Punjab Panthers stormed into the final of the Big Bout Indian Boxing League with an overwhelming 5-2 victory over a weakened NE Rhinos at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium Complex in New Delhi on Friday. They won four bouts in-a-row to dismiss the 2-1 advantage that the Rhinos got through Meenakshi and Francisco Veron after Sonia Lather drew first blood.

Southpaw Naveen Kumar used his extra height, reach and body weight to haul Panthers back on track. The India Open 91kg silver medallist had ceded some ground to Ergashev Timur in the opening round of the 91kg bout but gradually controlled the bout. With the younger fighter from Uzbekistan tiring and unable to sustain the onslaught, Naveen Kumar secured a unanimous verdict.

Abdulmalik Khalakov showed quick glovework in the 57kg clash with Mohammed Etash Khan and PL Prasad did likewise against Laldin Mawia in the 52kg battle – and both were repeat winners over their respective rivals – to ensure that Panthers would book the berth in the final against Gujarat Giants.

With personal pride to play for after the outcome of the match was known, the seasoned Manoj Kumar took time to warm up against the bustle of Muhammad Rahil in the 69kg bout. He conceded the first round to the lad from Akola but attacked consistently to secure a unanimous win. The younger fighter, making his Big Bout debut, needed to sustain his effort but did not get the room.

Earlier, the Panthers’ Sonia Lather raised her game after trailing Pwilao Basumatary in the first round of the women’s 60kg bout. She was unruffled that a majority of judges had ruled in favour of her Rhinos rival and changed her tactics to swiftly swing the balance her way with a calm and sensible approach that called her to step up the aggression but cautiously.

Indeed, Punjab Panthers were able to overcome the absence of their captain MC Mary Kom better than NE Rhinos papered the cracks left by Nikhat Zareen (women’s 51kg) and an unwell Mandeep Jangra (69kg). Though Meenakshi stood in well for Nikhat Zareen, Rhinos knew that Panthers would be a different challenge in the semifinals than in the climactic league match on Tuesday.

The Rhinos were delighted that Meenakshi made light of a massive task of standing in for skipper Nikhat Zareen. She handled pressure with disdain as she beat Darshana Doot in the women’s 51kg bout. She backed her eagerness with good ringcraft, landing a combination of punches to run out a comfortable winner and level the match scores at 1-1.

They were strengthened by the return of Argentina’s Francisco Veron who claimed a win against debutant Mohit Khatana in the 75kg bout. In posting a unanimous verdict, Francisco Veron offered the Asian Junior Championships silver medallist insights into competing with more accomplished boxers. But that was all the Rhinos could achieve on Friday night.