Around ten years ago in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, a 19-year-old Ashish Kumar Chaudhary received a serious reality check that could have pulled him back in his nascent boxing career, but in fact, it ended up becoming one that only propelled him further.
Indian boxers around his age were qualifying and representing the country at the 2012 London Olympics, but Ashish was still working on his transition from the youth to the senior level.
Ashish’s father Bhagat Ram Dogra, a former national kabaddi player, cracked loaded jokes aimed at his son in an attempt to motivate and encourage him and one such joke did exactly that.
“Shiva Thapa, Sumit Sangwan and Vikas Krishan were all participating in the Olympics. There was very little difference among us in terms of age. My father used to tease me saying, ‘Dekh, teri age ke hain aur ye iss level pe jaake baithe hain aur tu kahaan hai, tu kuch nahi kar paa raha hai.’ (Look, they are your age and they are performing at this level and look at where you are, you aren’t able to do anything),” recollected Ashish in a conversation with Scroll.in.
“I was motivated because if they can do it, why can’t I?
“It made me determined. Socha ki agar ye log meri age ke hoke itna achieve kar sakte hain toh main bhi kuch na kuch better kar hi sakta hoon. (I thought if they can achieve so much at a young age, I can also better some things about myself.”
‘Started from the bottom, now we’re here’
Cut to three years later, Ashish won his first significant medal as he bagged gold at the National Games in Kerala. A few years later, in 2019, he earned the silver medal in the middleweight division at the Asian Amateur Boxing Championships in Bangkok, earning his first-ever international medal. However, Ashish’s name began to surface in conversations about the Indian male boxers after he won the gold in the Thailand Open International Boxing Tournament, which was held in Bangkok in 2019.
He was able to navigate the pressure of being a late-bloomer eventually, but the true test of his mettle came in 2020 after his father’s death.
Just a month after Bhagat’s demise, Ashish was scheduled to play at the 2020 Asia & Oceania Boxing Olympic Qualification Tournament in Amman, Jordan. Not only did Ashish make it to the semifinals, he also secured a berth at the Tokyo Olympics in March 2020. And with that, Ashish became the first boxer from Himachal Pradesh to ever make the Olympics.
“My father has played the biggest role in my life. He has supported me so much that I don’t think I consider anyone to be as big an influence or supporter in my life,” said Ashish.
Although things are now relatively steady for Ashish, who is India’s 80kg entry in men’s boxing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, he evidently has had to jump a few hurdles. Added with the pressure of peaking late, unlike his peers, he also had to deal with the lack of results before 2015 and the demise of his father in 2020.
“Before the Nationals, I wasn’t even a proper medallist. I had some at the school level but that’s about it. Before that, I did not have any hope and I constantly felt like I won’t be able to achieve anything but when the medal came in 2015, my family and especially my brothers started to believe that I, in fact, could achieve something so their support only increased,” said Ashish.
He added: “It’s hard to recollect a single tough moment because I feel like I have gone through several. There was one before 2015, when I wasn’t able to get things right and one was before the qualifiers, when my father passed away and that was quite tough.”
Ashish’s hometown, Dhanotu, or even the district, Mandi, that it falls in, for that matter hasn’t produced big names, so there wasn’t exactly a solid culture that nurtured boxing. But it was never a problem for him because he was surrounded by sportspersons in his family. His father, his brother Sandeep Chaudhary and cousin Jonny Chaudhary, who were already into boxing and wrestling respectively, fostered an atmosphere that assured Ashish that sports was the way to go for him.
“We used to hear so much about my brother from people around us, from family and relatives and that gave me a lot of motivation to emulate his feats and achieve the heights he did,” said Ashish.
“As I was growing up in that environment at home, I too decided that I will pursue sports. I hadn’t decided that it would be boxing, I just knew it had to be in a sport but eventually, I moved towards boxing after seeing my elder brother.”
There was a silver lining to peaking late for an observer and thinker like Ashish. There is a clarity of thought and lessons to learn by watching the progress and downfall of the others before you. And so, Ashish has learnt life-lessons but also lessons that he has added to develop his unique, unpredictable boxing style.
It is his first time at the Commonwealth Games and at this platform, opponents and their styles may be a novelty, and that can be intimidating. But Ashish is relying on his attacking prowess to come through whilst working hard on his defence too.
Talking about his style, he explained, “Vijender Singh plays the long-range very well. And I used to often try to apply it because my height is good too and I prefer playing long range so I used to follow his games and still try to add his style to the mix.
“I also incorporate Shiva (Thapa) bhai’s attacking game. It is important to follow a little bit of everybody because it helps you learn a lot.”
Boxing is bound to draw some more attention at the upcoming Commonwealth Games, particularly after the disappointment at Tokyo and Nikhat Zareen’s performance at the IBA Women’s Boxing World Championships.
Ashish may not be carrying the burden of expectations that seniors like Thapa, Amit Panghal, Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain are carrying, but he has expectations from himself and that weighs heavy as well.
“When I lost my father, my family reminded me of my father’s dream and told me that I am just steps away from fulfilling that dream,” said Ashish. “It was his dream for me to represent my country in major tournaments like these and return with a medal.”
And with memories of the sarcastic jokes and an aim to fulfil his late father’s dreams, Ashish looks forward to Birmingham with bated breath.