NEW DELHI » Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, the most celebrated female boxer in India, grew up fighting.
She fought convention as the eldest child of a landless farmer in the fractious northeastern state of Manipur, where she drove steer across rice fields, work that boys in the village let her know, derisively, belonged to men.
She fought lack of means when she trained in the state’s capital as a teenager – buying knockoff sneakers in a black market bordering Myanmar, making do with two meals a day, shadowboxing her reflection in a mirror.
She fought her own body after undergoing one cesarean section for twin boys, then another for a third boy, then going back to train through postpartum sluggishness and her legs’ sudden unwillingness to bounce step.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that Kom, 32, who goes by the name Mary, cannot seem to give up the fight.
She is a five-time world champion, was the Olympic bronze medalist at the London Games, and gold medalist at this fall’s Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Her autobiography, "Unbreakable," was released in 2013 at a ceremony hosted by the Indian actress and former Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen, who called it a story of "a woman’s road to emancipation and empowerment." She was the subject of an operatic Bollywood biopic released in September that was a commercial success, perhaps the chief indicator of having arrived in India.
But her rise has been punctuated by deep grievances, often against what she describes as a sports bureaucracy stacked against her and fellow boxers. At the Asian Games medal ceremony in October, another Manipuri boxer, Laishram Sarita Devi, tearfully refused her own bronze in the 60-kilogram category, protesting the judges’ decision to award the victory in a semifinal match to her Korean opponent. Devi was suspended by the International Boxing Association for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Her colleagues, including Kom, stood by her, and India’s sports minister wrote a letter to the amateur boxing federation pleading for the revocation of her suspension.
For Kom, a devout Christian from the tiny Kom tribal community, who has remained somewhat of an outsider in India and who has railed against bias in judging, Devi’s suspension reflects deeper fissures in the sport.
"Of course she won the bout," said Kom, in a hotel suite not far from the presidential palace in New Delhi, asserting that the referee cheated, wanting to advance a Korean candidate to the finals. "We are always facing the same problems. Sarita was facing internationally. I was facing nationally."
Some say Kom has used her grievances to her advantage, and they have certainly added color to her underdog story. But they have also isolated her, limiting her impact on India’s sporting culture.
"What is the use having a women’s boxer like Mary Kom?" said S. Sabanayakan, a sportswriter who has followed Kom’s career. "I hardly see Mary Kom talking to other boxers, giving tips. She only wants to be Mary Kom. Mary Kom is an iconic figure in Indian women’s boxing. Why can’t she motivate all the boxers in India? Why only Manipur?"
The Indian Boxing Federation suspended Kom for unsportsmanlike conduct in 2009, after a tied bout was awarded to her opponent, Pinky Jangra, from the north Indian state of Haryana. Kom used "foul language" with the judges. She lost to Jangra again in 2014, in a qualifier for the Commonwealth Games.
Her opponent, she said, had "never, ever beaten me. But the referees don’t favor me, they don’t give any points to me."
Kom added, "In India, there is this problem facing most of the boxers from the Northeast."
India has struggled to contain multiple insurgencies within its cluster of northeastern states, thinly tied to the mainland by a 14-mile stretch of land in West Bengal. Most of the states are dominated by tribal populations with ethnic ties to their Southeast Asian neighbors. When they come to Delhi or Bangalore for school or work, many complain of discrimination.
Kom is no exception. On a Sunday several years ago, Kom was walking to church in a South Delhi neighborhood with friends, all Koms. A bus pulled up beside them, and the conductor called them Nepalis, implying, she said, that they were part of a migrant servant class. She does not remember who threw the first punch, but before she knew it, her male friends were fighting with passengers, while others fled.
Among northeastern Indians, she said, "the face is mostly similar, they think that we’re from Nepal, and they really look down on us. That’s the main problem. They don’t know where we are from."
Many deflect criticism of judging bias in India based on state origins. But Kom represents a bit of a puzzle for the country – the pride and joy of Indian boxing, in the shape of a woman who bears little stamp of its dominant culture.
"People love Mary Kom," said Sabanayakan, who attended the 2009 match. Mary had recently given birth, and Jangra "pounced on Mary like a lion on prey."
Her complaints, he said, were an extension of the caginess she deploys inside the ring.
"It’s the psychology of a boxer to keep everyone under pressure," he said. "She has a knack of creating this psychological pressure on the judges."
But even as judges defend themselves against accusations of bias, some reveal deeply entrenched attitudes in India’s heartland about Manipuris.
Sabanayakan said that there were a large number of boxers from Manipur because tribals tend to fight by nature. Jay Kowli, recently named the head of Boxing India, a national amateur boxing organization, said that Manipuris come from a martial society, and are "hot-blooded."
"She comes from a tribe which is genetically aggressive," he said. "They’re warriors. You don’t expect a man on the front, a soldier on the front to be like a gentleman."
Kom, for her part, seeks a change in the boxing establishment through representation. She recently met with the sports minister and suggested three men who could be named as independent observers of matches, including one of her first coaches in Manipur.
It has been a long road to holding court with ministers in the nation’s capital. When she first showed up at a national competition in the southern Indian city of Chennai, Kowli was a judge. He barely remembers Kom from that meet.
But a couple years later, he noticed she had improved, how she moved swiftly around the ring in her left-handed stance, about 100 pounds of springy, buoyant energy.
She circles opponents, deftly ducks punches, and lands left hooks straight on the face for maximum points. And she has a knack for intimidation.
"When Mary Kom enters the ring, she’s already won," Sabanayakan said.
She has been described alternately as cagey and simple, humble and proud. Her focus now is on the Rio Olympics in 2016, where she hopes to win gold. She is seen as a straight-talker, and by extension, an ineffective diplomat. When she complains of bias, she does it with an air of setting the record straight. And she is not humble about her status as a sporting icon – she wears the distinction with an air of vindication and defiance.
"It happened because of God’s grace and my struggle, hard work, determination – because of my dedication," she said. She wore a T-shirt with two gloves on it, each emblazoned with her name.
Thoiba Singh, a former soccer player and husband of Devi, the boxer who refused her bronze, sounded weary when asked about prejudices in sport. But he also offered a possible explanation for Kom’s success.
"It makes you realize that you have to be at your best, you have to dominate your opponents in order to reach this level," he said. "You can’t take anything for granted."
Nida Najar, New York Times