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Dodgy Star and Missing Bouts: Déjà vu for Indian Boxing as Mary Kom Avoids Nikhat Zareen

Not for the first time MC Mary Kom has used her influence and force of personality to avoid trials for selection. Like many Indian sports stars, her pioneering heroism is now self serving and destroying boxing’s future.
Indian boxers Nikhat Zareen and MC Mary Kom

Nikhat Zareen has appealed to the Boxing Federation of India to hold the trials and give her a chance to compete against MC Mary Kom for a spot in the Indian squad for the 2019 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships.

MC Mary Kom, Indian boxing’s flagbearer since the turn of the century, remains the first choice to represent the country in whatever weight category she chooses. This has not just got to do with the quality of the star boxer, and her ability in the ring to sidestep punches and counter. In fact, it has as much to do with how she is good at dodging opponents before they even get to the ring. Aided, of course, by her clout in the national federation. Mary Kom, after all, is a rare commodity in India, an Olympic medalist and Indian boxing’s biggest brand now that Vijender Singh seems out of the picture. 

On August 7, Mary Kom was selected to represent India in the upcoming 2019 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships, without a trial, despite younger boxers lining up to take her on for a spot on the team. In Olympic-style (what is referred to as amateur) boxing, each nation only gets one spot in a weight category. Former junior world champion Nikhat Zareen from Telangana, who travelled to New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium for the trails, was shocked to realise competitions for the 51kg category has been scrapped, killing her chance to prove a point against the veteran from Manipur.

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Mary Kom is not new to this game of cat and mouse. Remember Pinki Rani Jangra. In 2014, the year of the release of Mary Kom’s bollywood biopic, Jangra beat her in the Commonwealth Games trials. Mary Kom, at the peak of her popularity after winning bronze at the London Olympics in 2012, and, in the media glare thanks to the movie release, alleged many things including regional bias, while trying to justify the loss. 

A year later, Mary Kom represented India in the various qualifying tournaments for the Rio Olympics. Jangra, obviously, did not. Kom, eventually, failed to qualify for the 2016 Games. Whether Jangra, or any other boxer in her weight class, might have done better, we will never know. 

Indian boxing, and its officials, seem to have learnt little from that, and, four years down the road, a similar dodgy episode played out, facilitated by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI).    

The latest challenger that Mary Kom has managed to dodge, Zareen, is a former junior world champion. She was not given a chance to fight the trials for the World Championships after the federation scrapped competition for the women’s flyweight division following Mary’s decision to skip it. Gone are the days when skipping a bout amounted to a forfeit. At least, not in the case of Mary Kom. Her decision to stay away from competition resulted in automatic selection. Bravo, Boxing Federation of India.

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There is a lot at stake in the trials, by the way. Mary Kom won her record sixth World Championships gold in New Delhi last year, fighting in the 48kg category. This edition, to be held from September 3-13 in Russia, she has jumped up to 51kg since her pet division is not part of the Olympic programme. To stay relevant and qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games, Mary Kom has to fight in the higher category which, of late, Zareen has dominated both at national championships and international competitions. 

A dejected Zareen, 23, wrote to the federation, crying foul and demanding justice. “I'm writing this email out of sheer frustration and feeling of helplessness,” she wrote to BFI president Ajay Singh. “To my utter surprise and disappointment, I was today [sic] informed just before the bouts were supposed to start by the Chairman Selection Committee, Rajesh Bhandari, that my bout will not happen today and there are some internal discussions happening to ensure I'm protected for future and avoid getting exposed at a young age in World Championships.

“I'm really surprised by this action as I have already participated in World Championships in 2016 and if I was fine then, so in 2019, I surely cannot be young and this cannot be the reason,” she added.

“I, as a citizen of India and a boxer under BFI, only request that a fair trial should happen for all boxers under your leadership. If there is a rule for all of us, it needs to be consistent for all of us irrespective of whatever stature a particular boxer is. I look forward to your immediate intervention and restoring the faith of every boxer in India,” appealed Zareen.

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Zareen, who won bronze in the 2019 Asian Championships in April, claimed to be in prime fitness, and said she could beat Mary Kom on any given day. 

The federation, meanwhile, claimed that the 36-year-old senior champion is in exemplary form and that Zareen’s performances at the camp has been below par. 

“We had told the boxers after the selection committee meeting on Tuesday that we will not have trials in 51kg and 69kg categories,” Bhandari, BFI’s chairman of selectors, told the media. “We received a representation from Mary Kom’s coach Chotte Lal Yadav and we all came to the conclusion that Mary has performed consistently in this weight category and has the experience and performance.” 

Bhandari added: “We all were of the view that Mary needs to prepare for the World Championships and Olympic qualifiers. Mary has a plan and she did not participate in the Asian Championships as she was focusing on training. Hence, we decided that there should be no trials in the 51kg category. Mary had defeated Nikhat at the India Open earlier this year and Nikhat had only won bronze there. We also decided against holding trials in the 69kg class [Lovlina Borgohain has also been given direct entry into the team].”

The premise of boxing, in theory, is simple. The better of the two fighters wins in the ring on most occasions. Of course, with a subjective point-scoring system in place, things are not clear cut. It has never been. Despite that subjectivity, the best way to avoid controversies is to ensure the best athlete on the day get her due, after allowing the parties to punch their talk in the ring.

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Zareen and Mary Kom, via the federation, are claiming to be the in form boxer at the moment. With Mary Kom pulling a Floyd Mayweather Jr. stunt once again (avoiding opponents when they are in their prime), there is no way we could find out who is telling the truth. In the previous instance when such a game was pulled by Mary Kom, India lost a chance at the Olympics, and a young boxer’s career was stunted. Jangra, now 29, is third choice behind Kom and Zareen.  And, in between all this, we cry that Indian boxing’s future looks bleak as the country has failed to produce young, prodigious champions. 

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