Smashing Debut

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Photos: Reuters
Photos: Reuters

Three blows — left, right and left. Three blows were all he needed. When the final blow sent Sonny Whiting reeling towards the ropes in the middle of the third round, Vijender Singh was ecstatic. Coming from a humble background in Haryana and then winning a bronze in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, life has been very kind to India’s top pugilist.

However, the testing time came when he decided to turn professional, giving up the chance to represent India once again at the 2016 Rio Olympics, citing government and sponsors’indifference towards the sport as the main reason. Critics from all corners bayed for his blood, calling him a traitor as he turned his back on his own country which bestowed him with glory and wealth.

As Vijender stood inside the ring, while Whiting lay motionless on the mat, waiting for the referee’s count of ten to end, he must have felt vindicated. When the bell rang and the referee raised his hand, Vijender’s reaction said it all. The former Olympic bronze medalist had won his first match in the pro circuit — a record that even some of the greatest boxers of all time, including Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Manny Pacquiao, don’t boast of.

Whiting had promised him hell, yet what transpired at the Manchester Arena was simply the stuff of fairytales. Things can’t get any better for an Indian to be the last one standing in the boxing arena of Great Britain after brutally knocking out one of their own.

Vijender was as elusive as a shadow inside the ring, forcing Whiting to hit and miss many a times. It was almost as if he was making a conscious effort to remind the younger audience in attendance that Muhammad Ali’s legacy of “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is still very much alive in the contemporary scenario.

The middleweight division is one of the most competitive categories in professional boxing and Vijender gave a brilliant account of himself on his debut itself. Ruthless jab and uppercuts forced the referee to stop the bout and declare him the winner. Vijender used his height and reach to the optimum against his 26-year-old opponent, who had four years of professional boxing experience under his belt.

His nimble movement and powerful punches won him the bout in which he hardly made a wrong move. The victory gave him the much needed relief from the pain he had been subjected to back at home, where his decision to turn professional was not taken in a sporting spirit.

The 29-year-old is not the first Indian to turn pro. Former 12-time national champion and Commonwealth Games bronze winner Dilbag Singh and another former national champion Neeraj Goyat made the move from amateur to pro before him but were not quite as successful as Vijender in their first outing.

Stating that more boxers will follow suit if boxing continues to be ignored in India, Vijender’s first coach and a recipient of the Dronacharya Award Jagdish Singh says, “Boxing India (BI) has not organised a single tournament in the last three years. They are too busy with the internal squabbles and don’t have time to think about the growth of boxing in India. The ad hoc committee appointed by Amateur international Boxing Association (AIBA) is toothless and the members are just taking fayda (advantage) of this. Kishan Narsi, who is 80 years old, is still hanging on to power in the federation.”

Describing the low to which Boxing India has plunged, Jagdish says, “They conduct trials but do not declare results. A boxer can only get a job if he takes active part in the sport for three years for which he has to produce a certificate. But with no competitions happening, there are no chances of getting a job. This is the reason why boxing in India is not attracting many young talents and also forcing many to turn professional (like Vijender).”

When asked about what kind of help Vijender or any other boxer could expect from Boxing India, Jagdish says, “Players are not even allowed to record videos of the practice sessions. If they have recordings, they can watch them and work out their flaws.”

Urging the sports ministry to look into the functioning of bi and take adequate steps, Jagdish says, “If the sports ministry and government don’t pay attention to these problems, then Indian boxing mein bura asar padega (will suffer). The ministry should also give an ultimatum to bi to conduct election.”

Though Jagdish expects the government to intervene, this is hardly a solution. The sports ministry of the central government have been aware of the problems plaguing Hockey India, Boxing India and several other sports associations but have not done much to fix these problems.

Maipal Singh, Vijender’s father says, “Bhai, yeh sab politics chalta hain jo mujhe samajh mein nahin aata (Brother, these are all political games which I don’t understand).” However, Vijender’s father thanked the Haryana government for standing by his son and supporting him. He said he and his family fully backed his son’s decision to turn professional.

“Of course, we support his decision. He participated in three Olympics, three Asian Games, three Commonwealth Games and more than 100 national events in his career. We have supported him throughout his journey so far and will continue to do so. My father was a boxer and he used to train Vijender from the age of five,” Vijender’s father says.

Asked about what prompted Vijender to turn professional, his father remained non-committal: “Yeh toh sirf wo hi khulke bata payega (Only Vijender can tell you this).”

For the moment, Vijender doesn’t need to worry about anything. He can focus fully on his next bout . Let the critics back home chewtheir words.

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