Despite scant infrastructure support, Manipur has been able to punch its way into the international boxing league
Inspired by the likes of Mary Kom and Dingko Singh, teenaged boxers from Manipur's villages travel at the crack of dawn to the capital city of Imphal to train for a few hours at one of the three government run institutions before their schools begin.
With little infrastructure and support for facilities forthcoming, it is incredible that the State has been able to produce more than 50 world champions in the game till date.
State apathy towards promotion of the game came to the forefront recently when the Manipur government hurriedly announced after Mary Kom's Bronze win at the Olympics in the 51 kg (flyweight) category, that they would fulfil their long standing promise to her -- that of promoting her to the post of an Additional Superintendent of Police and granting two acres of land for her academy. Around 18 students live and train at her academy for free, which operates from within the same compound as her house at present.
In many ways the struggle of Mary's life, rising from impoverishment to the face of India's boxing league internationally, is a micro scan of the story of Manipur's own tryst with the sport.
Boxing made fleeting appearances in the State from 1936 onwards but never quite managed to capture the imagination of the public at large. In 1954, it was unofficially banned and in the danger of dying a decisive death. When boxers from West Bengal came for an exhibition bout and defeated every boxer representing Manipur, the public felt humiliated and angrily descended on the Polo Grounds in the heart of the city. Well-built persons who knew nothing about the sport, challenged the Bengal contingent and the situation ran out of control.
The shame at losing the match was such and the public outcry so great that an unofficial ban was clamped on boxing with nobody venturing near the sport for some time. Not until 1980, when a group of 20 boxing lovers revived the sport under Manipur Amateur Boxing Association. A competition was announced in the local newspapers but with only a couple of boxers responding, it had to be cancelled, recalls Ibomcha Singh, who has gained popularity for having coached international boxers like Mary Kom, Devendro Singh and Dingko Singh.
Mr Ibomcha was introduced to the sport while serving in the army and dreamed of becoming an international champion one day. But when the army did not support his dreams, he left it in 1980 to join the amateur club. The next year, the first ever free coaching camp was held at the same Polo Grounds and the first State-level competition took place. For the first time seven boxers from the State, including Mr Ibomcha (who won a bronze), travelled outside the State to Jamshedpur to participate in a competition. Boxing was being slowly revived. But the condition of the impoverished State was such and discrimination from the “mainland” so acute that due to paucity of funds, they could not even participate in the 1982 Asiad Games trials despite being invited, rues Mr Ibomcha, who takes credit for single handedly and doggedly reviving the sport.
In 1986, when he was close to having a go at his dream, he was barred from participating in the President's Cup in Jakarta, while waiting at the airport to board his flight. “I was so shaken that I locked myself in a room and cried for hours, making the pillow and whole bed wet. That time, I decided that if I could not do it, I will train so many people who win international medals, that the country will recognise and appreciate me,” he says. Sure enough, more than 50 boxers under him went on to win international medals and he won the Dronacharya Award. But his task is far from over, he says, he has to put India even more firmly on the global map of boxing. “But for that to happen, our State should also have facilities like those in Bangalore and Patiala,” he adds. Currently, he trains more than 350 aspiring boxing champions and is also advisor at Mary Kom's academy.