India Has Had A Long Tryst With International Competition Boxing, But It Only Enjoyed Sporadic Success Till The 1990s, When A Mild-Mannered But Astute Coach From Cuba Was Hired. The Seeds Of Current Success Stories Were Sown By Blas Fernandez & A Generation Of Homemade Boxers
In May, India woke up to celebrate two of its biggest sporting achievements in recent times since javelin spearhead Neeraj Chopra’s historic gold at the Tokyo Olympics. The country revelled in the sweet success of the men’s badminton team, which lifted its maiden Thomas Cup trophy on May 15, and, on May 19, rejoiced in young Nikhat Zareen’s sensational journey to the top of the podium in the World Boxing Championships in Istanbul.
Nikhat’s blockbuster performance at the worlds — where she won all her bouts by unanimous decision — firmly brought the focus back on the stupendous rise of Indian boxing in the last three decades, more so after Bhiwani-boy Vijender Singh’s bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“I wasn’t even a medal contender entering the Beijing Games. Everyone had high hopes for Akhil (Kumar) bhai in the 54kg category because of his form. In bouts leading up to his quarterfinal match, Akhil had defeated a world champion and an Olympic medallist. Unfortunately, he lost in the quarters. I wasn’t a favourite, having qualified for the Olympics from the last qualification tournament in Kazakhstan,” recalled Vijender.
“My hard work and determination took me to the podium finish. Mine was the first Olympic medal in boxing by an Indian, so it was bound to revolutionise the sport. Honestly, it was Dingko Singh’s gold (1998 Bangkok Asian Games) which inspired me and I’m happy with what I’ve achieved.”
India first competed as an independent country in the 1948 London Olympics, represented by seven amateur boxers — Rabin Bhatta, Robert Cranston, Babu Lall, Mac Joachim, John Nutall, Gene Raymond and Benoy Bose. Lall (54kg) became the first Indian boxer to register a win at the Summer Olympics following his RSC (referee stops contest) victory over Pakistan’s Allan Monteiro in Round 32.
A year later, the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF), the governing body, took shape in Delhi, with Oscar H Brown as its first president and Major Baker as secretary. India continued its forward march when four boxers made the cut for the 1952 Helsinki Games and Madhya Pradesh’s Ron Norris reached the quarterfinals in the welterweight category. India looked prime for medal success in the coming editions of the Games but hit the pause button. For the next four Summer Olympics (1956 to 1968), India went unrepresented in boxing. The drought ended with the qualification of Mehtab Singh, Chander Narayanan and Muniswamy Venu for the 1972 Munich Games. Since then, India has been a part of every Olympic edition.
RISE & RECOGNITION
With nine medals in boxing, including four silver at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, India announced its arrival on the big stage. The feat should have acted as a catalyst but India returned with just one bronze from the next Asiad edition (Beijing). The disappointing outing led to the appointment of Cuban Blas Iglesias Fernandez as one of the foreign coaches with the national set-up, and in came the results.
Five boxers qualified for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, with light flyweight Rajendra Prasad reaching the second round. In 1993, domestic coaching stalwart Gurbax Singh Sandhu joined Fernandez’s team as a national coach and the two scripted some of Indian boxing’s finest moments.
Their first success was Birju Sah, Gurmeet Singh, Lakha Singh and Raj Kumar Sangwan returning with a bronze each from the 1994 Hiroshima Asiad. The seeds of global success were, however, sown on the unforgettable evening of December 17, 1998, when a ferociously talented but equally volatile Ngangom Dingko Singh outpunched Uzbekistan’s Timur Tulyakov — World No. 3 — in the final of the bantamweight category in the Bangkok Asiad. Dingko’s gold was India’s first for boxing in 16 years, after Kaur Singh’s at the 1982 Delhi Asian Games, and spurred on an entire generation, including MC Mary Kom, Laishram Sarita Devi, M Suranjoy Singh, L Devendro Singh, Akhil Kumar and Vijender.
“I have had a nearly-24-year-long association with Indian boxing, with a few intermittent breaks. When I joined NIS Patiala in 1990, boxers were largely content with participating in multi-sport events,” said Fernandez.
“We returned with one bronze from the Beijing Asiad. We needed to develop a fearless attitude and I told campers ‘you have to fight till the end, no matter what. Don’t give up’. For nearly two decades, the results were there for everyone to see. While I still rate the qualification of five boxers for Barcelona as one of the high points of my career, Vijender’s podium finish marked a watershed moment in Indian boxing,” said the man credited with shaping several careers.
Sandhu, along with Fernandez, brought remarkable change in fitness, speed and stamina of Indian boxers. “We worked as a team (Sandhu, Fernandez, DP Bhatt and Jaidev Bisht) to produce medal winners like Dingko, Ali Qamar (first Indian to win a gold in boxing at the 2002 CWG), Jitender Kumar, Akhil and Vijender,” said Dronacharya awardee Sandhu, who served as the men’s team’s chief coach for more than 20 years.
WOMEN DASH TO THE TOP
Women’s boxing was inducted into the Olympic programme in London 2012, two years after being introduced at the 2010 Asian Games. Mary Kom brought home India’s second Olympic medal in boxing — a bronze — in the 51kg category.
‘Magnificent Mary’ is also the only female Indian boxer till date to win an Asiad gold — in Incheon 2014. At the Tokyo Olympics, Assam’s Lovlina Borgohain clinched a bronze in the women’s 69kg category to join Vijender and Kom as the third Indian boxer to win a medal at the Summer Games. Women’s boxing made its Commonwealth Games debut in Glasgow 2014 with Pinki Rani becoming the first female from India to win a medal, a bronze. In the Gold Coast edition (2018), Kom became the first and only Indian female CWG gold medallist with her triumph in the flyweight category.
More recently, a young Nikhat did India proud by becoming the fifth Indian woman boxer overall to win gold at the World Championships and only the second worlds champion after Kom. Indian women’s boxing witnessed its biggest high in 2006 when Kom, Sarita Devi, Jenny RL and Lekha KC each won a gold in a single World Championships in New Delhi. Kom has been India’s most successful boxer at the worlds, clinching a record six gold, one silver and a bronze.
“I never thought I’ll become a world champion and go on to represent India for 20 long years and win many medals in the international arena. The winning moment at the worlds stands tall for me even today. I think Indian women boxers will dominate the world stage in a few years’ time,” said Sarita.
BOXING DREAM TAKES WING
Boxing has witnessed a huge rise in popularity with state governments showering medallists with crores of rupees. Haryana, a hotbed of boxing, has a policy of awarding Olympic medallists Rs 6 crore (gold), Rs 4 crore (silver) and Rs 2.5 crore (bronze), apart from a job and a plot at 50% concession. UP rewards Olympic medallists with Rs 2 crore (gold), Rs 1.5 crore (silver) and Rs 1 crore (bronze) while Punjab offers Rs 2.5 crore each to Olympic winners. “Initially, the growth was restricted to Punjab and Haryana. But slowly, it has spread to other parts. Now, many talented boxers are coming up and it’s a huge positive,” said Sarita.