Koming to get you: Kristina O'Hara ready to meet Indian legend Mary Kom again on the big stage
IT was a journey that started at the National Stadium seven months ago, and will end on the other side of the world tomorrow morning.
Kristina O’Hara v Mary Kom will be played out at a packed Oxenford Studios, with television cameras capturing every minute of the action as supporters back home in Ireland or India roar themselves hoarse.
But the two women who will contest the 48kg final of the Commonwealth Games have shared a ring before, on a low-key Saturday night in Dublin last September.
“I can remember when [former IABA president] Pat Ryan invited us down for what was originally to be a fight with Mary Kom at the National Stadium, it was changed to an exhibition about an hour before,” recalls Gerard McCafferty, O’Hara’s coach at St John Bosco.
“Even though it was only an exhibition it was a good fight, and when Kristina got out of the ring I said to her ‘you’re going to meet her in the Commonwealth Games’.
“That’s what we’ve been planning for ever since.”
Like Katie Taylor here, Mary Kom is a legend in her native land.
Coming from the small village of Kangathei in Manipur, her family worked in the jhum fields as tenant farmers.
Kom started boxing at a young age, taking after her father who was a fine wrestler, and soon rose through the ranks to become state champion, earning herself the moniker ‘Magnificent Mary’.
Since those humble beginnings she has gone on to win five world titles, and became the only Indian woman to win an Olympic boxing medal when she returned with bronze from the 2012 Games.
Two years after that a multi-million pound Bollywood film was made about her life (you can watch it on Netflix), while in 2016 she became a member of the Indian parliament.
A small, explosive southpaw, the 35-year-old will go into tomorrow’s final as strong favourite on reputation alone but, as McCafferty explains, O’Hara is ready to spring an upset.
“I remember after Kristina lost to Ceire Smith [in the 2016 Irish elite final], I asked her what happened and she said she didn’t like fighting southpaws
“So since then probably 70 per cent of her training has been dedicated to boxing southpaws, so that will stand her in great stead going into this final.
“The fact she did the exhibition with Mary Kom that night, now she knows what to expect. She’s got two arms and two legs, same as everybody else.”
Kom has indicated she could call time on her glittering career between the ropes after the Commonwealths, and O’Hara is determined to make sure that she doesn’t go out with a gold medal.
“This is her swansong,” said McCafferty, who is out in Australia for the Games.
“There’s a lot of Indians here in the crowd, so if she throws a punch and it misses they’re still going to cheer, so that’s what you’re up against.
“We knew all along it was going to be Mary Kom we would be boxing. After the exhibition in Dublin she told Kristina she was one of the strongest girls she’d boxed, and very big for 48 kilo.
“And that’s right, she might be nearly a foot taller than Kom.”
McCafferty has kept a close eye on Kom’s performances so far in her wins over Scotland’s Megan Jordan and the hard-hitting Anusha Dilrukshi Koddithuwakku from Sri Lanka, and knows what to expect tomorrow.
“It’s been typical Mary Kom,” said the Bosco coach, whose uncle Gerry Hamill won lightweight gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.
“She stays in control, looks like she’s not doing anything, then she’ll burst into four or five punches and she’s away again. She keeps at that slow tempo then ups it for a second.
“In the exhibition Kristina was maybe catching her with one or two clean shots but then Kom was coming back with four or five. We expect that in the final, but Kristina will be the one throwing the four or five punch combinations if needs be.”
O’Hara has dealt admirably with anything that has been thrown at her thus far.
In her first fight, she used her slick boxing skills to get the better of Welsh pocket rocker Lynsey Holdaway in a bruising encounter.
The semi-final victory over New Zealand’s Tasmyn Berry was a more straightforward affair, with O’Hara controlling the distance against the tall southpaw and landing the more eye-catching shots throughout.
And the 22-year-old has been buoyed by video messages of support from staff and residents at the Louisville nursing home in west Belfast.
O’Hara had been working there as a carer prior to her selection for the Commonwealth Games team, and was delighted to see some familiar faces cheering her on.
“I’m very close to every one of them, the residents and the staff,” she said.
“All the staff have been texting me since I left work, saying they miss me already. Some of the staff had actually texted me just after the fight so it’s good to know they’re all following what’s going on.”
51kg semi-final: Carly McNaul v Christine Ongare (Kenya) (3.15am approx)
52kg semi-final: Brendan Irvine v Reece McFadden (Scotland) (4.45am approx)
60kg semi-final: James McGivern v Manish Kaushik (India) (5am approx)
57kg semi-final: Michaela Walsh v Alexis Pritchard (NZ) (9.30am approx)
56kg semi-final: Kurt Walker v Eric Basran (Canada) (10.30am approx)
69kg semi-final: Aidan Walsh v Winston Hill (Fiji) (11am approx)
75kg semi-final: Steven Donnelly v Vikas Krishan (India) (11.30am approx)
48kg: Kristina O’Hara v Mary Kom (India) (9.30am)