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Weekend Sports | The challenges of boxing in Mary Kom’s era

A new, talented generation of Indian boxers is having to deal with comparisons with the six-time world champion — while she is still around and seemingly not keen on fighting her younger rivals

The spread is very inviting.

Sonia Chahal has a lot to pick from in her hotel room’s breadbasket — fruits, dry fruits and sweets, including kaju katli, the cashew-based dessert. But the young boxer isn’t nibbling on any of them.

“She keeps everything in the room, but the problem is she only looks at the food; she does not eat it,” says her coach Jagdish Singh. “We have a little problem with her body weight. If she raises it [from 55kg] to some 57 or 58kg, I’m sure she can win a big medal at the world level, even the Olympics.”

Jyoti Gulia

Jyoti Gulia   | Photo Credit: RituRajKonwar


Despite this slight issue with gaining weight, Sonia is one of the country’s brightest young talents. The 22-year-old was a silver medallist at last year’s World Championships and a bronze medallist at this year’s Asian Championships.

Sonia comes from Haryana’s famed Bhiwani Boxing Club, where Jagdish moulded stars such as Vijender Singh, the country’s first boxing medallist at the Olympics (2008), and Akhil Kumar, the 2006 Commonwealth Games champion.

India has won only two boxing medals at the Olympics — M.C. Mary Kom brought home the country’s second, also a bronze, from London in 2012. But Jagdish has high hopes for Sonia, as well as Sakshi Chaudhary, who he says “is another girl who could win an Olympic medal”.

Strangely for a coach who has produced some of the country’s best male boxers, Jagdish decided to shift his attention to women after the 2012 Olympics. And the men were a big reason for this.

Weekend Sports | The challenges of boxing in Mary Kom’s era

“I have produced many good male boxers, made them top internationals, but after going to the national camp, they forgot my club and me. Then I thought I should stop this and concentrate on women boxers,” explains Jagdish. “Women are more faithful and loyal than the boys.”

Jagdish’s decision has worked wonders for boxers such as Sonia, Sakshi, who went on to become a triple world champion across the junior and youth categories, and Kavita Chahal, a two-time World Championships bronze medallist.

Indeed, it was Kavita who inspired Sonia to take up boxing. “I attended a function in our village, Nimri in Bhiwani, where Kavita was being feted after winning a Worlds medal. That motivated me to take up boxing. I was 14 then,” says Sonia, a farmer’s daughter.

A strong counter-puncher, Sonia has a formidable challenger in 19-year-old Sakshi in the featherweight category. In fact, the two contested the final at the recent Elite Women’s Nationals in Kannur, with the former winning in a split decision. But Sakshi, who takes more risks than Sonia, could become a big name in the future.

Weekend Sports | The challenges of boxing in Mary Kom’s era

Raffaele Bergamasco, the High Performance Director for women’s boxing in India, feels that the country has abundant talent, but is clear that one should not immediately expect another Mary Kom to emerge.

“Mary is a very big name, something like Maradona in football. Talent like that comes only once in about a hundred years. We may not have a girl who could be another Mary, but we have a very talented bunch of young boxers,” says the Italian.

He picked out competitors such as Nitu and S. Kalaivani (both 48kg), Nikhat Zareen and Jyoti Gulia (51kg), Manisha and Sakshi (57kg), Worlds bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain (69kg) and Asian 81kg champion Pooja Rani as the ones to watch.

Mary, now 36, is a six-time world champion, but her longevity has put many young boxers in her flyweight class (51kg) in a tricky spot. Especially since Mary, a bronze medallist at this October’s World Championships, does not appear keen to fight young boxers for the lone berth in next year’s Olympic qualifiers in Wuhan (February) and Paris (May).

With Mary pulling out of the showdown with her biggest challenger, former world junior champion Nikhat, in the ongoing Big Bout League, the youngsters are aware that the issue could turn out to be very complicated. Jyoti, the 2017 world youth champion who idolises Mary, says, “Yes, the 51kg category is the toughest, not only in India but also in the world.”

Weekend Sports | The challenges of boxing in Mary Kom’s era

The 19-year-old Jyoti won the national title comfortably on her senior debut to earn a spot in the New Delhi trials on December 27 and 28 for a berth in the Olympic qualifiers. Mary and Nikhat are also scheduled to be a part of these trials.

Coach Jagdish feels the weight of Mary’s reputation could work in her favour. “Nikhat is very good but Mary is capable of impressing at a higher level. When you are a big name, your name and fame will put pressure on the opponent and officials. This is the reality,” he says.

So, who is a better boxer — Nikhat at 23 or Mary at 36?

“It is very difficult to give a verdict, but you should give priority to young boxers because they are the future,” says Jagdish. “We should motivate her [Nikhat] every time. She should not be demoralised by the happenings around her, otherwise she could leave the sport. That will be very harmful for the sport. So, if a trial is announced, it should be conducted.”

The year-end trials in Delhi will be followed very closely in Bhiwani, which has a strong claim to being the country’s boxing capital.

“Earlier, we had six-seven academies, now there are 10. And I can say that Bhiwani is the busiest city in the world in boxing, you can find nearly 1,000 boxers in action at the same time there,” says Jagdish.

“The tough climate — in summer it’s between 47 and 50 degrees — makes life tough for the middle class and lower-middle class and those in agriculture. So, naturally, people are physically fit and that is our forte. And sport is one of our main avenues to land a job. That’s why boxing is doing well in Bhiwani.”

Clearly, when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

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Printable version | Jul 14, 2020 3:26:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/the-challenges-of-boxing-in-mary-koms-era/article30362238.ece

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