with a gold medal from the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.

Spurred on, Mary Kom set out to be a boxer. Then 15-years-old, she was a late starter and the road to the top was always going to be an uphill one.

Despite her obvious natural talent, there were challenges to overcome. At that time, boxing was a male-dominated sport and finding quality competition among girls was tough. Mary, though, came up with her own solution – spar against the boys.

“This sport is a male-dominated one. So, initially when I started boxing, it was very difficult. There would be one or two girls training apart from me. So, I had to train with the boys,” Mary Kom said.

There were issues at the home front as well. Mary Kom’s father Mangte Tonpa Kom, though an aspiring wrestler in his younger days, was strictly against Mary’s choice of boxing because he felt injuries to her face may severely impede her marriage prospects.

Mary, though, continued following her passion behind her father’s back.

The secret, however, came out once her father saw her photo in a newspaper after she won a state championship. Tonpa, eventually, warmed up to his daughter’s decision in 2003.

A mother and a champion

With her unrelenting drive to win, it took Mary Kom little time to storm the highest summits of Indian boxing.

On the international arena, she announced her arrival by winning a silver medal at the World Boxing Championships in 2001.

Mary Kom followed it up with a gold in 2002 - the first of her six world championships over the years.

As it stands, she is the most successful women’s boxer in the history of the competition. Ireland’s Katie Taylor – a London 2012 lightweight gold medallist – won it five times.

Mary Kom also has a bronze to her name at the event, taking her total medals tally to 8 – more than any boxer, men’s or women’s, in history.

Mary Kom also holds the distinction of being the first Indian woman boxer to win an Asian Games gold in 2014 and a Commonwealth Games gold in 2018. She is also a five-time Asian champion.

What’s even more astounding is the fact that she achieved all this while becoming a mother twice. She gave birth to twins in 2007 and welcomed another baby boy with her husband and manager Onler in 2013.

In fact, winning the 2008 world championships gold shortly after becoming a first-time mother served as the highlight for a 2014 biopic on her, also titled ‘Mary Kom’.

“I had to struggle a lot. It's not easy to make a comeback after getting married and having children. I decided that until I achieve it I won't quit,” Mary had revealed.

Star actor Priyanka Chopra portrayed the boxer in the movie, which turned out to be a box office hit.

Besides her exploits in the ring, Mary Kom is a role model for Indian boxers of all ages.

“Mary’s an inspiration to billions of people. She has three kids and she is still fighting. At her age, her consistency is also remarkable,” 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Vijender Singh said.

The crowning moment of Mary Kom’s illustrious career to date, though, was winning the flyweight bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

With women’s boxing making its debut at the Summer Games in that edition, Mary Kom was the sole Indian representative at the event. She lost to Britain’s Nicola Adams – the eventual champion – in the semi-finals but secured a bronze medal.

Five months from now, at Tokyo, the Magnificent Mary will be at it again - fighting to complete her Olympic dream.