“I used to sit alone in a room and cry. I told my parents I am not doing this again. I even went to holy men to try and set things right. But...”
Boxer Sumit Sangwan does not shy away from revealing the tough times he has faced over the last four years. Despite winning the gold medal (by walkover) in the 91kg category at the Senior Nationals, he rarely smiles during the interaction with Scroll.in in the Himachali town of Baddi.
Instead, his thoughts are still focussed on the struggle. Sangwan remembers how he thought of leaving the sport with which he has been associated with since 2003. The last four years, in particular, are ones that would like to erase from his memory.
Back in 2014, before the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Sangwan fractured his left hand. Just 10 days before the competition, he got the plaster removed. He ended up boxing with a swollen hand and lost in the quarter-finals.
A year later, his elbow began troubling him.
Then, during the 2016 World Olympic Qualifiers, Sangwan lost to Russia’s Petr Khamukov and needed him to reach the final to qualify. But the Russian decided to not box after the win having already qualified for the Olympics.
“Maybe it was bad luck or maybe God just wanted me to struggle more,” he said.
Just before the Commonwealth Games trials in 2018, he suffered from typhoid but still gave it a shot. He won the first bout but lost to Naman Tanwar in the final and failed to secure a spot on the team.
“I was so weak that it felt like I was boxing blind,” he said. “I did not get my blood checked when I first fell ill. I would get a fever in the evening and when they checked it later, it was typhoid. I had to take part in those trials. But I had no power left. I was broken.”
With time, Sangwan has made peace with the tough times.
“I was away from the scene and the ring for some time,” he said. “I had two surgeries and then I was in and out. But still, I was in the Asian Championships final (2017) and World Championships quarter-finals (2016). So I have proved myself, again and again.”
He did that once more on Thursday when he finished top of the podium at the senior national championships at Baddi University. While he would have liked to fight and win the medal, he had to be content with a walkover win as Railways pugilist Tanwar withdrew due to a shoulder niggle.
This was Sangwan’s first gold medal in the tournament in four years and the first in the new category after jumping from 81 kg. But when he was struggling with form and fitness, competing was the last thing on the 26-year-old Sangwan’s mind.
“Parents cannot see you broken all the time,” he said. “My mother was always asking me to not come home injured. So, I stopped going home and stayed in Sonipat.”
But with their son’s career in limbo, the desperate parents turned to superstition.
“Pundits started coming home and my monthly salary was given for their living,” he said. “I went to a Baba and saw his hut on fire as there was some sort of exorcism going on. I could not believe what was happening.
“My mother is superstitious. She even gave my clothes to the holy men. I bought jeans worth Rs 4000 from the mall and they were given to a Baba by my mother,” Sangwan said.
It took Sangwan some time to convince his mother to stop this. But there were other issues too.
With surgeries and age, Sangwan had a difficult time dropping weight to fit into the 81 kg category. The only option was to jump up to 91 kg and that brought with it a set of new problems.
“The 10 kg weight change makes it a different game,” he said. “I had no fat so getting hit in 81 kg meant I get injured more frequently. You need some fat to absorb the hit. I was cutting down from 86 kg to 81 kg so that became difficult after two surgeries.”
In the new category, Sangwan was challenged by youngsters and even internationally, he failed to get that success of his previous category.
“You have to get used to the power differences when you play in 91 kg,” he said. “There is also a difference in height. I was the tallest in 81 kg and that was an advantage. Now, most people are my height and the rest are taller. So the pattern of fighting has changed and so did the technique. When you get punched by a heavyweight, your body goes all the way back. It takes time to understand how to take the risk.”
He realised that at the Asian Championships in 2017 where he was weighing only 86 kg and trusted his speed to box in the tournament.
“I fought all bouts with speed. I defeated a Chinese boxer in semi-final only because of speed,” he said. “When I was getting hit, I felt my whole body shake. Now my body and mind have adjusted. I’ve understood that I have to go closer and take the hard-hitting punches.”
He earned a silver medal to get back into national recognition.
Finding joy in the struggle
But 2018 was once again a forgetful year as he missed out on making the CWG team. There was the long-overdue elbow surgery as well. And through all this, his love for the game kept him going. This time he wasn’t cursing the luck or complaining. All he wanted was to be part of the struggle and enjoy his life.
“The struggle keeps me happy,” he said. “Medal is motivation, fame, and money. I decided to quit but 10 days later I watched a bout and then I thought that the struggle is far more important. That is my lifestyle.”
After so many ups and downs in his career, Sangwan is hoping to continue the struggle of boxing as he prepares to qualify for yet another Olympics. For that, he will participate in the selection trials to be held towards the end of the year.
“People told me I was done,” he said “Boxing is my school and college and I have learned a lot about life from it. One thing is to not think too far ahead,” he said.
“I will keep working harder. I am targeting the Olympics but I cannot be thinking so far. It’s best to wake up in the morning and go to the ground, check your weaknesses, run and listen to the coach’s abuse. This is happiness and this is what I like. Kabhi khoon nikalta hai, kabhi haddi tutti hai but yahi maza hai [sometimes you bleed, sometimes bones break but isn’t that the fun of it all].”