The Indian boxing contingent looked on as a young Preeti Pawar took on 2018 Asian Games medalist and home favourite Yuan Chang in the semi-final of the women’s 54kg category at the HZ Gymnasium, Hangzhou.
The boxers gauged each other in the first minute of the bout before both of them truly went into attack mode. Although a close contest, the Chinese boxer lead the first round 4-1. However, Pawar wasn’t one to get bogged down by that or the overwhelming crowd support for her opponent.
Resilient and spirited, she fought back in round two but Chang’s accurate punches meant she maintained the lead. The pressure to go all out in round three even as their bodies started to show signs of fatigue could not be mistaken. Pawar managed to impress two judges who hadn’t given her the 10 in the final round, but Yang had done enough.
Pawar was defeated by a 5-0 unanimous decision, but in her first outing at the Asian Games, she will return with a bronze. It was a campaign that she can look back at with a lot of pride for plenty of reasons.
The 19-year-old stepped into the tournament with not much experience at the senior level. Before her Asian Games debut, she had only played the IBA World Championships 2023 in New Delhi and the Asian Championships 2022 in Jordan, where she won bronze.
She had only won a gold and silver at the Khelo India Games in 2021 and 2020 respectively, and a silver at the Youth Asian Championships in 2021 before this.
Pawar’s career may be in its nascent stages but the boxer from Bhiwani knew that she possesses a tendency to cause big upsets yet again at the Asian Games.
In a conversation with Scroll, Pawar talked about trying to keep up the pattern to defeat decorated boxers.
“It doesn’t create pressure,” she said. “I have to give my best in that bout regardless. The decision made will account later but I have to give my best first.”
In Hangzhou, she was heading into the quarter-final after a stunning RSC decision over Silina Alhasanat of Jordan in the third round. In the quarter-final, not many were sure she would confirm a medal because she was going up against a decorated boxer, Zhaina Shekerbekova of Kazakhstan.
But in what is steadily becoming routine for her, Pawar caused yet another upset to register a 4-1 win on points to qualify for the semi-finals.
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High Performance Director Bernard Dunne, who had been watching from the stands stood to applaud that win. After all, he knew the magnitude of the win could not be understated.
Dunne’s new selection policy, that did away with selection trials and followed assessment by coaches in the national camp, had meant that several accomplished boxers did not make the cut in the big tournaments.
Pawar too had made it to the Asiad squad after pipping World Champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Nitu Ghanghas.
Her fellow Bhiwani boxer Ghanghas had only recently bulked up after moving from the 48kg to the Olympic weight division 54kg event. It was understandable that Ghanghas had not quite adjusted to the new cateogry yet, but Pawar managed to shine in the presence of a big name yet again.
“I felt good that I beat her,” said Pawar about her selection over Ghanghas. “Her weight category was very different from mine and so that affects the training. She is putting on weight. It will take time to adapt her body. But it ended up becoming beneficial for me.”
However, it was earlier this year that Pawar had first shown signs of becoming someone not to be taken lightly. At the pre-quarters stage of the World Championships 2023, she was drawn against the then reigning silver medallist, top-seed and world no 2 Lacramioara Perijoche. Pawar defeated her by a 4-3 split decision.
“That bout I won at the World Championships was the happiest moment of my life,” recalled Pawar. “It builds a lot of confidence as an athlete when you end up defeating someone who holds world no 2 ranking.”
Pawar spoke to this publication during the 17-day long international training camp in Wuyishan, China, ahead of the Games. According to her, it helped build her confidence for the big event.
“I could build my confidence in the camp,” she had said, before making the trip to Hangzhou. “I am absolutely ready. I have sparred with different teams. Based on the kind of sparring [available], I feel I can beat everyone. It was important to adapt to the weather here before the competition. It matters that we are moulded in this weather as well.”
Pawar currently trains at the Inspire Institute of Sport, under the tutelage of John Warburton, the head coach.
But it was her uncle-turned-coach Vinod who had first pushed her into the sport five years ago.
As a 14-year-old, Pawar had no interest in boxing and was keen on focusing on her academics instead. But she took to the sport like a fish to water. Vinod, a national medalist himself, persuaded his brother Somveer (Pawar’s father), an assistant sub-inspector in the Haryana Police, to allow her to attempt boxing.
“[Vinod Pawar] was very happy when he got to know [I was going to the Asian Games],” Pawar said. “He told me he knew I can do it. He has a lot of expectations from me.”
Ahead of the Asian Games 2022, the conversation around grabbing the quota for the Paris Olympics 2024 was largely focused around her seniors Nikhat Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain. But Pawar managed to sneak right in and become the second boxer after Zareen to grab that quota.
In a campaign that had mixed results for the Indian boxers, Pawar showed that even at 19, she has the skill and mindset to compete with some of the most decorated boxers in the world. That she belongs with the best is the biggest positive she draws from her sojourn in Hangzhou.
The Field’s Asian Games build-up series, where we focus on athletes who have played in the shadows, but may be ready to step into the limelight.