Mary Kom will take on Ukraine’s Hannah Okhota in the final of the World Boxing Championships in New Delhi, looking to win an unprecedented sixth gold. (Pic: AIBA)
Hyang-Mi Kim has fought Mary Kom once before, and it did not go her way. In the final of the Asian Championships in September last year, Mi’s aggressive, punch-out-of-the-gate style had been perfect fodder for Mary to play with. Mary won her fifth Asian title with a dominant performance.
Elite athletes evolve. They are expected to. Prior to their semi final match up against Kim, Mary herself had intimated so. “Game can change from that last loss,” she said. But even she wouldn’t have expected the U-turn of a ‘game change’ Mi put out yesterday at the World Championships semi final in New Delhi.
A taller, rangier boxer than the Indian, the assumption was that Mi would use her reach to ward off Mary with jabs, and score points when the Manipuri did come in with a hope to capitalise. But, evidently her coaches had planned for something different against a living legend. For almost the entirety of her career, Mary has been the counter puncher, the boxer who looks to evade shots rather than engage heavily. Bollywood biopics may have turned her into a gung-ho, crowd pleaser, but the truth is, that Mary’s natural tendency is to jab and slide. She waits for her opponents to commit, and then her phenomenal speed–even at 35 she is one of the fastest boxers in the field–and accuracy allow her to land the shots that earn points.
For the entirety of the first round yesterday, though, Mi was happy to sit and wait. Her plan was to frustrate Mary by a lack of action and lure her into the danger zone. The setup was well-constructed. You could see Mary feeling stifled and frustrated. The otherwise relaxed yet bobbing foot movement was replaced midway through the round by a hyperactive sideways prowl. Her headgear bothered her. She walked into pockets but instead of engaging preferred to grapple into a hold.
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In the break between rounds, though, something snapped. When the bell for the second rang Mary the Evader became Mary the Engager. No more waiting. There were golds to be won.
One of the drawbacks of having been at the top level of a sport is that opponents have larger pool of material to pick from to analyse your strengths and weaknesses. In individual sports, this is a huge problem. No matter the strengths, elite athletes, especially those performing at peak levels rarely need to change their game. In combat sport, athletes prefer to hide their weaknesses by creating ‘counter strengths’ rather than eliminate weaknesses entirely.
Mary has forever been known to be slow off the bell. In her younger days, she was known to never lose to the same boxer twice, simply because by the time they faced up again, she had figured out ‘the plan’. She was a counter puncher. A fast mover. An accurate jabber. Journalistic pieces, scholarly articles, hours of footage would all pay homage to these facts. There was no hiding what she is, and how she is what she is.
Youth, therefore is sometimes an advantage, simply because of the ‘unknown’ factor that accompanies it. Testament to this fact is the number of young Indians who have followed Mary into the medal rounds. Lovlina Borgohain followed Mary to the ring in her welterweight semi final. The Assamese had thrilled and shocked many on her run to the semi finals, but the finals proved a hurdle too far as she lost a unanimous decision to Nien-Chin Chen to settle for bronze.
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For Mary a winning strategy necessitated combining the unpredictability of youth with the patience of experience. In the second round, she came out to a new plan. Instead of blocking and parrying she started timing Mi’s punches and landing her own. The regular southpaw rule is to take the opponent’s lead hand out of the equation, Mary had done that successfully. To that she added a serving of combination punches. Slip and slide, but done as an aggressor. Instead of waiting she initiated the exchange, and before Mi could reply Mary was gone.
A smart strategy was turned on its head. The North Korean was in for a rough lesson.
In the third, Mi tweaked her timing, and doubled her jab, but more than anything it left more holes for Mary to exploit. Upper cuts landed as freely as left hooks and by the end Mi was back to doing what the first 30 seconds of the bout had been about. A lot of circling, feinting but very little boxing. In the end, the decision was unanimous, but a look at the scorecards said all that needed to be said. Of the five judges, one had actually given Mi the opening round, and Mary had accounted for that when she tweaked her strategy.
Her experience showed up against the North Korean, and now, this is another crucial bit of footage for future opponents to analyse and chew over. For now though, an unprecedented gold medal beckons. And in her way is another 22-year-old upstart, Ukrainian Hannah Okhota -- a boxer two generations removed from Mary. Okhota was six when Mary won the first of her golds. Now she’ll hope to prevent Mary’s sixth.