The positive hype created after Nikhat Zareen’s stellar gold medal showing at the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in May ensured that the spotlight will be on the Indian boxers as they compete at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. But the memories of Tokyo won’t be far away.

So far, India has won 37 medals at CWG editions over the years. The 12-member squad travelled to Jordanstown, Northern Ireland for a two week long preparatory camp in an attempt to increase that overall tally.

“They’ve made all the facilities available to us so our training is going very well. Opponents at CWG will be coming from England, Ireland, Australia and Canada and our training is done keeping them in mind,” said Indian women’s boxing head coach Bhaskar Bhatt to in an interaction from Ireland on July 19.

After India’s nine-member boxing squad returned from the Tokyo Olympics with a solitary medal, followed by a rather disappointing show at the 2021 AIBA Men’s World Boxing Championships with just one bronze medal, the pressure seemed to be mounting.

There were, of course, glimpses of success at events like the Strandja Memorial and the Thailand Open but results in major events were still lacking. The pressure was relieved after Zareen’s gold at this year’s IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships along with the two bronze medals by Manisha Moun and Parveen Hooda, but it is fair to say that the boxing team is heading into the Commonwealth Games under pressure, still.

The main target for Boxing Federation of India will primarily be training the boxers with the Paris 2024 Olympics in mind.

“Our preparation is not done keeping in mind one tournament or year. We are keeping Paris in mind. That is our main target. But we ought to keep in mind the (Olympics) qualifiers in 2023. So in order to reach the ultimate destination, we are planning it all step-by-step,” said Bhatt.

“The opportunities we get at tournaments that come in between help us get used to the kind of opponents the players should be acquainted with. We also then figure out what went well with our players in these tournaments and what they must work upon. They help in not just motivating the athlete but also to achieve the main target. So in each tournament we work upon with a different goal but the main target remains Paris.”

via BFI

Lovlina and Nikhat, the stars

Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Lovlina is headlining the women’s squad. But in the lead-up to the Games, she is in the headlines for an off-field topic, one she actually said is the reason for her disappointing show at the World Championships. If the lack of her personal coach at the tournament resulted in her performance, she would be hoping to right those wrongs in the ring this time, now that her personal coach has been given accreditation to the Commonwealth Games.

Also read: Nikhat Zareen sets sight on Birmingham podium, visualising her path towards it

Bhatt was confident, that her preparation, this time around is bound to fetch different results. He had said in our earlier interaction, “I think there certainly has been some disappointment when it comes to Lovlina because we had great expectations from her at the World Championships but it didn’t result in the same. However, we have figured out what caused the disappointment and the loss and will be working in that regard. I think she has risen above that and has changed herself a lot. She is fully confident and I can assure you that she will do well.”

There is, of course, the attention Lovlina and Nikhat are guaranteed to bring in but there is also the promise that Nitu Ghanghas (a gold medallist from Strandja this year) and Jaismine (an Asian Boxing Championship bronze medalist from 2021) are likely to bring. They may have lost in earlier rounds at the World Championships, but they seem to have spotted their errors in time to ready themselves for the Birmingham challenge.

Also read: Nitu Ghanghas hopes for winds of change, Birmingham and beyond

The legendary MC Mary Kom would have dearly loved to return to action at the Commonwealth Games, where she won gold on debut in 2018. But, as the old stars go, new stars emerge and that seems to be the exact direction Indian women’s boxing seems to be heading in.

“Mary Kom is a veteran and she’s a legend in herself and always will be. If she was in our team, there would’ve been a different attraction altogether. However, I also think that we have Nikhat, who has been working hard for several years now and I think she’s on that path too,” said Bhatt.

“When I see Lovlina and Nikhat and the dedication of our newcomers, and their goal to achieve something great, I feel like it is a great opportunity for them to prove themselves and us to move forward.”

After a gold at Strandja and the World Championships, Nikhat is searching for a 2022 hattrick at the Commonwealth Games. If her clarity of thought, determination and body language in the last year is an indicator, she will be hard to stop.

Talking about his confidence in the Nizamabad boxer, Bhatt said, “When the boxer is focused and knows exactly what they have to do, it is unlikely that they will falter. The track she began on, the destination she is heading for makes me feel a 100% confident that she will achieve her goal.”

Navigating pressure

The pressure is on the players, but also the coaching staff who are now seeking results more than ever. Bhatt, however, contested that the expectation to do well at the World Championships was much greater, and is confident that the upcoming Games will be the moment the actual turnaround for the sport begins – even for the men’s squad led by head coach Narender Rana.

“I don’t think that the coaching staff is under pressure before events like these because we consider the environment beyond this. In fact, we aim to cultivate an environment where there is no pressure,” Bhatt said.

The likes of Amit Panghal, a silver medallist from Gold Coast 2018, whose campaign ended with a rather shocking loss at Tokyo, and Shiva Thapa, who missed out on competing at the Tokyo Olympics, have both made a conscious effort to stay low-key since then.

For Panghal, Tokyo’s disappointment was severe and he recalled waking up in cold sweat in the middle of the night in the aftermath. “I had a bad day at the Olympics and all my preparation went to waste. I just hope nothing like that happens again [at CWG]. I have been world number one and then crashed out of the opening round nothing less than gold here will put an end to those memories,” Panghal told the Hindustan Times.

Although the men’s boxing squad has different sessions, training with each other often helps Bhatt provide advice and he saw good signs.

“I can tell that they are also preparing quite well. The boxers are motivated and they have also acquainted themselves with several opponents in Ireland. Although our training sessions are different, their body language and their work ethic exudes confidence,” said Bhatt.

While there are known names that are trying to stage a comeback, there’s also the likes of Mohammad Hussamuddin, a silver medalist from the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Ashish Kumar Chaudhary who are trying to scale up among the Indian men’s boxers. Along with them are exciting lesser known names like the 19-year-old Sumit Kundu, and Sanjeet and Sagar in the heavyweight and super heavyweight categories, respectively.

Also read: Hussamuddin, wiser and better prepared than in 2018, driven to better his bronze

Weighing in one of the trickiest questions a coach must manoeuvre before a major event, Bhatt said, “I think all our players are capable of getting the medal. The colour, however, is the real deal. I am sure though that it will be better than the past, I can say that simply by looking at the hard work the players have put in.”

Also read: Ashish Kumar Chaudhary is on a quest to fulfill his father’s dream

via BFI

India's boxing squad

Amit Panghal (51kg) Nitu Ganghas (48kg)
Mohammed Husamuddin (57kg) Nikhat Zareen (50kg)
Shiva Thapa (63.5kg) Jasmine Lamboria (60kg)
Rohit Tokas (67kg) Lovlina Borgohain (70kg)
Sumit Kundu (75kg)
Ashish Kumar (80kg)
Sanjeet Kumar (92kg)
Sagar (+92kg)