Mary Kom vs Sarita Devi: How two best friends turned into worst enemies
Sarita Devi was Mary Kom's best friend before Boxing created a rift between them that has still not healed. Sarita says the sport might have brought a lot of fame to Mary, but that she should not forget how it all started.
Imphal: Mary Kom and Sarita Devi. The two leading ladies of Indian boxing. Hailing from the same social backgrounds, fighting the same battles, aiming for the same podiums, the two former best friends could have been the greatest sports duo from India. But the boxing ring drew a wedge between them when they were at their peaks, creating a rift that has still not healed.
Two and a half decades after the two of them had wandered into the boxing academy in Imphal in hopes of eventually securing government jobs - at a time when India had no women boxers - they are both former world champions. Mary Kom has been immortalised as the first woman boxer to win an Olympic medal. As for Sarita, who has always been known as the better technical boxer between the two, the also-ran reputation is hard to outrun despite the number of Worlds, CWG and Asian medals she has won.
"Boxing has made Mary Kom a big person, it has made her a Member of Parliament, but you must not forget where you come from, your roots," Sarita Devi told The Bridge.
During a conversation at her boxing academy in Mayang Imphal, around 30 kms from Manipur's capital, where the New Delhi-based Mary Kom also has a coach-run academy, Sarita Devi spoke extensively about her equation with her former friend, one-time rival and the person who will forever be spoken of in the same breath as her.
"We were very close friends - staying together, helping each other. Slowly as we both started winning internationally, a distance started growing between us. There was a time when we were fighting in the same weight category. Both of us being in the same ring, people used to say it was like an elder brother beating up a younger brother. That was when all the problems began," she said.
"Things like that keep on happening inside the ring, but it's not right to be carrying so much hatred, anger outside the ring too. We stopped talking to each other after the 2010 trial bout, a wide gap formed between us."
Two young girls start out with a shared dream
Mary and Sarita met for the first time in 1998 at the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex. The chemistry was instant between the two 16-year-olds. Sarita the taller, stronger boxer who would think through everything twice, often thinking about her family back home; Mary the smaller girl whose quickness in the ring took older girls by surprise, who did not need to think twice before pulling off unexpected moves.
Coach Ibomcha Singh, who watched over them, giving them food and a place to stay in his office when required, said, "Physically, Sarita looked a lot better than Mary in their earliest years. But Sarita had an inferiority complex. If you told her a sad story, she would begin to cry. Mary, on the other hand was mentally much stronger, she would say she didn't want to hear such nonsense."
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The Manipur of the late 90s and early 2000s - when Mary and Sarita were still best friends - was a place of daily uncertainty. The spectre of death and kidnappings loomed large due to the rampant presence of insurgency groups. At one point, Mary and Sarita had to stay cooped up in Ibomcha's office for 15 days due to a blockade in Imphal.
"We made our beds in the small office beside the boxing ring. All our food was running out - we made something with rice and vegetables and had one meal a day. We stayed hungry, but neither Mary nor I stopped training," recalled Sarita.
"Later, when they told us we couldn't stay in the office any more, Mary and I rented a house together near the training centre."
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Their friendship may have blossomed inside the boxing ring over shared dreams of rising above their inherited poverty, but it existed outside the ring too. When travelling across Manipur was relatively safer, Sarita helped Mary's family in the paddy fields in Moirang. Mary too helped Sarita's brothers collect firewood in Thoubal. When the two stayed together in Imphal, Mary used to play the guitar as the two friends sang late into the night - English, Hindi and Meitei songs.
"That is where it all began - two girls singing tirelessly in their room. Look where it has all ended," sighed Ibomcha.
"Both of us wanted medals in boxing, both of us had problems at home," Sarita summed up all that united as well as eventually separated them.
"We went to our first National Games together. At my first Asian Championships, Mary wasn't selected, she was there with me from my second outing. At the national camp, the coaches used to say I was the best boxer. They took my name more than her, she might not have liked that," she said.
"Jealousy happens in all fields, but how can someone live in peace with all this jealousy? If you always want to be better than someone else, how will you enjoy your own life? You can't stop living just because someone says your friend is better than you," Sarita said.
Best friends turn into worst enemies
Despite being the more technically sound boxer, Sarita Devi had to shift to a higher weight category to make way for her more celebrated friend many times in her career. It was in this way that a direct clash between Mary and Sarita was delayed for as long as possible, but things came to a head in 2010, as allegations of politics and favouritism came tumbling out of the closet.
Sarita seemed to have won the 51kg Asian Games trial fight against Mary Kom in Bhopal with an unanimous verdict, before the Indian boxing federation ordered a re-trial with no media presence, which Mary Kom won. Alleging a 'conspiracy' to favour Mary, Sarita threatened to never play for India again.
"It was brewing from much before, but it was after the 2010 trial bout that our relationship fell apart. There was much more anger from both sides from then on," Sarita said.
Mary Kom's Olympic medal in 2012 turned her into an overnight star, but when the Asian Games came around again in 2014, the two old friends again found themselves sharing a room in Incheon, South Korea. They temporarily buried the hatchet for a few days but the way that campaign ended delivered the killing blow to their friendship. Even though Mary won the gold medal, it was Sarita's bronze medal which made all the news.
"Mary did not like how the 2014 Asian Games controversy played out. I remember one moment at the airport in Korea when I saw her face change. My appeal against the judges had been turned down, but the Korean media supported me. Fans turned up in large numbers at the airport, saying it was a gesture to make up for the wrong that had been done against me. That was the moment Mary changed completely. Nothing has been the same between us since," said Sarita.
"We still do meet at public events, we wish each other, but there's none of the friendship we shared earlier. We don't talk about our past. She might be feeling guilty, I feel there has been a gap which cannot be closed. She lives her own life, I live my own."
Divided by everything else, united by boxing academies
Apart from Mary Kom, Sarita Devi is the only Indian to have won more than two Boxing World Championships medals. But it is the 2012 Olympic medal won by Mary that will be the definite marker that separates them.
"I have medals from everywhere - Worlds, Asian Championships, Commonwealth Games - but the Olympic medal remained my one unfulfilled dream. I don't have the time any more, the few chances I got slipped away due to politics," Sarita said.
Even at Tokyo 2020, Sarita watched Mary's campaign unfold with mixed emotions.
"I got a lot of calls from the media after Mary Kom's defeat in the Tokyo Olympics. I lied to all of them saying I didn't watch the match. Leaving our enmity aside, leaving aside that Mary was playing for India, the decision by the judges that day was absolutely correct. Mary lost fair and square to a better boxer. Split decisions have favoured Mary many times in her career, that day it went against her," Sarita Devi said about Mary's controversial defeat last year.
Even in the twilight of their careers, India's two most illustrious women boxers still cannot see eye to eye, but there is one thing they are united on - unearthing boxing talents from the length and breadth of Manipur. Among the nine young girls selected to be part of the junior women's team from Manipur for the upcoming National Games, three are from Sarita's academy and three are from Mary's academy.
"There will never be any rivalry between our academies. I know the struggle I had to go through because of these things. The best boxer should go, from whichever academy they come from," Sarita said.
India never had the chance to see both Mary and Sarita climbing the podium at the same Olympics, or even the same CWG. But a few years from now, there may yet be a medallist duo from Manipur's two biggest boxing academies providing the prologue to the story of their famous predecessors.
Maybe that day, Mary and Sarita will embrace again and talk of the old days spent in their shared flat, from where they used to walk together to Khuman Lampak - where it all began.