The World Youth Boxing Championship in Guwahati has largely been riding on the popularity of the tournament’s brand ambassador – five-time world champion MC Mary Kom. The organisers have succeeded in generating a fair bit of curiosity for the event through Mary Kom, but the focus is slowly shifting towards the 10-member Indian contingent, who will carry forward her legacy.

Just like the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist, many of the girls taking part in the tournament also share a similar career trajectory – defying all odds and using boxing as a tool to make ends meet.

Many expected to see one of Mary Kom’s own wards at the event. Her academy, which she opened in 2006 in Manipur, now has 60 boxers with 35 of them being residents. While the 34-year-old said she visits the venue only sometimes because she is still playing the sport, there is a plan to revive the system in the years ahead. “I will certainly take the plunge full time when I retire,” she said.

Running the academy hasn’t been easy, taking into account the geographical and economical challenges. Mary Kom admitted she has struggled to find time, now that she is back in the ring, and with it, juggling her responsibilities as a Rajya Sabha MP and running a young family. “I am not able to devote time because I am fighting again,” she said. “I am trying hard with my coaching staff to keep it going.”

The Olympic and Commonwealth dream

Mary Kom won her fifth Asian Championship title last month (Image: BFI)

Retirement, though, may not be on the cards in the foreseeable future. Mary Kom announced that she was far from finished, stating that she is targeting a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Manipuri made a stunning comeback in the Asian Championships in Vietnam earlier this month, winning her fifth gold in the continental championship. A little over a year ago, she was written off after failing to seal a berth for the Rio Olympics.

While 2020 is still a fair distance away, Mary Kom’s immediate goal is to make her presence felt in 2018. “I will train hard and am once again trying to win a Commonwealth medal,” she said.

Whether she adds to her glittering tally of medals, the veteran is arguably the greatest sportsperson to come out of North East India, where she enjoys superstar status. Mary Kom shrugs off the adulation. “I am only happy to promote Indian boxing and am glad to do it for the boxing family.”

The future is bright

Many of the young Indian boxers handpicked for the World Youth Championships cited Mary Kom as the reason behind they taking up the sport. The Padma Bhushan winner, on her part, is impressed with the talent that is on display. “They have a lot of capability. I was there for the trials and have the chance to win two-three medals at least.”

Named as the face of the event, the title rests easy on Mary Kom’s shoulders and is aware of the ripple effect it has caused, especially in terms of garnering eyeballs. “It is important as the youth are inspired by me. AIBA is also talking initiatives to promote boxing.”

With the Boxing Federation of India gradually sorting out their administrative mess, the current young crop have access to a far more organised, professional structure, than ever before. The battle-hardened Mary Kom cited some of her own experiences as a young boxer to explain the evolution of the sport.

“It was hard initially because women’s boxing was not that popular,” she said. “We were travelling on our own by buses and trains. It’s very difficult to explain. Day by day, year by year. Now women’s boxing is an Olympic sport.”

Mary Kom will be 37 if she makes it to the 2020 Summer Games. Winning, though, walks hand in hand with fitness. She had once said that she can take down anyone if in good shape. After her Asian Championships win, it would be foolish to doubt her resolve to challenge for another Olympic medal.