Mangte chungneijang Mary Kom was 18 when she faced a Thai boxer in her first-ever international tournament. The year was 2001; the venue, the Asian Women’s Boxing Championships in Thailand. “I saw an opponent who was so big. I thought to myself, ‘Wow. What muscles! How can I fight her?’ I was nervous,” says Mary Kom.
In the first round, she was knocked down. By the second round, however, she had regained some confidence. “I remember thinking of my opponent, ‘She’s not that strong’.” Though Mary Kom could not turn the bout around in four rounds, she learnt a valuable lesson. “I lost because I got nervous on seeing my opponent. I said to myself, ‘Next time, I will have a bit more experience’. I got a silver medal in the next World Championship in the US.” Today, the 31-year-old does not get nervous before a fight.
Some athletes need a mental routine to psyche themselves up before a match. Not Mary Kom. According to Viren Rasquinha, CEO of Mumbai-based Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), an organisation that trains sports stars, the boxer is very intense and quiet on the day of a bout. “If you tell Mary she has to talk in public, she gets nervous. But I’ve never seen her nervous or scared of anyone when she has to fight. That’s her comfort zone,” says Rasquinha, former captain of India’s national field hockey team. “When she puts on the boxing gloves, she has only confidence. She rules the ring. If you see her walking out, she has the swagger.”
There’s no hint of that swagger when Forbes India met her for breakfast at Mumbai’s Palladium Hotel. Mary Kom had her plate piled high with sausages, bacon, grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes. She also likes beef jerky and dried fish, but Manipuri rice is an absolute must. When she’s travelling for tournaments, she even carries a rice cooker with her.
The breakfast lounge slowly fills up with businessmen from all over the world. But Mary Kom has been to a country few have had the opportunity to visit. “I was in North Korea in 2003,” she says. Her corporate sponsors clarify in unison, “You mean South Korea, right?”
“No,” she says.
In 2004, when she was 21, Mary Kom travelled to Pyongyang for a training camp. “We really suffered on the tour of North Korea because they didn’t give us any food. Only French fries and some bread. We had to pay for everything and, even then, we got very little. The North Koreans were not polite. I could tell from their faces. It’s a very strict country,” she says.
With 16 endorsement deals, 19 medals in international tournaments and a Rs 100-crore Bollywood biopic, Mary Kom has come a long way from low-budget tours in North Korea. She’s a four-time Asian Women’s Boxing Champion and has won five consecutive gold medals in the Women’s World Amateur Boxing Championships, but she caught the attention of cricket crazy-India only in 2012, when she won a bronze at the London Olympics. Today, she is a celebrity, feted across the country, but it doesn’t show in her demeanour.
She’s quiet and reserved at first, but half-an-hour into the interview, she reveals a cheerful disposition. “When I started boxing, people said I was mad. I think about boxing not only during practice, but also at home when I cook and even in the market. It’s my passion,” she says, raising her fists.
Her life story—how a daughter from a poor tribal family in Kangathei in the Churachandpur district of Manipur became India’s most famous boxer—is well known. After all, actress Priyanka Chopra’s portrayal of Mary Kom in Omung Kumar’s eponymous film made sure of that. In a tale that’s all too common in Indian sports (barring cricket), the boxer achieved acclaim despite the sub-standard training facilities, paucity of good coaches and lack of media attention.
Check out our anniversary discounts on subscriptions, upto 50% off the website price, free digital access with print. Use coupon code : ANN2022P for print and ANN2022D for digital. Click here for details.
(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)