Is This a Huge League of Faith?

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Million Dollar Baby Moolah magic
Million Dollar Baby: Moolah magic, Photos: Tushar Mane

LIGHTWEIGHT BOXER Siddharth Varma enters the ring escorted by two cheerleaders dressed in shiny micro shorts, as the catchy anthem Dhishoom plays in the background. The crowd of 1,000-odd people gathered on a Friday evening at Inorbit Mall in suburban Mumbai is electrified. Most of them are not familiar with the 27-year-old boxer from Pune who belongs to the newly-formed boxing league franchise Mumbai Fighters. But that does not stop them from cheering wildly. After all, they are here for their share of fun on a Friday evening, and have given the week’s movie release or shopping a miss to watch a boxing match instead. In the words of Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture, they are here for “entertainment, entertainment and entertainment.”

Million Dollar Baby Moolah magic, International exposure and world-class facilities make boxing leagues the current favourites of sportspersons and spectators alike
Million Dollar Baby Moolah magic, International exposure and world-class facilities make boxing leagues the current favourites of sportspersons and spectators alike

Will the boxing match deliver on the promise of entertainment at the end of two hours?

Varma’s opponent Eric Fowler belongs to LA Matadors, the US team of World Series of Boxing (WSB), the global boxing league that Mumbai Fighters is part of. Siddharth surprises his opponent with a flurry of short, explosive punches. Soon the crowd is chanting, “Go Siddu go!” He is a bit of a showman, and responds by waving and gyrating to the music at the end of each bout.

By the fifth and last bout, the fight has turned deadly serious, as Fowler puts up stiff resistance. Siddharth manages to win 3-0. When the match ends, he finds himself surrounded by fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

A hero is born.

A day before the match, at the press meet, he narrated his life story.

The son of a dairy owner, Siddharth gave up studying after Class VIII and held temporary jobs as a newspaper vendor and an office boy. He started boxing when he was 13 years old, even as his younger brother, Anand, struggled with his daily wages to sponsor Siddharth’s coaching and equipment.

Lord of the ring Siddharth Varma of Mumbai Fighters
Lord of the ring Siddharth Varma of Mumbai Fighters

“It has been a very hard journey. I would collect money from my brother to buy proteins and vitamins, T-shirts and shorts, shoes for Rs 100 at Chor Bazaar.” A Maharashtra state champion in 1999, 2002 and 2003, Siddharth, who works as a pointsman (a railway switch operator) at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, had decided to give up on boxing this year to concentrate on his job, when he heard of the boxing league. “My boxing career would have been nothing but a pipe dream,” he says, upbeat and confident as he plans to devote the next five years of his life to the sport, and finally being able to repay his brother.

With four Indian boxers headed to the London Olympics and more expected to qualify in the next round, it was only a matter of time before corporates woke up to the success story brewing on the sidelines of cricket frenzy in the country.

Venky’s Mumbai Fighters is India’s first private boxing league franchise. TransStadia, the sports development company that owns the Indian franchise has reportedly invested over $1 million in player selection. The matches are broadcast live on ESPN Star Sports. The packaging is complete with cheerleaders, a DJ spinning funky music, and an anthem composed by indie band Agnee.

With four Indian boxers headed to the Olympics, it was only a matter of time before corporates woke up to the success story on the sidelines of cricket

Some of India’s brightest nationallevel boxing stars have already signed up — lightweight boxer Akhil Kumar (AIBA World Cup 2008 bronze medallist and quarter- finalist at 2008 Beijing Olympics), his cousin Jitender Kumar (Commonwealth Games 2006 bronze) and Diwakar Prasad (Senior National 2004, 2009, bronze).

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