Karnal’s Nishant Dev was one among the three bronze medalists at the recently concluded IBA Men’s World Boxing Championships in Tashkent, that ensured India finished with their best ever medal tally in one edition of the tournament.

Boxing in the 71kg category, the 22-year-old southpaw had racked up some good wins domestically in the Indian boxing set-up. Now, with his first major medal at the international stage, he has enhanced his reputation in the circuit. During his bronze medal run, his results and performances were both eye-catching.

“I feel great. After toiling for 14 years, getting the first international medal is a great feeling,” Dev said in a conversation with Scroll. “I gave my best even in the semi-final and it was nearly an equal contest. But I will work even harder the next time and come back stronger in the upcoming Asian Games.”

Dev had won gold in the 2021 National Championships and then went on to represent India at the last edition of World Championships in Serbia. It was his first international event, as he had never competed at the junior or youth level internationally previously. It is where he astounded everyone. He outclassed Hungary’s nine-time National Champion Laszlo Kozak before defeating two-time Olympian Merven Clair of Mauritius in the second round. He finished as a quarterfinalist.

This time around in Tashkent, he caused many upsets too. From defeating 2021 World Championships bronze medallist Sarkhan Aliyev of Azerbaijan with a 5-0 victory to defeating Cuba’s Jorge Cuellar by a 5-0 unanimous decision, he had a stellar campaign. He topped it off with a bronze medal after losing a close semifinal contest with a 2-5 loss after his bout was reviewed against the reigning Asian champion Aslanbek Shymbergenov of Kazakhstan.

‘Just another opponent’

His most impressive win came against Cuban boxer Cuellar in the quarterfinals. He was confident about the preparation for the tournament and sparring with Uzbekistan’s best boxers in the lead-up to the Championships put him in a good headspace. But it was his personal philosophy that truly drove him.

That Cuba as a nation is a boxing powerhouse is well established and for Dev to comprehensively outclass Cueller spoke volumes about his ability and fortitude. While watchers will know it was a big deal, Dev himself preferred to treat it as just another opponent, without the added pressure of what the bout would beckon.

“In the last World Championships, I lost by a 3-2 split decision in the quarter-finals,” Dev said.

“Everyone told me that I did really well then and I was sure to win it if it didn’t go into review. I had been carrying that hunger and anger since then. It didn’t matter to me then that who was standing against me... I had to give my 110% anyway. I didn’t want the same story on repeat.... a 3-2 scoreline and people following up with ‘You did well.’ I just did not want to hear it.”

“So, if somebody from US or Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan or, for that matter, Cuba was standing against me... it did not matter. At no point did I feel, ‘Oh, it’s somebody from Cuba, how will I do it now?’ As soon as I went to the ring, it was all background noise anyway. I had won the first round on all five cards, then I got it 4-1 and I could play the last round a little relaxed but mera mann nahi maana ke bhai main third round easy le jaun... Mujhe toh aur maarna hai, aur maarna hai. (I didn’t feel like going easy in the third round. I wanted to hit more and more.)” he explained.

Nishant Dev in the 71kg quarter-final against Cuba's Jorge Cuellar | Credit: IBA

‘If nobody is losing hope, how can I?’

And, there is more to where that tenacity came from.

Up until 2022, Dev had been living with serious pain for several years. For the first few years it was on and off and would surface once in four-six months but last year, it reached a point where he could not lift his arm.

Dev dislocated his right shoulder after falling down the stairs in 2010 and it was the same old injury, added with more complications that returned to bother him last year. Even in 2021, when the pain had flared up due to a muscle tear and he underwent MRIs to detect any other problems, the major issue still remained undetected.

The real problem was an infected bone marrow that needed surgical intervention. Not only was he losing strength in his right arm, there was also muscle wastage and compromised mobility through the course.

“In 2021, I won at the Nationals that year and also returned from the World Championships but in 2022, when I was training for the Asian Championships, the pain resurfaced. I was taking about five to six painkillers a day, giving it a warm compress every few hours but nothing changed,” recalled Dev.

“It was on the advice of Vikas Krishan bhai that I underwent an MRI that extended even to my elbow and that showed that my bone marrow itself had gotten infected. Then I went underwent surgery and was out of action for six months.”

Dev remembered the dates of each of his milestones during that phase like it is ingrained in his memory. On March 31, 2022, a major surgery that could end his pain was finally done. From March to October, he needed to be on complete rest and far, far away from boxing. On October 25, he finally resumed by beginning shadow boxing and punching water bags so that it didn’t directly impact the shoulder. In November, he returned to the Inspire Institute of Sport in Karnataka, where he trained, began light sparring and went on a deep cut to lose all the weight he had gained during those six months of recovery.

In December, he was back in the ring, appearing for the state trials of Karnataka and then at the Nationals in Hisar. Despite having a very narrow window where he could actually polish his boxing skills, he returned with a bang to defend his title and win a gold there.

It couldn’t have been easy but Dev acknowledged the support system formed his friends at IIS, his brother Kabir and father Pawan Kumar that kept him going.

“My father would call me morning, evening, night... enquire about my meals, my pain, medication and mental well-being,” Dev said. “He played the main-role in my story. A lot of times I told myself, ‘Tu toot raha hai, mann chhota kar raha hai, dekh tere Papa kitne ache hain... wo har thodi der mein tera haal puch rahe hain’. Toh phir yahi lagta tha ke aur koi aas nahi todh raha toh main kyun khud se todhu? (‘Why are you breaking down and becoming hopeless. Look at how good your father is, he asks about you so frequently.’ It just made me think, if nobody is losing hope, how can I?)”

And one day, the pain just stopped troubling him too. The joy of being completely pain-free only pushed him further for what is his biggest achievement till date.