Fostering glove love

Backing for the Mary Kom Boxing Academy is principally about promoting the sport, but also about recognising the legend behind it

One-two-hook-upper cut — that’s been easier to learn than the classroom lessons,” says Punshiba Singh. “I like the sporting part, the training sessions and the routine here, but studies are a big problem. Nothing in the school textbooks goes into my head.”

A 12-year-old standard VII student, Punshiba is talking about the year he has spent at the Mary Kom Boxing Academy in Imphal, and about the trouble he has had balancing his passion and his obligation. “I was scared when I got here; it was the first time I was away from my family,” says Punshiba, born to subsistence farmers from Wangjing village in Manipur’s Thoubal district. “It took me nearly a month to make friends, but it has gone well since. I don’t miss home now.”

15 for the future

A standout talent who has performed well at state-level competitions — and who nurses ambitions of becoming an army officer — Punshiba is one of 15 young boxers being sponsored by the Tata Trusts at the Academy. He does not have to pay for the privilege and neither do the 75 other girls and boys at the centre, which caters largely to kids from poor backgrounds.

The Academy, which started functioning in 2015, has a tie-up with the Sports Authority of India and draws support from the state government and a mix of business houses, charitable organisations and individuals. It has come a long way since beginning modestly and is now primed to realise its objective of being a world-class boxing institution that unearths and moulds potential from the abundant talent pool the region has in the sport.

From finding the right kids to cutting-edge coaching, nutritional inputs, performance analysis and exposure to competition, the Academy offers trainees the platform to shine in a sport that has found flight in India. The multidimensional effort has paid off for the Academy, with its wards winning copious honours in state and national boxing contests.

The trainees range in age from 12 to 16 — with a smattering of students above that threshold — and the regimen they have to follow is as tough as boxing itself. The hours between the wake-up time of 4.30am and bedtime of 9.30pm include three-and-a-half hours of boxing, school and evening tuitions for the stragglers. The schedule can be gruelling.

Keeping up is hard

“I get so tired sometimes it’s hard to complete my classwork,” says Chinghauniang Tunglut, a 14-year-old from New Lamka village in Churachandpur district. It’s a deterrent Chinghauniang, who will presently be appearing for her standard X board exams, is determined to get past. “I have a goal and, the way I see it, if there are difficulties it’s up to me to overcome them,” she says. “Studies are not easy but I’m sure I’ll get a first class.”

The academy’s students have to punch above their weight to balance boxing and studies

My responsibility is to take care of them, not to look after them,” says Karong Thangrengkhup, the warden of the Academy hostel, whose surface strictness hides a soft heart. “I keep track of their boxing and their studies. They have to manage both and that can be complicated, but these kids cannot progress in life without decent grades.”

The emphasis is on boxing but the formal education part is almost equally important. “We are not chasing after top marks but they have to get through at least,” says Mr Thangrengkhup. “There are so many distractions these days, so I keep reminding them to not go astray.”

Giving the children individual attention is not possible but the Academy does its best. “It’s easier to chat with the boys; the girls just listen to me and go away,” adds Mr Thangrengkhup. “We don’t allow the use of mobiles and television time is severely limited. But no restrictions on watching when Mary Kom is in action.”

There are three-and-a-half hours of boxing training every day for the students

Inconsistent funding support, erratic electricity and internet connectivity and the relative remoteness of the facility are handicaps the Academy has learned to live with. This affects administration rather than the children themselves. Their issues are different. “Most of them are from villages, very poor and with parents who are struggling,” says Mr Thangrengkhup. “Some of the parents hardly ever visit their kids and we have orphans here as well. I try and comfort them.”

Comfort of the financial kind is what Tata Trusts — which have been supporting the boxing programme since 2017 and will continue doing so till 2022 — and the other backers of the Academy bring to the table. “I hope we can take this initiative to the grassroots,” says Rajesh Siwakoti, senior executive (programmes) with the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods, the nodal organisation for the Trusts in Manipur. “We don’t expect all the 15 kids we are sponsoring to make it to the Olympics, but it would be a huge boost if a few get to the national level. Personally speaking, I’d like to see at least one of them on television someday.”

Mary truly is magnificent

The Tata Trusts-sponsored students at the Academy

It is unlikely many people know who Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangte is. Eliminate two words from that proper noun and it would be highly improper for anybody, in India at least, to be oblivious of the person who bears that name.

The sporting peaks of ‘Magnificent Mary’, as she is known, bear repeating: six world championship titles, a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, gold at the 2014 Asian Games and gold again at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Beyond boxing, too, there is something about Mary Kom. Currently a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, she has a road named after her in her home state.

The path to such rarefied heights has been long and arduous for the 35-year-old Ms Kom, the eldest of three children born in a poor farming family in Kangathei village in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. An athlete in her school days, Ms Kom got inspired to take up boxing after seeing fellow-Manipuri Dingko Singh win a gold medal at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games.

It is said that Ms Kom kept the progress of her boxing career a secret from her father, an ex-wrestler who frowned on his daughter’s growing interest in a sport that he believed would damage her face and thus hinder chances of finding a suitable husband.

He came to know of his child’s growing prowess in the ring when her photo appeared in newspapers following victory in the Manipur State Boxing Championship in 2000.

The rest of India would soon become aware of the singular boxing gem in their midst.