‘Magnificent Mary’ Boxes to End Indian Women’s Olympic Wait

Boxer Mary Kom
Indian woman boxer MC Mary Kom warms up during a training session at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, about 180 km (112 miles) from Mumbai. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty Images

Mary Kom, a 29-year-old mother of twins, needs two more victories to become India’s first female Olympic champion.

Kom is among the favorites to punch her way to the 51-kilogram (112 pound) gold medal as women’s boxing makes its debut in London, 108 years after men first fought for the right to be called Olympic champion.

Should she win her semifinal tomorrow, Kom may meet Marlen Esparza of the U.S. on Aug. 9. Esparza, 23, has deals to promote Procter & Gamble Co.’s CoverGirl cosmetics and to appear in Spanish language commercials for McDonalds Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. That’s not typical for a female boxer, said Laila Ali, the daughter of former Olympic heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

“In men’s boxing, it used to be if you win the Olympics, you could say ’Oh, I’m going go pro’ and a lot more money would be offered because you won the Olympics,” Laila Ali said in a telephone interview. “With women, even if you win the Olympics, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make a lot of money.”

As president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a U.S. non-profit that provides grants to female athletes including boxers, 34-year-old Laila Ali, who retired with a 24-0 record, lobbied for years to get women’s boxing added to the Olympics.

Five Titles

Nicknamed Magnificent Mary and the Queen of the Ring, Kom is the only woman to have won five amateur world boxing championship titles. Adding Olympic gold could boost her income dramatically, her publicist, Janit Desai, said in an interview.

“Her brand value will be huge,” Desai said. “She’ll be one of the most marketable Indian athletes.”

While India has won the Olympic men’s field hockey gold medal a record eight times, most recently in 1980, the country’s sole individual champion is Abhinav Bindra, who won the men’s 10-meter air rifle event four years ago in Beijing.

Kom, who’s also known as Chungneijang Hmangte, has an income of about $550 a month from an honorary job with the local police and a 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.

‘Great Example’

As with most Olympians, Kom’s pursuit of gold has also meant sacrifices. Her sons celebrated their fifth birthday without their mother and father, Onkholer, who’s also in London.

“As a woman, as a housewife, it’s been very difficult for her to keep on training,” Onkholer Kom said in an interview. “There’s loneliness on both sides but it was filled up by Mary winning yesterday.”

Onkholer said his wife is “a great example of what women can do after marriage or after having children” in a society where females continue to fight for greater representation in many fields.

Kom, a right-hander from the northeastern state of Manipur, beat Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk in her first bout on Aug. 5, the day women’s boxing made its games debut. Yesterday she outscored Tunisian Maroua Rahali to set up a meeting with Britain’s Nicola Adams tomorrow. Esparza fights Cancan Ren from China in the other semifinal.

Even though about 50 Indian journalists swarmed her after the victory over Rahali, Kom wasn’t the boxer the majority of fans at the ExCel Arena in London had shown up to watch.

Irish Superstar

Lightweight Katie Taylor, 26, a four-time world champion, is being cheered with the passion of soccer fans while becoming the focus of television news bulletins back home in Ireland.

“That was unreal,” supporter Laura Flynn, a 30-year-old from Dublin, said after watching Taylor beat Britain’s Natasha Jonas. “I flew over by myself to support her.”

By reaching the semifinals, Taylor is guaranteed at least a bronze medal, which goes to both beaten semifinalists in boxing. She’d like to add to Ireland’s gold-medal haul, however. Coming into the 2012 games, the country had won eight golds and 23 total Olympic medals -- compared with 18 golds and 22 total medals for U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.

Taylor takes on Mavzuna Chorieva from Tajikistan tomorrow for the right to face Brazilian Adriana Araujo or Sofya Ochigava of Russia in the 60-kilogram final the following day.

While Taylor is a superstar in Ireland, women’s boxing still has a long way to go in the U.S. before it can be considered mainstream, said Esparza. People jump to stereotypical conclusions when she tells them what her sport is, she said.

“You don’t look like a boxer,” is a usual reaction, she said. “‘Do you beat up your boyfriend?’ I get that one a whole lot, too.”

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