“I never told my parents that I was doing boxing. They only came to know after I became state champion and my name and picture came in the newspaper,” she told Reuters in an interview.
“The next day, my father called me up and told me to come back to our village home. He wanted to talk about why I took up boxing. He was worried I would sustain injuries.”
Mary Kom was the face of the campaign to get women’s boxing into the Olympics and the Indian mother of two will be competing at the world championships in China in May aiming to book her spot at the London Games in the 51kg category.
While Indian hopes are high that Mary Kom will return with the Olympic gold medal, she remembers being greeted with scepticism when she started out on her career in the ring.
“When I started boxing, people laughed at me and said, ‘What can women do in boxing?’” she said. “I took it as a challenge. If men can do it why can’t women? And I became a world champion before my marriage.
“When I got married, they doubted if I can win again after marriage. I took it as the second challenge and proved myself.”
Mary Kom returned to the ring after she started her family and it was not long before the doubters were back on her case.
“Again after I had my kids, people would say, ‘Now she has kids, how can she fight?’ I won two more world championships and silenced them.”
Keeping her guard up
Mary Kom won her world amateur titles at 46 and 48kg but the lightest of the three weight categories in London will be 51kg.
Her defeat at the weight class in the 2010 Asian Games semi-finals was a wake-up call and she spent a month in Pune sparring with three heavier male boxers to prepare.
“In the 46-48kg category I know every boxer and I defeat them whenever I fight them. They are also short boxers. But I never fought tall boxers like in the 51kg category. So I had no experience (before the Asian Games),” she said.
“This time I am sparring with male boxers. I brought three sparring partners — 60kg, 57kg and 54kg. I learned my weaknesses at the Asian Games and other competitions where I lost. My guard was down.
“I am learning how to improve my guard and the combination of how to go close and fight. There is a lot of improvement.”
The Muhammad Ali fan shudders at the prospect of failing to qualify.
“Everyone is worried about what if I don’t qualify. I am giving my best and doing my best. Beyond that, it’s not in my hands.
“Nobody will concede an inch just because I’m a five-times world champion. I’m aware of the expectations.
“Everyone is expecting me to win the gold. I too want a gold medal. Right now, I will just continue to keep my focus on my training.”
Balancing boxing and motherhood is a daily challenge for Mary Kom. Last May while she was competing in China one of her sons was admitted to hospital. When travelling for tournaments, she calls her children every night before they go to bed and returns with lots of toys.
Mary Kom has also become a role model in her home state, where she has started a boxing academy. While she is making progress the project needs funds.
“We now need a boxing ring and a hall. We are just giving training on the field,” she added. “Still, we are achieving a lot.”