I had my hopes on her. My money and prayers. The Olympic Games was to be Mary Kom's swansong. If only she returned from Rio with the gold! But at 33, though hungry for a glittering exit on this world stage herself, the intense physical and mental training, the months of being away from home, did her in. And Mary Kom disappointingly failed to make the cut via the Asian qualifiers and World Championships earlier this year.
But now she was a Rajya Sabha MP. And the Indian Olympic Association valiantly attempted to sneak our prize fighter parliamentarian into Rio through the back door. Mary Kom wasn't surprised. For a boxer in India, before getting into the ring at some international event, the fight had to be won on the ground back home against corrupt, nepotistic sports ministry officials. Now they were in her corner. In July 2014, they weren't when they arbitrarily axed her from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
This after she won an Olympic bronze at London in 2012. Mark Kom hit back. Bitterly she said, "You're doing this because I'm from the North-East, okay - no problem, but I'm still an Indian." And she backed her words with action by winning for India the first gold medal by a woman boxer at the Asian Games in Incheon two months later.
This is the stuff that champions are made of. But the unsympathetic International Olympic Committee wasn't impressed. It denied India's boxing hero a wildcard entry into Rio. Her last hope dashed, the Olympic gold dream now officially over, a dejected Mary Kom said on Thursday, "It's heartbreaking, but I have to accept the decision, it's something I have no control over."
The author with Mary Kom.
My heart broke to see Mary Kom's sunny, cheerful disposition crumble. And I thought back to the time I interviewed her in 2012 when she was promoting the ambitious Super Fight League introduced by Bollywood's Raj Kundra and Shilpa Shetty. This was caged fighting for TV featuring some of the meanest mixed martial artists this country had ever seen.
"No," Mary Kom told me, "I won't be competing myself for the exciting prize money and bumper end-of-the-year jackpot even though there is a category for women in the bantamweight, welterweight and middleweight categories."
"Why?" I asked curiously, because I was eager to see her fight.
"I'm just 51 kilos, a flyweight."
I didn't think that was the real reason. But anyway, she was only the celebrity brand ambassador of the Super Fight League, not its star contender. And apart from getting her to put some muscle behind this hustle, I don't think Kundra and Shetty had any other role for Mary Kom in mind.
She sized me up at our meeting.
"You," she said shrewdly, "Have done some boxing."
It was a statement not a question. I admitted I had. And I pulled out pictures of myself with Muhammad Ali, her hero and mine, whom also I had met and exclusively interviewed in Bombay way back in 1990.
Mary Kom gasped in amazement.
"You... you met him," she stammered in disbelief.
"Yes," I said, "And now I am meeting you, another boxing great."
She was touched and joined her hands, bowing humbly.
"I want a picture with you," I said impulsively, "Like I have with Muhammad Ali."
She posed shyly, putting up her fists, her bemused expression lacking that harshness I have seen on boxers because of the constant aggression in their lives.
Along with boxing we discussed cinema.
Had she seen the 2004 Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby on boxing with Hillary Swank and Clint Eastwood? She had, naturally. What did I think Manipur was, she joked. I asked if she would consider acting in a Bollywood film, perhaps a biopic, made on her own life. This was before Mary Kom with Priyanka Chopra playing the boxing champ was in the news.
Mary Kom giggled and said, "Sorry, I'm not good at acting, only good at boxing, I won't do such a film."
What about Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, everybody's favorite boxing film?
"Of course, I have seen all the Rocky films," Mary Kom said, "And Sylvester Stallone is an inspiration to boxers everywhere in the world."
There was something about Rocky Balboa, Hollywood's fictional boxing hero, in Mary Kom; maybe it was the fact that like Sylvester Stallone in the motivating series, she too was an indefatigable fighter, but a fine human being as well, a loving wife and caring mother who didn't carry the burden of the winning-losing baggage outside the ring.
Mary Kom blushed, pleased with my compliment.
"Thank-you," she said, bowing graciously again.
Then, in singsong English she asked, "May I tell you something?"
"I was already into boxing before I saw Rocky," Mary Kom said.Suggest a correction