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And then Mangte Mary Kom left the ring

Mary Kom hates losing. You saw it back in 2012, when she lost the semi-finals of the London Olympics to England’s Nicola Adams. Most would have been glad with a bronze medal. Not Mary Kom. She kept shaking her head and wagging her finger, outraged at the universe’s temerity to cheat her of victory, even though she was making history – winning the first Olympic medal for India in women’s boxing.

Mary Kom sometimes isn’t even satisfied when she’s winning. There was that entire fracas a four years after she had humbled a younger boxer who innocently enough felt it was her time on the top of the hill. It seemed tasteless back then but you understood that it was Mary Kom’s take-no-prisoners mentality, which had fuelled her rise from nothing to accomplish nearly everything in her profession. In a less combative moment, she’d said her favourite dialogue from the biopic she’d inspired was – “Fighter kabhi haar nahi manta (a fighter never accepts defeat)”.

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Which is why it seemed at first that Mary Kom had misheard the announcer at Tokyo’s boxing arena when he announced the winner of her pre-quarterfinal bout. He’d said it loudly enough – in the red corner – Ingrit Valencia. The referee for the bout had heard so as well, and so had Valencia, who raised both hands in prayer. But Mary Kom had raised her left fist in triumph.

Watching on TV, you waited awkwardly for Mary Kom to realise she hadn’t actually won, to display her fury. Unlike in London, today’s loss wasn’t a straightforward decision – she could legitimately claim she had a decent argument against it. She’d lost the first round clear enough but had won the next two according to a majority of the five judges. The vagaries of scoring in the amateurs, though, are such that exactly the wrong combination of judges had decided against her.

But Mary Kom flashed a giant smile. There were tears as well. Valencia hugged Mary Kom, who hugged her back. Then Valencia raised the Indian’s hands. They hugged once more. Mary Kom went around the canvas, folded her hands in reverence at each of the posts, thanking the space which she had made her own over the years and in which she had accomplished so much.

She took her time in there.

You know that there isn’t going to be a chance to do this again. It’s impressive she even got this chance. She’s 38; the next oldest boxer in the Indian squad is Pooja Rani, who’s 30.

Even at 29, Mary Kom was considered long in the tooth. Reasonable people made justifiable arguments that her best days were behind her. Much was made of the fact that she was a mother of three. Those predictions were quietly buried as she made history at the London Olympics. And there was plenty of “I told you so” when she failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics.

She could have quit as an Indian all-time great even then – indeed she was made a Member of Parliament as well. But she persisted, returning to the ring in 2017 once again. Perhaps her faith had a role to play. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize,” Mary Kom wrote in her autobiography, quoting a biblical passage.

She returned in style in New Delhi, winning her sixth World Championship gold medal and first in the Olympic weight division. It wasn’t a hometown decision either. Mary Kom was genuinely the best boxer in the world that year. She was in full control of her skills, with a masterful understanding of the game. She knew she was getting older and so she adapted her style, sacrificing her trademark aggression for accuracy.

She then made things even harder for herself, adopting a fourth child – a baby girl this time. Often, she’d wake up in the middle of the night, calm a crying baby, return to bed, then wake up at 5 in the morning and head back out to train as usual, then followed that up much to the amazement of long-time coach Chhote Lal Yadav.

Her coaches and physios had long marvelled at this – her ability to recover and train at a high level even at her age. But as 2020 came along, it was clear that for all of Mary Kom’s natural ability and unnatural tenacity and grit, she was coming to the end of the road. Those quick dart-like jabs were less sharp and the gas tank that let her continue to buzz around opponents like an angry bee inside the final half minute of the third round, seemed less full than usual. When Mary Kom qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in February last year, she could see the finish line.

Then just as she thought she was in the final stretch, COVID-19 struck. Mary Kom had to wait another year for the Olympics. She could fight and beat a lot of opponents, but that extra round with Father Time was probably a bit too much.

There have been a few swansongs at the boxing hall in Tokyo already. Some of these have been painful to watch as a fan – seeing heroes as shadows of themselves. Vikas Krishan lost a one-sided bout to local boxer Quincy Sewonrets. Kazakhstan’s Vasilly Levit was knocked out by Spain’s Emmanuel Reyes.

Mary Kom faced the same fate against a boxer who was the better part of a decade younger than her, hungry to improve on her bronze medal from Rio.

When it was over Mary Kom staggered to her corner and leaned on the ropes for support. She had gone on her shield. Perhaps the eruption never came because she had already given her everything in the ring. She had fought the good fight. She had finished the race. She had kept the faith. She soaked in the applause one more time. And then Mangte Mary Kom left the ring.

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