How Ibomcha Singh overcame heartbreak by fighting for his 64 children
The first Manipuri boxer in the modern era, the founder of women's boxing in India, a coach who has produced 64 international boxers - L Ibomcha Singh wears many hats. But it is as Mary Kom's coach that he has been immortalised in film and real life.
Imphal: He was given his first boxing glove in the 1970s by an Indian soldier in Sugnu, a remote village closer to the Myanmar border than Manipur's capital Imphal as the crow flies. Known as the 'village idiot' in his childhood, his love for boxing and a burning desire to have 'India' printed on his back took him to jobs in the Army across the country and then the Nagaland Police.
He became a state champion in the 1980s but was left in heartbreak when his chance to play for the country was snatched away at the eleventh hour. But in 2022, as Leisangthem Ibomcha Singh sat in his office in Imphal, he wondered if he could be called the greatest Indian boxing coach of all time.
"Nobody in India has produced as many as 64 international boxers. And I am not even counting those from other states like Haryana's Vijender Singh who I gave part-time training to," the 62-year-old told The Bridge.
Not only has Ibomcha managed to churn out an assembly line of boxers from Manipur who have shone on the world stage - a phenomenon he said is on the wane because states like Haryana have surged ahead in giving financial benefits - he was also the founding father of women's boxing in India. And it is this identity, of having 'produced' Mary Kom, that he has to embody in the twilight years of his coaching career.
It a video of him training with Mary Kom before the 2012 Olympics that is still shown to coaches before they are interviewed at the SAI's New Delhi centre, he said with a touch of pride.
"I started women's boxing in India. I organised the first women's fight here in Manipur in 1999, before the Indian federation did. Europe had women's boxing back then, but when I approached the Indian federation in 1993-94 with the idea of introducing women's boxing at the Nationals, I got laughed at," recalled Ibomcha.
In 1996, Ibomcha Singh started training girls, four years before the first women's boxing bout at the national level. Consequently, at the 2000 Nationals, all the medals were won by Ibomcha's wards, one of them an 18-year-old Mary Kom.
"Now she has become a God, but back then she was a tiny 100m sprinter with a lot of spirit," said the coach who found her and moulded her into a champion, but who then had a falling out after Mary Kom got married.
"I was very angry after Mary Kom got married. I wanted the road ahead of her to be absolutely clear. I told her I wouldn't train her any more, our connection was over," he said with a laugh.
'No compromise, no excuse' was the phrase written on the wall in Ibomcha's training academy. He protected his students at all costs, and he wanted only one thing in return - that they gave their best years to boxing. If one of them, however talented, decided to marry early, he would turn their back on them.
And he had reasons to be headstrong.
"The coach who was here before me was killed by insurgents. I carry a licensed gun around with me since 2004, the threats have gone down since then. Earlier, they used to frequently call saying they'd kill this boxer, kidnap that one," he said on how he kept his students safe at the height of insurgency in Manipur in the 1990s and 2000s.
Father of Manipuri Boxing
Ibomcha Singh said it was his heartbreak at not getting to play for India that led him on this path of producing 64 champion boxers, all of whom he calls 'his children'.
Manipur had an unofficial ban on boxing after trouble broke out during an exhibition match in the 1950s. The crowd wanted to beat up a Bengali boxer who was announced as the winner against the home boxer, leading to violent police action. It was not until Ibomcha that the sport returned to the state's consciousness.
"I am the founder of modern Manipuri boxing," he said nonchalantly. "I was the one who won the first medal for the state (in the 1980s)."
Ibomcha was the state champion between 1981 and 1986 and a bronze medallist at the 1981 and the 1986 Senior National Boxing Championships as well as the 1985 National Games, all in the 67kg category.
In 1986, three hours before he was scheduled to take the flight to Thailand to make his international debut at the King's Cup, the Indian manager told him his name had been crossed out.
Ibomcha bowed out of the ring in sorrow, but he vowed he would pass on his knowledge to the other talents around him.
Dingko Singh, who ended India's 16-year-wait for an Asian Games medal in 1998, was his first find. As he would find with many of his later wards, Ibomcha would need to fight for Dingko - both inside and outside the ring. When the director of the SAI centre wanted to kick out the young Dingko because of his rudeness, Ibomcha put his own job on the line to save the future sporting great.
After Dingko's 1998 medal, there was a rush of boxers into Ibomcha's academy, some of them who wanted to enter the sport in their 30s and 40s.
"Manipur became mad after Dingko's 1998 medal. Adults used to turn up, not understanding a simple truth - they all wanted to be like Dingko but they had not grown up like him," Ibomcha said.
The assembly line just did not stop after that. Sarita Devi, Mary Kom, P Narjit, M Suranjoy all turned up within the first few years. And suddenly, Manipur had a thriving boxing ecosystem, with Dingko Singh to look up to and the indomitable Ibomcha Singh always available to spar with in the ring.
Three decades since those earliest days of Manipur becoming a Boxing factory, Ibomcha still spars with young athletes at the SAI centre in Imphal every day. But he avoids going to national competitions as it pains him to see the injustice of results.
"If competitions in India had been judged fairly, we could have done so much better. But Boxing is like that. If the heavens are not fair, how can Boxing be fair," Ibomcha asked as he left to attend to his son Tyson's phone call.