Messi's left foot. Nadal's resilience. Going a bit further back, Bolt's loping stride. Each sporting champion has a variety of skills and attributes but there's always one that puts them a cut above the rest. In this series we look at top Indian athletes and identify that one quality that makes them stand out. This week: Mary Kom's adaptability, and her continued success.
Into the third decade of her boxing career (nearly the fourth when you consider she fought her first national tournament in 2000), MC Mary Kom has racked up several lifetimes worth of achievements. Yet she has shown no sign of hanging her gloves. Longevity is rare in international sport, but it's not everything. Some athletes prolong their careers by switching to less stressful formats. Others buy time through their reputation. Mary Kom hasn't lowered her standards or avoided competition. She has stayed at the pinnacle of her game, through multiple challenges -- an injury-prone sport, the strain of multiple pregnancies and childbirth, new generations of talent and even just the steady march of time.
She has done so through a combination of good genes, grit, the willingness to adapt and the intelligence to know how to do it.
What I like about her game
Lost amidst the boatload of medals and bucketload of achievements is what some might consider an unpleasant truth about Mary Kom's in-ring game today -- it's not particularly crowd-pleasing. Compared to other fighters, her methodical counterpunching can appear basic. There's no excess, no dancing footwork, taunting low guard or lavish arcing punches. But while it appears workmanlike, there is a lot of intelligence that has gone behind crafting this boxing template, which doesn't come naturally to her.
What it shows is Mary Kom's tremendous ability to adapt her game to one that has allowed her to stay competitive at an elite level with youngsters she inspired to lace up their first pair of gloves.
Why I like it
Mary Kom's continued success shatters a lot of perceptions.
In boxing, it is understood that all fighters only have a certain number of rounds in their body. Their reflexes are the first to go. Speed follows. Finally, strength fades. It seems to follow that Mary Kom should have thrown in the towel long ago. Reaction speed is critical to a boxer's success, especially so since Mary Kom boxes in the lightest, ergo the fastest, weight division in women's boxing. It's almost counter-intuitive for her to stay as effective as she has grown older.
Time and again, she has come up against opponents who you think have come of age while Mary Kom's physical abilities have faded. Some of them -- Helen Thulasi, Pinki Jangra -- have beaten her too. But on each occasion, she has worked even harder, sharpened another facet of her game and come back stronger.
Mary Kom could have gone the way of so many of her compatriots who boxed the same way over the course of their careers and paid the price owing to diminished physical gifts. Instead, she has adapted her game to extract the very last bit of her ability. At 38, it could be argued that Mary Kom has managed to beat back the ravages of time by becoming a far more efficient boxer than she was at any point in her career.
Where does it come from?
Mary Kom's ability to recover from childbirth and injury, and her willingness to train harder than any of her compatriots is well known. But Mary Kom's ability to match and beat younger, faster and fresher opponents, is also about working smart and adapting her ageing body to a frenetic sport. Her low-volume (at times she has won rounds by simply landing just a couple of clear shots), counterpunching style crucially preserves energy and avoids needless risk in getting hit herself. Most importantly, it wins bouts just the same way as a flashy knockout would.
Mary Kom's game wasn't always like this, though. At the start of her career, she was known for her nonstop aggression that overwhelmed opponents. "But as you get older you have to box more intelligently. For the last few years we have only been working on getting as technically sharp as possible," explains her coach Chotey Lal Yadav. That's why Mary Kom rarely throws loose, looping, energy-sapping punches that look impressive but are easily slipped or blocked. Instead, she uses her feet to get in range, snaps a sharp counter and gets out of harm's way. Mary Kom's reliance on punches thrown from a shorter distance is what makes it seem like she is faster on the draw in the ring. It's not that Mary Kom is somehow faster than her opponents -- at her age, she simply cannot be. Instead, she's reading her opponent earlier, timing her shots a lot better and punching as efficiently as possible,
Where did I see this?
Mary Kom's bout against Nikhat Zareen in the trials to select the Indian team for the 2020 Olympic qualifiers in December last year was perhaps the best example of her ring intelligence and win-at-all-costs mindset.
The contest was one of the toughest domestic challenges of her career. Mary Kom was recovering from a recent back injury and so wasn't anywhere near peak physical shape. And she was up against a highly-rated young boxer in Zareen, who had a height and reach advantage. It was an ill-tempered contest -- Mary Kom was guilty of making it so -- but while ensuring Zareen focused on convincing the crowd of her superiority, Mary Kom focused on convincing the judges.
While Zareen repeatedly lost her form in swinging wildly and telegraphing her shots in the hopes of landing a decisive punch, Mary Kom boxed within her limitations and countered whenever her opponent made a clumsy lunge. It wasn't a punch-fest that gets people on their feet -- Mary Kom landed five clean punches over three rounds while taking nothing in return -- but it got the job done. She eventually recovered from her injury, went for the Olympic qualifiers and won her quota but it was her adaptability and ring craft against Zareen that made it possible.
"She wasn't anywhere near her best. But winning is an art in itself," says coach Yadav.