Indian Open: Mary Kom enters final; all-Indian final in seven men’s categories

Another World Championships, another historic medal for MC Mary Kom. On Thursday, she defeated Rio Olympics bronze medallist Ingrit Valencia of Colombia with a 5-0 verdict to assure herself of her first Worlds medal at 51kg, and her eighth overall, becoming the most successful boxer at the event. Legendary boxing coach BI Fernandez was on the sidelines at the men’s national championship in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh when news broke of Mary’s latest milestone.

“She is a very excellent boxer. She uses her experience, and the spirit has always been there,” said Fernandez, who worked with Mary before the London Olympics. “That bronze changed the course of history in India. Here, I am not too sure about a gold. But one thing I know is to never count Mary out.”

In the semifinals on Saturday, Mary will be up against second-seeded Busenaz Cakiroglu of Turkey, the reigning European Champion and European Games gold medallist. Fernandez smirks when one brings up Felix Savon. The Cuban great, a six-time World champion, was the most successful pugilist at the event before Mary left him behind.

“Felix was sensational,” said his compatriot Fernandez (who laughingly declares he’s more Indian than Cuban now, thanks to his two-decade-plus experience in the country where he remains the only non-Indian coach to be conferred the Dronacharya award). “All-time great is tough to say for Mary. But in women’s boxing, she definitely is.”

Not a gauge for Tokyo success

The medal glut at the World Championships might not necessarily translate into a similar result at the Olympics next year. The International Olympic Committee took away the Olympic qualification status of the boxing worlds because of the administrative problems within its governing body. Consequently, most boxers had to rejig their targets and the qualifiers in February have assumed priority. While a medal at World Championships is no doubt prestigious, the level of intensity at the qualifiers and then at the Olympics is expected to be much higher. What the medal at Worlds ensures, however, is an automatic spot for the qualifying tournament, as per Boxing Federation of India’s policy. The Asia/Oceania Olympic Qualifiers will be held in Wuhan, China, from February 3-14.

Mary fought like one against Valencia. Her two unsuccessful 51kg forays at the Worlds had been repeatedly brought up in the build-up to the current edition at Ulan-Ude, Russia. But with a commanding win over the reigning PanAm champion, the 36-year-old erased those asterisks.

Along with Mary, Manju Rani, Jamuna Boro and Lovlina Borgohain also entered the semifinals to ensure four medals for India.

“I’m very happy to be in the semifinal. But I am aspiring to win a higher medal,” Mary said after her second successive 5-0 win. The scorecards have been identical, but these were two contrasting victories, against two distinctly competent boxers; The taller, orthodox, young street fighter in Jutamas Jitpong of Thailand, and an experienced, opportunistic southpaw in Valencia.

While she was forced to weather the storm on Tuesday, Mary was at her composed best in the quarterfinal. The difference was evident in coach Raffaele Bergamasco’s inflections as well. In the Jitpong bout, the Italian seemed almost agitated in the corner and had to spur Mary on in the first break. On Thursday, all he had to do was reiterate and reinforce the plan: “Distance. Very easy. You’re fast.”

With her opponent not going all out, Mary was more successful in her time management and dictating the pace of the bout. Valencia attacked in bursts, she even caught the Indian multiple times, but once Mary got used to the Colombian’s timing, she made her pay with sharp counters.

“She played an intelligent contest, she is very fast and deserved the semifinal definitely,” Bergamasco told The Indian Express.

The third round was the most successful for Mary. Valencia sensed she was behind and started attacking more, prompting what can be described as Exhibit A in distance management and counterattacking. And when Valencia chose to hang back, Mary lulled her in by feints and closed the contest strongly. Her next opponent, the 23-year-old Cakiroglu, is an imposing flyweight. But the well-prepared, boxer-for-all-seasons Mary looks good to carry on.

Other success stories

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If 51kg is the current residence of Mary, she’s now got two noisy neighbours either side of the Olympic category.

Manju upset top seed North Korean Kim Hyang-Mi in her 48kg quarterfinal while Jamuna confirmed a medal in the 54kg category with a win over Germany’s Ursula Gottlob. Both boxers have expressed a desire to switch to the flyweight category, but this Olympic cycle will be tough for them to have a crack at it. Manju was especially sensational in her quarterfinal. Kim has had run-ins with Mary at 48kg, losing the 2017 Asian Championships final (a bout Mary said was her toughest at the event) and last Worlds semifinal (a bout Kim believed she should have won.)

Thursday’s bout was neither Manju’s toughest, nor could the Korean leave with a misplaced sense of being wronged. An uninhibited Manju took the fight to the top seed, unsettling her opponent with fast combos and sharp outward movement. The 5’4, 19-year-old Manju – who won gold at her senior nationals debut in January – showed maturity beyond her age and height, outscoring the taller Kim. Her next opponent will be Thailand’s Chuthamat Raksat. Jamuna had a much tougher time in the 4-1 win over Ursula Gottlob. The German came out blasting against Boro, who was refreshingly candid in her post-match interview: “My opponent was very tough, very aggressive. In fact, in the first round I was so confused I couldn’t make out how she was hitting me.”

“Aggressive boxers bother me a bit, but I took it round by round,” said Boro, who dismantled Gottlab in the last two rounds with counters. “The next opponent (top seed and former Asian Games bronze medallist Huang Hsiao-Wen of Chinese Taipei) is also taller, but we have some plans in place. Hopefully, it’ll all come off.”

Jamuna’s career was sputtering after a promising start, but the 22-year-old got back in the national fray with gold medals at the India Open and President’s Cup in Indonesia.

The performance of the day, among Indians, however belonged to Lovlina, who booked a second-straight bronze medal at the World Championships. The lanky welterweight defeated Polish veteran Karolina Koszewska, a world champion kickboxer and European Games gold medallist this year.