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Academy wards: Mary Kom, Sarita Devi turn Manipur into boxing hotbed

Young boxers train at the Mary Kom Boxing Academy Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation/Facebook

As fists begin to fly at the women's World Boxing Championships in Ulan-Ude in eastern Russia, the oldest members of the Indian contingent have more than age and history in common.

Six-time world champion MC Mary Kom, and former world champ and Asian Games medalist Sarita Devi - pioneers from among the first generation of Indian women boxers - have taken the veteran-athlete's clich├ęd promise of "giving it back" and turned it into a reality.

Both Mary Kom and Sarita front organisations in their hometowns whose impact has just begun to be felt. The Mary Kom-SAI Boxing Academy (MKBA) is a short walk from her home at the National Games Athletes Village in Lamphelpat, north of the centre of Imphal. The Sarita Regional Boxing Academy (SRBA) is situated in Mayang Imphal, 25 kms south, a few doors down from where Sarita and her husband grew up and now live.

The two boxers have had divergent career paths: Mary Kom is now an Olympic medallist and Member of Parliament, a public figure with a biopic to her name. She made it to the Ulan-Ude World Championships squad on the back of her track record. Sarita, banned for a year following an outburst during the 2014 Asian Games medal ceremony after a contested semi-final result, remains committed to the ring. She qualified for the Ulan-Ude squad after beating 24-year-old Simranjit Kaur, a bronze medallist from the 2018 Worlds, at the trials.

Mary Kom and Sarita's academies are rooted in their surroundings and far away from the headlines, but could go on to add rich layers to each woman's legacies. There are 85 boxers in Mary's Academy and 60 in Sarita's, all ranging from ages 11 to the early twenties.

The MKBA Facebook page talks of 19 golds, 10 silvers and 14 bronzes at the recent state-level boxing championships. From among the many boxers, Naorem Babyrojisana Chanu first broke through at the Khelo India School Games and then went onto become an international gold medallist in the 52kg junior (u-17) girls event at the Nations Cup held in Serbia in August this year.

Jimmy Leivon is secretary of the Mary Kom Boxing Foundation which had begun signing up young boxers from 2006 onwards and sends an impressive summary of the results of the wards - 66 medallists, the most prominent of which is a gold for Tingmila Doungel in the International Silesian Women's Boxing Championships, held in Poland last year.

Sarita's husband, Chongtham Thoiba Singh, rarely talks up the institution in which he has invested the last five years of his life. Its female boxers, however, are hard to ignore: from among the nine-strong Manipur team that competed at the women's Junior Nationals in Rohtak last month, five came from the SRBA. Each of them won a medal -- one gold, one silver, and three bronzes. The SRBA's poster girl at the moment is Huidrom Ambeshori Devi, who has won two 57kg golds at junior events, held in Germany and Serbia in the summer.

Mary Kom's academy began on an open patch of land near her own home; today it is a 3.3 acres gated compound, with a professional-sized ring, boxing equipment, enough space for drills, an indoor gym and training area, as well as a few desks for school work to be attended to as part of the day's routine. There are hostels a short distance across the road, every child in the centre under the watch of their coaches, wardens, physios and trainers.

The daily drill for the young boxers is simple: morning training, school, evening training, dinner, study and lights out. Extra educational focus is given on general English, maths, science, and computers. The academy coaches themselves were boxers in their youth as part of their employment around the country before returning home. At the academy, they work their way through the various age groups in rotation every three months.

"You search who's got God's gift and is quick to learn," says Sanjembam Ronel Singh. The budget for each boxer, Leivon reckons, is about Rs. 3 lakhs per year, with the academy supported by a few organisations -- Tata Trusts, Herbalife, and Hero, as well as the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board.

The Pravabati college, where Sarita's academy is located, is tucked behind the Mayai Lambi road in Mayang Imphal, opposite a grocery store and poultry farm. It is housed in a low-rise building, green walls with red metal roofs, classes around a courtyard behind which is the only modern concrete structure. It's where the boxers do their business in the indoor sports hall, with an open swimming pool over one flank overlooking open fields and electric pylons. The SRBA rents out the space from the college and during training, boxers of all ages fill the space.

At the far end of the hall is a wall lined with sketches made by the boxers of how they see themselves. Every stick figure has the child with the Indian flag and/or a podium and a medal. If there's a podium, the stick figure is always standing on the top of it, and if there is a medal, it is always gold. Some sketches have the word 'Olympic' scrawled over them. 40 of the 60 kids are financed by the Sports Authority of India at an annual stipend of Rs 6000 plus kit, says Thoiba.

SRBA has also been assisted by Olympic Gold Quest, even before SAI came onto the scene and "without them," Thoiba says, "we would not have reached this level." OGQ pays the salaries of the SRBA's three coaches and one physio, supports three boys and three girls, their travel costs, medical expenses and diet requirements.

When Thoiba is asked for a medal count, he laughs, "I've stopped counting. I always let our performances speak for themselves and I don't do much publicity. Many approach us asking us to open a website and a Facebook page. I'm not that type of person."

He is, however, not so retiring as to be modest about the SRBA's standing in the community. Thoiba says it is the "best performing training centre, not only in Manipur but in the north-east region right now."

The academies of the two boxers are the first private enterprises in Manipur that support boxers outside of the Sports Authority of India centre in Khuman Lampak, whose boxing programme has two other Manipuri boxing icons in charge: Ibomcha Singh and Manipur's first Asian Games boxing gold medalist Dingko Singh.

The public-private sync, according to Thoiba is important: "We need both public and private systems in place now and you cannot only rely on the government's help and the government's infrastructure.

"You need passionate people working at the ground level like us. We are helping these young future champions in realising their dreams. It should be both private and public working in tandem, supporting one another helping one another. That should be the way."

Other centres around the country - public in some forms like the Army Sports Institute, or private like JSW's Inspire Institute of Sport - do draw boxers from the Manipur academies out into the rest of the country.

"We have sent many of our boxers out to ASI or SAI and also in the military services," Leivon says. "It is painful to release them as we have been moulding them from the beginning and we treat them as our own children but we cannot hold them back if it's for their good."

What the two academies set up by Manipur's foremost boxers does do is expand the sheer base of contenders emerging from the state and reducing even if slightly, the proportion of luck or chance that appears to ring through the careers of Indian athletes. On an average from a wide base of around 50 or so, coaches anticipate a handful of quality boxers may emerge. From among them, between batches, comes one true, world-class champion. Mary Kom and Sarita have shown that "giving back" can be made to work in the best way possible.

The many children's sketches on the wall at the Pravabati College sports hall prove that there is no shortage of dreamers. At least now, in Manipur, a good numbers of dreamers know where to go.