At the bottom of a forested valley near India’s border with Myanmar, Mary Kom pummels a heavy punch bag in a makeshift gym as the world’s most successful female amateur boxer bids to cap her career with Olympic gold.
Bobbing and weaving through a 40-minute drill, the 5-foot-2 (1.57-meter) Kom smacks melon-sized dents into the black canvas, sweat streaming down her face amid the early monsoon humidity of northeastern Manipur state. Her grunts become screams of pain as she pushes herself to the limit.
Kom is an inspirational figure in Manipur, one of India’s most violent regions where insurgents have battled the army for five decades demanding autonomy for their tribal communities or independence. After honing her craft to the background crackle of gunfire, Kom, 29, is one of the flyweight title favorites as women boxers make their Olympics debut in London, 108 years after male pugilists first competed for medals.
“All my life I have been surrounded by violence, all that hardship and pain gives me an inner strength in the ring,” Kom, sporting a red welt under her left eye and a split lip from sparring, said in an interview. “This will probably be my final battle. After this I think I may be finished.”
Nicknamed Magnificent Mary and the Queen of the Ring by Manipuri fans, the mother of twin boys is the only woman to have won five amateur world boxing championship titles. Her combination of hand speed, timing, ring intelligence and power make the 48-kilogram (105-pound) Kom exceptional, said Anoop Kumar, India’s national boxing coach who has worked with her since 2001.
“Some boxers are very heavy-handed, some are fast, the thing about Mary is that for her size she has both, that’s why her punches have so much fizz,” Kumar said June 20. “She’s relentless in the ring, more cold-blooded than she looks.”
For decades, governments and sporting bodies said no to women’s boxing citing safety concerns. After a hard-won battle for equality, this will be the first Olympics where women will be allowed to compete in all 26 sports.
Kom “really was unbeatable” in the light flyweight division, according to Ted Tanner, an executive committee member of the International Boxing Association, amateur boxing’s governing body. As she moves up a weight for the Olympics, because women can only contest in three divisions at the moment, she’s still one of the world’s best, he said.
“Those who are unfamiliar with boxing may recoil a little at the idea of women engaged in the sport, but they’ll see that it’s very much on a par with male boxing,” Tanner said in June 26 phone interview from Melbourne. “They’re very skillful.”
The eldest of four children of landless farmers, Kom’s first job was collecting firewood in nearby fields to help support her parents. As a child, her family said she was shy and softly spoken yet fiercely competitive. At school, she excelled at the javelin and 400 meters, Kom said.
Kom started boxing when she turned 18 after a male fighter from Manipur, Dingko Singh, won gold at the 1998 Asian Games. While she was soon hooked, Kom initially hid her training from her family fearing their disapproval. When Kom went to the gym, her parents thought she was going to track and field practice.
Her father discovered the truth when he read a story in a newspaper saying she had won the Manipur state boxing championship in 2000. Concerned about how he could support his daughter and her marriage prospects if she continued boxing, M. Pontinkhup Kom said he tried to discourage her.
“We were really struggling at that time and I told my daughter that we don’t have the income to give you the diet,” he said. “Mary said ‘if someone else in my place eats 50 paise (1 cent) worth of food, I will eat 25 paise. But I want to continue, it’s my calling.’”
Relenting, Kom’s father sold a cow for 14,000 rupees ($257) to help fund her training. He also took a job working in a forest felling trees to bring in extra income.
Though still an amateur, Kom’s success has secured her income of about $550 per month from an honorary job with the local police and sponsorship from Herbal Life India, a Cayman Islands-based maker of nutritional supplements. She has bought her parents land and is paying for her brothers and sisters to go to school.
The violence in the forested hills surrounding the state capital of Imphal has dealt Kom some low blows. Five years ago, her father-in-law was shot dead by suspected insurgents. The police said they were unable to establish a motive or capture those responsible.
There are tears in Kom’s eyes as she recalls how Kamang Kom, a village chief, was called out of his house by a group of men, taken a short distance and shot in the back of the head.
“Most Indian men would never support a woman boxing, they would prefer I was a housewife, but he was so supportive,” Kom said on the porch of her home on the outskirts of Imphal. “He wanted me to be a famous boxer. He always encouraged me.”
A year later, 18 people were killed when a bomb hidden in a motorbike exploded 100 yards from a gym where she trains. Some of the more than two dozen insurgent groups in the state are now in peace talks with the government.
Manipur, with a population of 2.7 million people, is one of seven northeastern provinces attached to the rest of the India by a thin strip of territory arching above Bangladesh. In culture and appearance, its people have more similarities with Southeast Asia than mainland India.
This region, India’s remotest and least developed, has been the scene of recurring strife between ethnic and religious groups since the country became an independent nation from British colonial rule 65 years ago. At least 2,974 people have been killed in the violence over the last decade in Manipur, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal.
“I won’t support the extremists but we do face a lot of discrimination because we look different,” Kom said. “It upsets me when people say we are not Indian because we look Chinese or Korean.”
Kom is the latest of Manipur’s fighting women. In two so-called Women’s Wars in 1904 and 1939, female activists confronted British rule with successful civil disobedience campaigns, the latter triggered by a sharp rise in rice prices.
Manipuri activist and poet Irom Sharmila is currently on the world’s longest continuous hunger-strike to protest human-rights abuses by the Indian army in the state. As in Kashmir, soldiers based in Manipur are shielded from prosecution for wrongful killings or detentions by an act of parliament. Sharmila stopped eating in 2000 and has been force-fed through a nose tube ever since.
“Kom is a good ambassador for Manipur and its women, she has achieved so much even though people doubted her,” Sharmila said in an interview from her hospital bed where she is guarded by prison staff. “I will be supporting her even though I don’t have a TV to watch her.”
With boxing the last of the Olympic sports to be opened to women, Kom is aware of the significance.
“It’s amazing to be making history like this,” Kom said. “We are going to surprise everyone. I just hope I can make it complete by bringing home a gold medal.”