The Indian team selection for the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships that start on Thursday in Ulan-Ude, Russia was far from a straightforward affair with the Boxing Federation of India canceling the 51kg category trials at the last minute and directly selecting six-time gold medallist Mary Kom to represent the country.

It led to her closest challenger Nikhat Zareen crying foul and alleging favouritism. It is true that the former world junior champion hasn’t beaten the 36-year-old veteran during their past bouts and would have been an underdog even during the trials, but the BFI’s explanation that the London Olympics bronze medallist deserved the chance due to her past credentials was difficult to swallow.

There is no doubt that 36-year-old Mary Kom is India’s most decorated boxer having won six world championship titles with the last one coming a year before on home turf. But what the federation conveniently overlooked while arguing about her past credentials was the fact that all those titles came in either 45kg or 48kg weight category, while the selection was for the 51kg category.

Yes, Mary Kom had bagged the London Olympics bronze medal in the same weight category and even an Asian Games medal in 2014. But since then, she had failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games and hardly fought in that weight category till a year back.

Her only performances in the 51 kg category this year have been at the India Open and President’s Cup – tournaments that did not boast of quality competition – and her detractors would be sharpening their knives if she fails to make an impact in Ulan-Ude, where she is still India’s best medal hope.

Mary Kom, who had lost in the opening round of 51kg weight category at the 2016 championships, has been seeded third this year and has received a bye in the opening round. However, she could face her nemesis from Kazakhastan four years ago, Germany’s Azize Nimani, in the pre-quarterfinals and the road to gold will only get tougher from there.

Though these world championships do not offer a Tokyo Olympics berth due to the International Olympic Committee taking over the qualification process, Boxing Federation of India has already announced that the medallists here would get a direct entry in next year’s Asia-Oceania qualifiers and Mary Kom would be well aware that anything short of assuring herself a direct ticket to China would be looked at as a failure.

Tricky draws in Olympic weight categories

Even Neeraj (57kg), L Sarita Devi (60kg), Lovlina Borgohain (69kg) and Saweety Boora (75kg) would be aiming to earn a direct berth for China.

Former world champion Sarita Devi has a relatively tough draw as she will face the likes of Julieth Dayana Cordero of Colombia, eighth seed Shoira Zulkaynarova and second seed Sudaporn Seedondee in the lower half of the draw.

Borgohain, the 2018 edition bronze medallist, also has a first round bye and will face the winner of the bout between Kimberly Gittens and Bel Ahbib Oumayma. She is in the path of top seed and defending champion Chen Nien-Chin of Taipei whom she could face in a repeat of last year’s semi-finals.

Saweety Boora, who beat Asian Championships gold medallist Pooja Rani in the trials, has Mongolia’s Myagmarjargal Mukhbat first up in the 75kg category.

In the 57kg category, Neeraj will be looking to make an impact after consistent performances throughout the season.

The young Haryana boxer, who won a gold at the India Open and the Umakhanov Memorial International, will take on China’s Jieru Qiao after a bye in the first round. If she manages to clear that hurdle, second seed Stanimira Petrova of Bulgaria, the reigning European champion as well as a former world champion, awaits her in the next round.

In the non-Olympic category events Strandja Cup silver medallist Manju Rani has been seeded sixth in the 48kg and has got a bye as well. She will kickstart her campaign against Venezuela’s Cedeno Rojas after which there is a likely showdown with the top seed and last year’s bronze medallist Kim Hyang Mi of North Korea.

Indonesia President’s Cup gold medallist Jamuna Boro will face Mongolia’s Michidmaa Erdenedalai in 54kg while Manju Bomboriya has to contend with fourth seed Angela Carini of Italy in 64kg. Nandini in 81kg will take on Germany’s Irina-Nicoletta Schonberger in her maiden appearance at this tournament.

In 81+ kg, Kavita Chahal needs to win just one round to assure herself of a medal in a draw that has only seven boxers.

“The most difficult draws are for Neeraj and Sarita. But I have a lot of confidence in their performance and so for the whole team,” said Raffaele Bergamasco, the Performance Director of Indian women’s boxing.

India will look to qualify in all the five women’s Olympic weight categories for Tokyo 2020 after a no show in Rio and the world championships in Ulan-Ude are a dress rehearsal the Indian contingent would be keen to ace.

With PTI inputs