Mary Kom's opponent, Jutamas Jitpong, was three when the Indian competed at the first-ever women's World Championships in 2001. And for a while on Wednesday the Thai boxer, 16 years her junior, was making Mary feel every one of her 37 years.
In the first bout of her tenth Worlds appearance, Mary was dealing with a heavy-handed opponent looking to swarm her. But while close to two decades competing means the snap of her punches and shuffle of the feet has slowed down, Mary also has the experience of having been in almost every situation plausible in the ring. On Wednesday, facing a game boxer in a dirty fight, Mary adapted and landed cleanly to secure a unanimous 5-0 win to enter the 51kg quarterfinal in Ulan-Ude, Russia.
Jitpong's strategy was on point. While the majority of opponents treat Mary with utmost reverence and caution, the Thai boxer took the fight to the Indian. Fight being the operative word. Coached by Sydney Olympics gold medallist and champion kickboxer Wijan Ponlid, and his Cuban teacher Juan Fontanils, Jitpong also has a 5-2 professional record with two knockout wins. She swung hard and heavy, controlling the ring and often backing Mary into the corner.
Jitpong had already flipped the script once at these championships, defeating Nimani Azize in the first round to spoil what would have been a chance for Mary to avenger her 2016 Worlds loss to the German.
Somewhere in the first round, Mary was rocked by a punch to the back of the head. In the break, she tried to explain the same to her corner, when foreign coach Raffaele Bergamasco told her to stay calm and "keep distance, counter-attack."
Mary did just that in the second and third rounds, scoring from the distance and waiting for the Thai to over commit. Jitpong heavy punches, slow to begin with, only grew slower as Mary evaded and landed cleanly. A valuable aspect of the aforementioned experience is Mary's know-how of dealing with bigger opponents. All of Mary's six gold medals at Worlds have come in the 48kg or lighter categories, and in the Olympic category of 51kg, she'll almost always be outsized.
Mary is short, but combined with her southpaw stance, she tries to turn it into an advantage. And with Jitpong on attack mode, all Mary had to do was parry the wayward 1, slip the 2 and launch a counter right over the top."Her opponent was very young, but very strong. But Mary's win was clear," Bergamasco told The Indian Express. "I am very happy because Mary listened to the corner. We told her, 'you work the counterattack, when she attacks, go back and counter. Don't engage'. Overall it's a good result."
With shots missing and her tank running out, Jitpong eased out on the aggression and started hugging Mary with the enthusiasm of a long lost friend. The Thai boxer held Mary, and attacked the body in the clinch. Both boxers then would look to attack on the break. It devolved into a gritty (read dirty) affair, but the stretches of inaction played into the Indian's hands whose crisper punches got her the nod.
Next up for Mary is Olympic bronze-medallist Ingrit Valencia. The 31-year-old reigning PanAm champion has beaten Euro Games bronze-medallist Gabriela Dimitrova at the tournament, and is a natural flyweight. Its set to be another uphill challenge, and a win on Thursday will confirm a medal for Mary Kom, but not a spot in next year's Olympic qualifiers; the boxing federation has stated that a berth is reserved only for a finalist at this competition.
Stern tests for Jamuna, Lovlina
PTI adds: Former Worlds silver-medallist Saweety Boora (75kg) lost her pre-quarterfinal bout in a split decision. Boora was up against second-seeded Welshwoman Lauren Price, a European Games gold-medallist who took bronze at the last edition in Delhi. Price is also the reigning Commonwealth Games champion besides, being a three-time bronze-medallist at the European Championships.
In the pre-quarterfinals on Wednesday, Jamuna Boro (54kg) will take on Algerian Ouidad Sfouh while last edition's bronze-medallist Lovlina Borgohain (69kg) will take on Oumayma Bel Ahbib.