This story was first published on 9 June 2012.

She strides in with an imperious air of ownership, haughty yet calm, and stops to survey the room. A hush descends on the boxing hall at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala. The 30-odd women boxers in the room all stop doing whatever they are doing to look at Mangte Chungneijang Merykom, better known as Mary Kom, standing in the doorway. They offer their respect with small nods of the head before resuming practice.

photoIn this kingdom, Kom is the all-conquering supreme power—Queen Mary, the invincible. The only woman in the world to have won medals in six editions of the Aiba Women’s World Boxing Championships on the trot. The only woman to have won the championship five times. And now the only Indian to have qualified for the inaugural women’s boxing event at the 2012 London Olympics starting next month.

“It’s my final battle, the last challenge left for me," Kom says. “And then it’s finished, I’m done."

But right now, she is only just beginning. The road to the Olympics is longer and harder than any she has walked before, and it has come late in her life, almost at the end of her wildly successful career.

“For 10 years I’ve thought about it, obsessed about it, dreamt about it," Kom says. “I don’t care if it has come late, I’m just happy that I have the chance. Am I thinking I’ve lost my touch, that I’m slower or weaker than before? No."

She puts on her helmet, slides in her mouthguard, checks the fit of her gloves and steps into the ring. Then it begins: 2 hours of incessant ducking, weaving, bouncing, drifting, punching—sharp, stinging jabs; lightning combinations; big, pure, swinging blows, thick slugs to the body. Her training partners flinch visibly at the onslaught, her coaches ask her to bring her tempo down. Kom is oblivious—she is lost in her world of precision ferocity.

“If you are in the ring with me, I hate you," she says.

For most boxers, this kind of hostility is just a mind game, a charade to be used as a psyche-out tactic against opponents. But Kom’s aggression runs deeper—it’s real, she nurtures it. It feeds from a bitter ocean of struggle that has endured throughout her career. For example, you would think the world’s best female boxer, and one of the brightest Olympic medal hopes in medal-starved India, would be given every facility in the lead-up to the 2012 Games—but no, Kom says she spent all of 2011 in a state of despair, because her coach had made no specific plans for her training. “We did the same old things, rotting in the SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre in Bhopal which lacks even the most basic facilities," she says. “There was no attention paid to my diet." It was only in late 2011 that Kom was shifted to the swank and well-equipped Patiala complex where her male counterparts train. In January, the SAI cleared a foreign coach for her after Olympic Gold Quest, a private body working with India’s Olympic athletes, intervened on her behalf. “So now I’m training properly."

photoStruggle shadows Kom. She was at home in Imphal, Manipur, with her husband and four-year-old twins when the 121-day economic blockade paralysed life in the state late last year. She was running out of food and fuel. She and her husband were forced to collect firewood to cook. “It was like I was a child again," she says. “When my father used to scrape together wood from the forest to cook our meals." Or ask her about a favourite childhood memory. “When I was around 17, a rickshaw-wallah in Imphal tried to molest me. I punched him so hard in the face that he fell down bleeding. Then he ran away." Kom doubles up with laughter.

Kom’s upbringing might have been plucked from the pages of boxing folklore. She was born the eldest of three sisters and a brother, to parents eking out a desperate living as hired farmhands. Kom worked in the fields alongside her parents since she was 7. In 1999, when she was 16, she decided to leave home to reduce the burden on her parents and find a way to make a living through sports, in which she had shown promise in school. She walked into the SAI centre in Imphal and was hooked instantly, she says, to the measured violence of boxing. She did not tell her parents that she had joined boxing because it wasn’t a socially acceptable sport for girls. She ate lunch and dinner at the centre, but had no money to buy herself breakfast. “As long as I had a place to sleep at night, I had no worries," Kom says.

A year after picking up the sport, Kom won the state championship. Her picture appeared in the newspapers, and her parents got to know what she was up to. Her father ordered her to give it up immediately. She refused. Her father grudgingly relented. “You have to support yourself, and you have to get money for us," he told her.

In 2001, she won her first medal at the World Championships, a silver. For the first time in her life, she had money, and lots of it. She bought land for her parents, opened fixed deposits for her siblings, and bought herself a scooter. Next year, she won her first gold at the World Championships, beginning an unbeaten spree that would go on till 2010. She married a man of her choice, K. Onler Kom, a former footballer. Her father asked her to give up boxing for the sake of her marriage. “I hate it," she says, “this culture of becoming a housewife after marriage. I hope I will be an example to women of someone who was even more successful after her marriage." Onler stood by all her decisions, taking over the responsibility of the house, bringing up their children, as well as managing her financial affairs. “You can’t find a man like him."

Together, they now run a boxing academy from their house in Imphal, which provides free training, food and lodging to 10 girls and 20 boys in their teens.

Kom is done with her training, and unlike the other boxers, she feels no need to mingle. She sits apart on a bench in the corner of the hall furthest from the rings. Despite her affable and accommodating demeanour, she is unrelentingly combative. When she finds out that I’ll be interviewing Sarita Devi, one of India’s best boxers and a childhood friend of Kom’s, with whom she shared a hostel room for years, she tells me with a grin, “Ask Sarita why she is scared of me." Her wide smile drops cold to a blank and deadly stare. “Every boxer here is scared of me."

Now, she needs to muster a lifetime of adamantine conflict and channel that into ruthless boxing skills. Because she almost did not make it to the Olympics. She fought all her life in the 46-48kg category, but when women’s boxing was included in the Olympics, it offered only three weight divisions—51kg, 60kg and 75kg. This meant that in 2010, Kom had to push her weight up, and then work to get her power and speed to match the extra heft. In her debut appearance in the new weight division, she lost in the semi-finals at the 2010 Asian Games to Ren Cancan of China, the World No.1 in 51kg. “As usual, everyone said I’m finished. Too old," she says. “My parents always want me to give up boxing, so even they said it. I was very upset. I stayed quiet."

She went back into training to tighten her guard and work on her close-in fighting, because her competitors in the new category were taller. She asked for male training partners to ensure that she would be pushed to the limit. In March, she won her first gold in 51kg, beating Cancan in the final of the Asian Championships. But there was still one last hurdle, the single qualifying event for women boxers for the Olympics—the 2012 World Championships. And it’s here that she stumbled. The defending champion lost to World No. 2 Nicola Adams of England in the quarter-finals. The woman Aiba openly credited as one of the reasons why women’s boxing was included in the Olympics, who they refer to as “Magnificent Mary", was a hair’s breadth from watching her dreams shatter. “I felt so disappointed, so edgy," she says. “I was in rage, I could hardly speak."

But she made it—the catch was that Adams had to win the semi-final for Kom to also qualify, and that’s exactly what happened. “It’s finally here," she says. “What will I do at the Olympics? I don’t know. All I know is that all my skills, my strength, my thoughts, they all have to click together when the time comes. I might look calm outside, but I’m burning up inside—I want to hit, I want to win, I want to knock people down."

rudraneil.s@livemint.com

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