It was her first elite boxing gold medal at the senior level. Of course, the teenager was happy. But she was happier because she achieved it without compromising on her convictions.
On November 11, Alfiya Pathan became the champion in the women’s +81kg category at the ASBC Asian Elite Boxing Championships in Amman, Jordan. Her opponent was disqualified by the judges towards the end of the first round.
“It’s a different feel altogether,” said the 19-year-old in a conversation with Scroll.in.
Her Nagpur-based family understood the magnitude of Alfiya’s (as she is referred to in boxing circles) achievements because her brothers Sahil and Shakib have been associated with boxing since they were children. Their father, Akram Khan had been a sportsperson too. But the boxer said that they were especially happy about this win because she did so while liberating herself from hesitation and with the added confidence of a decision. That of her choice to fight with long-sleeved form-fitting shirt under her vest and full-length form-fitting leggings under her shorts.
“I honestly did not know whether I was going to play [with sleeve tights and leggings] or not but it was my wish to fight like this,” Alfiya said. “Now, a lot of boxers in other countries play this way, Muslim boxers even wear the headscarf but I don’t think boxers have done that here in India even if it was out of choice.”
It is a common sight in boxing to see women play with black sleeves, tights or even a sports headscarfs. But after pondering her decision for some time, Alfiya won gold in Jordan fighting the way she was comfortable, defeating local favourite Islam Husaili in the final to win the continental title.
“For me too, it is because I don’t feel comfortable and I personally don’t enjoy wearing shorts,” she said. “I, of course, will wear them if the uniform demands it but if now, there is a rule that allows me to wear it according to my preference, why not?”
She already had a solid equation with women’s boxing head coach Bhaskar Bhatt, having trained and won the World Championships under him at the Youth level. But his words and vote of confidence gave her decision the validation it needed to be pulled off.
Alfiya recalled, “I had spoken to Bhatt sir recently about this possibility because I was still in two minds. It happens when you are attempting to do something that isn’t really the norm, right?
“I felt a little awkward but then sir said to me, ‘main chahta hoon tu yeh pehen ke khele kyunki agar teri wajah se aur ladkiyan aati hain toh kyun nahi? Mere mann mein jitne bhi sawaal the, sab sahi hogaye’. (I want you to play wearing the sleeves and tights because if other girls are encouraged to play because of you, why not? Whatever questions I had in my mind were all sorted),” she said.
The AIBA Technical and Competition Rules allow women to wear a long-sleeved form fitting shirt under the competition vest, full-length form fitting tights under the competition shorts or skirt as well as a sport hijab scarf.
But it was those words from the coach that paved the way for Alfiya to do what her choice dictated.
Learnings from the tournament
In her semifinal victory, Alfiya Pathan displayed pure dominance as she easily defeated Kazakhstan’s Lazzat Kungeibayeva, the 2016 World Champion, by a 5:0 unanimous decision. Alfiya defeated Kungeibayeva for the second time this year, having already caused an upset on her home soil in the Elorda Cup, which was the 2021 Youth Boxing Champion’s senior international debut.
Alfiya’s preparation, in her words, was “top-notch” but her gold-medal match was rather anti-climatic as her opponent was disqualified in the first round due to biting.
“This tournament helped me understand my progression from junior, youth and senior level,” she said of lessons she learned. “This experience is good for me because it’s a start and to get a gold in a major tournament gives me a good idea of what can happen later for me.”
She dissected her bouts further: “The semifinal... I had defeated her at the Elorda Cup and I just knew how I had to play with her and that was an advantage. And it wasn’t very difficult, thankfully.
“With the boxer from Jordan [in the final], I had watched her previous bouts and observed her while training so I knew it will be easy. And eventually, it came down to her disqualification. I kind of felt bad for her when she was disqualified because that means you aren’t going to get a medal. I said, ‘Yaar, thoda ruk jaate toh medal mil jaata because podium khaali acha nahi lagta na. [I wish she had held her composure because at least she would get a medal and the podium wouldn’t be empty.]”
Alfiya started boxing as a kid when she saw her brothers enjoy the sport. The final push came when Priyanka Chopra-starrer Mary Kom released in 2014. She still wonders how someone with a nature as calm, composed and relaxed as hers decided to take up a combat sport, especially boxing. But her journey to becoming one of India’s best heavyweight boxers at just the age of 19 is one that involved her own dedication and efforts of several people.
“There are several people involved in the behind the scenes of what makes a sportsperson,” she said. “My family needed some persuading in the start but they were extremely supportive later.”
Alfiya thanked Ganesh Purohit her basic coach who helped her out with a lot of hard work when she was starting out. When she was a junior, it was Amanpreet Kaur who was chief coach and trained her to be one of the best at that level. Then at the youth level, it was Bhaskar Bhatt under whose tutelage she had become the Youth World Champion.
“Now when I train at the National Boxing Academy in Rohtak where we have the Khelo India centre, they too back me to the hilt – be it their dieticians, their strength and conditioning coaches or anyone. It is because of all of their contribution that has resulted in my overall performance,” she added.
Alfiya also acknowledged the wall of support that her father has been since the early days.
“My father was such a figure that nobody dared to oppose his decision openly. So thankfully, I never had to face much of what was being said about me taking up the sport because my father never let it reach me. Jab family saath khadi hoti hai toh phir farak nahi padta kaun kya bol raha hota hai. [When family is standing with you, it doesn’t matter who says what.]
“I had to cry for a few days for him to agree to let me box but when he did, he said he would accompany and support me for every competition and every bout. Pehle toh maane nahi, phir maane toh aisa maane ke jaan hi laga di. Koi kami nahi aane di [He didn’t agree initially but when he did, he gave it his life. He never let anything fall short.]”
Alfiya had a dream when she was a junior, she just wanted to be the best in her category. Now, at the elite level, she dreamed about winning the gold in her initial major tournaments. With the conviction in her beliefs and a strong support system, her dreams are coming true.