NEW DELHI -- In the end, it was MC Mary Kom who had her arm raised at the conclusion of her bout with Nikhat Zareen.
The long-awaited selection trials to determine a place in February's Olympic qualifiers, one that was several months in the making, had finally been decided. The 23-year-old Zareen, whose only demand had been the chance of a fair trial, had fallen short. Yet she clapped even as she heard that the 9-1 split decision had gone in favour of her opponent. Vanquished, she reached out for an embrace.
What should have followed was the wholesome finish to the bout. A legend of the sport with six World Championships to her name, having proved her worth once again, now appreciative of the contest posed by the younger challenger who had shared that ring with her. What we actually got was a bitter aftertaste.
Kom looked coldly past her opponent, shouldering her on the way out. Even more ugliness was to follow. "Mary abused her in the ring. She used some really foul language," said a spectator present in the front row.
There's nothing in the AIBA norms that says boxers have to hug it out. Indeed, it seems a counter-intuitive result for a contest in which fighters have been trying to knock each other's heads off for nine minutes. But it's one of those unwritten rules that are carved deep into boxing - or indeed any combat sport - tradition.
"It's just a matter of respect. Unless there's been some real unfairness in the ring, it's just something that's accepted," says former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Akhil Kumar, who was present at the IG stadium where the trials were held. Kumar hoped Kom's reaction might just be a case of in-ring aggression boiling over. "Every boxer is different. Some of us can put a mask on their feelings and others let it out openly. Ideally, you would want a boxer of her caliber to control their feelings but maybe it was just an emotional outburst," he said.
It's certain the 36-year-old Kom perceived some sort of disrespect by her opponent. "Why should I shake hands with her? If she wants others to respect her then she should first respect others. I don't like people with such nature. I don't like this. You drag my name into an unnecessary controversy and then you try to posture," Kom said after the bout. She was likely referring to a letter Zareen had written to Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju in which she had demanded a fair selection trial for the Olympic qualifiers after one had been called and then cancelled prior to the World Championships in favour of sending Kom directly.
But it would take several leaps of credulity to believe Zareen had implied any slight. Throughout her campaign to have a fair selection trial conducted, Zareen only spoke with respect about her senior compatriot. In her letter to Rijiju, she wrote, "I have been inspired by Mary Kom since I was a teenager. The best way I can do justice to this inspiration is strive to be as great a boxer as her."
Indeed it was Kom who had been dismissive of former Junior World Champion Zareen over the past few months. "Who is Nikhat Zareen?" she once asked.
As such, the incident in the ring clearly affected Zareen. Even as Kom cooled down in the boxing hall, Zareen rushed out, visibly teary-eyed. "More than the loss, Mary's behaviour hurt me. After the fight, in the ring she used foul language with me. I didn't expect this sort of an attitude from someone whom I consider my idol. As a junior, I'd expect my seniors to have some respect for us. I felt hurt," Zareen said.
While the aftermath itself was distasteful, Zareen admitted she was grateful she at least got the chance to compete. While the BFI clearly was responsible for creating the controversy in the first place by not conducting trials for the World Championships and then seeming to suggest through president Ajay Singh that none would be held for the Olympic qualifier, they looked to avoid all sense of bias at the trials. Ten judges - up from the usual five - scored the bout, which was open to the public.
Take away the drama surrounding it and the contest itself was a mediocre, poorly fought affair. While the 9-1 split decision seems to give the impression that judges overwhelmingly scored the bout in Kom's favour, the fact was that both sides had a very poor outing with clinches and wrestling outnumbering the few clean punches. Of the few clear punches, it was Kom who landed the majority - the best being a straight left late in the third round. It was generally perceived as a hard bout to score, with one judge scoring the bout 29-28 to Zareen and the other nine splitting 30-27 and 29-28 cards for Kom.
"There were maybe four visible, accurate punches from Mary over the entire bout. She's looking really slow, which is maybe because she's not got a lot of practise going into the trials. She's going to get a lot of close wins because of her reputation in India but it's not going to be easy if she boxes like this in China," says former chief national coach Emana Chiranjeevi, who was present ringside.
From Zareen's perspective, Kom not winning an Olympic quota is the best-case scenario. On Saturday, BFI president Ajay Singh said that if no quota was obtained at the Asian Qualifier, a fresh trial would be conducted ahead of the world qualifier. Which is why she's ready to pick herself up and carry on. "The bout was close and could have gone either way. I boxed better than I did at the India Open (in May this year in Guwahati, where Zareen lost 4-1 by a split decision). I'll keep training and stay focussed on my upcoming bouts," Zareen said.
As for the post-match drama on Saturday, Zareen said she would simply try to move on. "I only respect her because she is a senior and a legend. I will always respect her," she said.