Timeless Mary Kom still India's best bet at World Championships

Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Spectators walking into New Delhi's Indira Gandhi Stadium for the Women's Boxing World Championships will be greeted by hoardings featuring the ambassador of the event - MC Mary Kom.

Such is the incredible longevity of Mary Kom that this isn't even the first time that the now 35-year old will be the star attraction at women's boxing's global showpiece event. The last time that happened, Mary Kom was only 23 when she won gold at the Talkatora Stadium, across the city at the 2006 Worlds.

But for all that they share, the two events are in fact leagues apart.

Mary Kom remembers the 2006 edition of the tournament vividly. "We were staying in this really simple hotel and we didn't have anything other than five coaches for the (13 members of the) Indian team. At that time we even made our nimbu paani ourselves," she recalls.

The 2018 tournament is a study in contrast. There were 180 boxers from 33 countries 12 years ago. Some 333 pugilists from 77 nations will compete this time around. All teams are being put up at a five-star hotel in the capital.

There is a difference in how the sports are perceived now, too.

"Back then In India, women's boxing was not really taken seriously. There was no medal at the Asian or Commonwealth Games, forget the Olympics," recalls former women's team coach Anoop Kumar.

Mary Kom has changed all that. Her Olympic bronze in 2012 sealed her claim to greatness, likely earned her position as a nominated Member of Parliament, and her cinematic biopic mainstreamed the sport in a way only Bollywood could.

The magnitude of Mary Kom's accomplishment for the sport, though, both hides and magnifies the state of Indian women's boxing which will be tested over the coming week.

While the attention will be on Mary Kom, it will be a hard task for the rest of the Indian contingent to follow the achievements of their compatriots from 12 years ago, where eight of the 13 boxers picked up medals, including four golds.

Anything approximating the same return by the eight-woman team in 2018 will be a massive achievement. To put matters in perspective, ever since Mary Kom won her last World Championship medal - a gold in Bridgetown in 2010 - India's female boxers have not won a gold medal, instead settling for three silvers and a bronze across the last three editions.

Recent performances at high level competitions have not been encouraging. Just one woman boxer - Mary Kom with a gold at Gold Coast - returned with a medal at the two high profile tournaments this year -- the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

"Of course our recent performances have not been that great. We didn't win a medal at the Asian Games and managed only one at the Commonwealth Games," says high performance director Santiago Nieva.

The fact that the solitary medal won was by Mary Kom hasn't gone unnoticed. The fact that Mary Kom and compatriot Sarita Devi have been competing in every World Championships since the inaugural one in Scranton USA in 2001 is also a cause for concern.

"I suppose one question that still needs to be asked is why it is still hard for the younger girls to earn their place. Why no one is really challenging someone like Mary Kom," says Gurbax Sandhu, who coached the Indian women's team in 2016.

Sandhu admits that the Indian women's boxing cabinet is rather bare but for Mary Kom.

"In the men's team it's very difficult to keep your place in the side simply because there is so much talent pushing from the bottom. The first thing we noticed about women's boxing in India was that the base was very weak. We were simply not getting that many girls to compete."

The fact that India are the third most successful team at the Women's World Championships has much to do with them being early adapters. However, they have failed to keep in touch with the latest trends in the sport.

"You have to see the number of participants in some of the earlier tournaments. It's only after the sport has become a medal event at the Commonwealth, Asian and most importantly the Olympics, that we are really seeing a massive increase in the number of participants," says another former coach.

Mary Kom has admitted as much: "The game has grown tremendously since 2001. The competition is tough now as it should be. We are seeing a lot of young and fresh boxers from all over the world. New techniques of training and systems are introduced every day."

This isn't to say though that the moment has slipped past Indian women's boxing.

"We had a period of about four years from 2012 (from the time the erstwhile federation governing the sport in India was banned, to when the current establishment was set up) when there was nothing happening in boxing in India," Sandhu says.

"I remember when I started working with the Indian women's team, the budget was just a couple of crores. Now it is several times that amount. There's no shortage of exposure tours for these girls. India still has the opportunity to make a mark in women's boxing because the level of competition in the world is still a little less competitive than in the men's segment."

There is little doubt that fresh talent is coming through the ranks - India won an unprecedented five gold medals at the Youth Worlds last year - even if it isn't seasoned enough just yet. The advantages of fighting in home conditions should also not be underestimated.

Nieva, for his part, expects India to have their best ever World tournament since the 2010 Championships in Bridgetown. "I expect at least three medals, including a gold. We will not be satisfied if we can't achieve that," he says.

One more gold for Mary Kom then?

"She has some pressure but she has done this before and we are confident she can do it again."