It was a bittersweet Wednesday evening in the boxing ring in Gandhinagar for an emotional Nikhil Dubey. The Maharashtra pugilist realised his late coach Dhananjay Tiwary’s dream by winning gold in the 75kg category at the National Games, beating Mizoram’s Malsawmitluanga 5-0 in the final.
Dubey won the title, but Tiwary was not around to witness it. Less than twenty four hours earlier, Tiwary was on his way to Gandhinagar to watch his ward, but lost his life in an accident.
At the 2021 National Championships, Dubey had lost in the semifinals to eventual national champion Sumit Kundu. And the duo were set to compete against each other at the same stage in Gandhinagar. This was a fight both Dubey and Tiwary had been preparing for. And so, the coach decided to embark on the journey from Mumbai to Gandhinagar on his motorcycle, in anticipation of seeing him compete in the high-octane semifinal encounter. It was a journey that came to a tragic end.
By the time Dubey beat Sumit in the semifinal, Tiwary had already breathed his last.
“Bhaiya (Tiwary) had told me that if I ever felt like I needed him around before a bout, I just needed to give him a call. I did that before the bout with Sumit and he was on his way to come for it. Our last conversation was me sending my exact location to him. And in the morning, after my weigh-in, I received the news that he is no more,” Dubey told Scroll.in.
“I just wanted to go to him after that. My bout was coming up and I couldn’t even be there. In that moment, I did not even feel like I wanted to go for the bout but my friend told me bhabhi (Tiwary’s wife) had strictly asked me not to come and that I instead, get the gold. She said, ‘Nikhil ko bolo aaye na yahan, bas gold maarke hi wapis aane’ (tell Nikhil not to come home, win the gold and then come back). That along with the moments with him during practice and these words kept playing in my mind throughout the game.”
The duo first met each other at a SAI academy when Dubey was a naughty and fiesty twelve-year-old.
He recollected his first interaction with the coach.
“He asked me, ‘What do you play?’ I said, ‘Boxing.’ He then asked, ‘Maarta hai? (Do you hit?)’ I said yes. He asked, ‘Kisko?’ I said, ‘Jo aaega usko.’ (Whoever comes my way)’”
He added: “When I lost to Sumit the last time, bhaiya was with me as well. But this time, he had told me that my practice was good, I was fit, had no injury concerns... and I remember him specifically telling me not to stop my footwork, my side movements and backstep. He also told me that when he was approaching, punch slightly above and move to the side and keep luring him. That was going on in my brain this time around.”
Those twenty four hours were an emotional whirlwind for Dubey, who knows a thing or two about grieving and coping. “Honestly, facing a loss of a loved one like this isn’t something new to me. I faced something similar when I lost my dad to Covid in the first wave and I couldn’t see him either. I had just returned to the game after rest from my ACL tear and that was a bit of a jolt for me,” he said.
However, building upon the dreams his loved ones hoped he would fulfil is a motivation that kept him going, one more time.
“I think, upon winning, my first thought was that [my coach] would have wanted to see this, he set foot on the journey for this and when that final victory came, it was a satisfying feeling. But there is also a regret because I couldn’t see him. There were a lot of thoughts in my mind... I even thought, what if I lost earlier and I didn’t have the bout, he wouldn’t have set out to come and the accident wouldn’t have happened,” said Dubey.
He added, “I went to his residence, straight after landing in Mumbai and his wife conveyed two things to me. First being, ‘Nikhil, always play like this and aim for gold only’ and second, ‘Keep the Dhananjay boxing club united always.’ I will move forward carrying all of this in my heart and I hope my focus continues to stay.”
With the Nationals coming up in December and the Asian Games to follow next year, Dubey is determined to honour those memories and continue to fulfil the dreams of those who shaped him.