'Most admired' Mary Kom driven by need to shut critics up

At 36, Mary Kom is one of the oldest participants at the World Championships this year. Cameraworxpix

"Is it? I can't believe it...Woah and thank you."

A few days ago, that gushing tweet was posted by the official handle of Mary Kom, quoting a report that said she had been voted the most admired Indian woman.

Mary Kom is someone who, in a career that will soon enter its third decade, has ticked every box -- sporting or otherwise -- there is. She has medalled at the World Championships and the Asian, Commonwealth and Olympic Games too. She has inspired multiple books and even a Bollywood blockbuster. She's now a nominated member of Parliament. You'd think someone with her treasure trove of achievements, one of the greatest-ever Indian sportspersons, might be a little secure of her place in the country's cultural landscape. What additional point could a poll run by a marketing agency prove?

That's surprisingly not the case. "I think I deserve it. I've struggled so much," she had told ESPN at the end of a training session at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Stadium that same evening.

Even today, it seems that Mary Kom needs the validation that she is the best at what she does. It's the reason why at 36, she's the first boxer to enter the boxing hall and the last to leave after completing a lengthy cool-down session. It's why she's grimacing through various aches and pains courtesy the gruelling training sessions. Why she has decided she can't rest on her laurels just yet. She'll balance her parliamentary career and the maternal challenges of raising yet another toddler in little Neivar, while still eyeing another shot at the Olympic Games, the rings of which she got tattooed on her arms a few weeks ago. It's that unrelenting drive for public affirmation that propels her at the World Championships that begin in the Russian city of Ulan-Ude on Thursday.

And if she can't get the praise that she feels she deserves, the next best option will suffice. "I don't know if I have to prove anything to anyone," she says. "But the mindset of some people is that 'Mary Kom has done enough, hasn't she? Now she is khatam (finished).' When I didn't win medals, so many people were saying, 'She is done.' I can't put a plaster on their mouth, can I? I can only shut them up with a medal. From the time I started to now, that's how I have stopped people from opening their mouth and saying something negative."

The tongues are wagging this time as well. There's just cause for the negativity surrounding her bid for what will be her seventh gold medal at the World Championships. She had asked for an exemption from the national selection trials based on her performances and accordingly was granted one by the federation. Twenty-two-year-old Nikhat Zareen had called out the unfairness of Mary Kom being granted the only exemption from the trials.

Mary Kom obviously disagrees with that assessment. "The trials are not in my hands. I just informed [the BFI] why should I give trials again and again, because I have already performed. I am not a junior boxer. I am competing for almost 20 years," she will say without batting an eyelid.

Her reasoning for why she needn't bother with trials makes crystal-clear sense to her even though it's unlikely anyone else could have got away after uttering it. But Mary Kom doesn't expect to convince using her words. If she does win a medal at the Worlds, it would indeed, as Kom puts it, plaster the critics' mouths.

While there are few who will want to bet against that happening, there is still the matter of history. Even in a career as storied as that of Mary Kom, there is an achievement that has eluded her -- a world medal at the 51kg category. All her World Championship medals -- six golds and one silver -- have come in the lightest weight division (45kg pinweight and then the 48kg light flyweight). "Even today if you say that the Olympics will be held in the 48kg category, I can guarantee that she will win gold there. She is perfect for that weight," says her coach and former men's national champion Chotey Lal Yadav.

But the Olympic category isn't 48kg but the 51kg flyweight. And in that division, Mary Kom's returns at the World Championships are very modest. She has competed twice in the 51kg before -- losing in the quarterfinals in 2012 and then in the first round in 2016. And if she wins her first match in Russia, she's slated to face the same German opponent who beat her in R1 of the 2016 Worlds.

But Mary Kom will pull out the statistics to show she can compete at the flyweight division too -- her bronze at the 2012 Olympics came in the 51kg category and she has a gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games as well, beating 2018 flyweight world silver medallist Zhaina Shekerbekova in the final. "I've competed in 51kg before," she says. "I've won in it also. It's not new for me."

She has been training hard for that transition after having won her sixth gold medal (and also winning the best boxer award) at the 48kg category at the New Delhi World Championships last year. "The main things she has worked on is in her strength," says national coach Mohammad Ali Qamar. "The bout gets more physical as you go up a weight category. She has been training very hard in the gym. When she was competing in the 48kg category, her bench press was about the same as her bodyweight, but now she's doing repetitions of about six kilos more. She's not a very big fighter, so this is a big improvement in her strength."

And while Mary Kom has to bulk up to compete in the 51kg category, her opponents are likely cutting weight to make the same division. As such, she has been competing against taller and heavier opponents. At her final training session in New Delhi before she caught her early-morning flight to Russia, Mary Kom was sparring against the hulking Saweety Boora who competes in the 75k category.

She easily evaded Boora's heavy blows while darting in and out of range using deft footwork to punch on the counter. Her speed will be key in Russia too. So too will her ability to recover between bouts. At 36, Mary Kom is one of the oldest participants at the Worlds this year. While she has a bye in her first round, she also needs to compete four times in five days if she wants to add a seventh gold. She has cut no corners in her preparations for the World Championships and it has taken a toll on her body.

"There's an ache in my shoulder. Sometimes I need acupuncture. Always I need the physio. He's very important," she jokes.

Mary Kom has competed twice this year in the 51kg category, winning gold medals at the India Open and at the President's Cup in Indonesia. The standard of those two events isn't anywhere close to that quality of participants at the World Championships. She knows despite her best efforts, the world medal is no guarantee. So she has given herself a caveat. The fact that these World Championships aren't going to be a qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics means that, unlike the last two times she competed in the flyweight category at the Worlds, there's no quota on the line. A medal-less return will be seen then as a learning experience.

"The World Championships are a good chance to learn also," she says. "The girls who are coming for the World Championships, specifically in the five Olympic categories, are the same who will take part in the Olympic qualifiers next year. If I lose with any country here, let's say China, it is not the end. Maybe next time I can prepare for them better. I can work on my weakness. I can work on my plan and maybe change the programme."

Dig a little deeper and Kom admits the thought of returning empty-handed frightens her. It is perhaps even more of a motivating force than the satisfaction of shutting the critics' mouths one more time. "Sometimes I am scared," she says. "I have a level. If it comes down, people will say negative things. They will say the last many years she was extremely good. Suddenly the appreciation goes down. That is scary. That's why I have to work double as hard as others."