As 2019 comes to an end, in this series we take a look at the significant news events in different sporting disciplines in the past 12 months.
History-making performances, selection drama and some ignominy due to big-ticket dope fails – Indian boxing was all this and much more in an action-packed year headlined by Amit Panghal. The 23-year-old Panghal fetched India its first ever silver at the men’s world championships.
Six-time world champion Mary Kom was mostly in top form inside the ring whenever she competed and medals poured in internationally courtesy of a deep talent pool.
In the professional circuit, Vijender Singh remained unbeaten, but still looking for an opponent who can stand up to the raw power of his punches.
On the downside, a flip-flop selection policy led to Mary Kom being involved in an unsavoury controversy along with Nikhat Zareen, and the accomplished duo of Neeraj Phogat (women’s camp) and Sumit Sangwan (men’s camp) flunked dope tests, sending down shockwaves within the fraternity.
Selection woes continued to be a talking point in Indian boxing with 2017 world championships bronze medallist Gaurav Bidhuri crying foul over not being picked for the trials.
Success around the globe
But for most part, Indian boxing had lots to celebrate and it started with the season-opening Strandja Memorial, one of Europe’s oldest and most competitive tournaments.
Panghal’s 2019 gold rush began in the tournament, which was also his last competition in the 49kg category. Zareen and Meena Kumari Devi became the first set of Indian women boxers to finish on top at the same event. Zareen, of course, later went on to hit the headlines by vociferously raising the demand for a trial against Mary Kom. The veteran did emerge victorious to mark the end of 2019 in the highly-anticipated bout but not without more drama.
Panghal moved up to 52kg in March and though he was apprehensive in the beginning, the results told a different story. He grabbed a gold immediately, at the Asian Championships in April, to assert his supremacy in the new division.
Pooja Rani, a boxer who felt shy about wearing gloves at the start of her career, ensured that women too went home with a gold with her best-ever performance at the event. Mary Kom gave it a miss to prepare herself for the world championships.
Then came the world championships in September and October, the blue-riband event which lost some of its sheen after being stripped of Olympic Qualifier status by the International Olympic Committee due to the alleged administrative mess and financial mismanagement in the International Boxing Association.
Again, there was some drama when the Indian women’s squad was finalised for it as Zareen protested after being stopped from appearing for a scheduled trial bout. However, it didn’t make much of a difference to the final list as Mary Kom was picked based on her golds at the India Open and an Indonesian tourney besides the consistent performance in the national camp.
What also tilted the scales in the veteran’s favour was her victory over Zareen in the India Open semi-finals. Nonetheless, the BFI managed to create a controversy where none should have existed, by denying Zareen a scheduled trial bout and leaving its decision for quite late in the day.
Rise of Panghal
In the world championship for men, Panghal gave India a watershed moment by making the finals after Manish Kaushik (63kg) bagged bronze, equalling the feat achieved in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
The silver made Panghal the undisputed top name in Indian men’s boxing and he capped the year by winning the Best Boxer Award at the BFI’s first ever pro-style league.
Senior boxer Vikas Krishan came back with a bang after going professional earlier in the year. He is now back in the amateur fold and sealed a place in the Olympic Qualifiers following a gold medal finish in the South Asian Games.
Twenty year-old Manju Rani, found the glory she was looking for. She was the lone Indian to make the women’s world championship final this time and signed off with a silver medal. The iconic Mary Kom had to finish with a bronze this time.
The BFI had decided that the gold and silver-winners from the women’s world championship would be given direct selection for next year’s Olympic qualifiers. However, the body’s President, Ajay Singh, stirred up a hornet’s nest by stating that the BFI would make an exception for Mary Kom (51kg) and select her without a trial.
Zareen raised the protest card and even wrote to the sports minister, demanding a trial. The BFI, after maintaining a stoic silence, announced trials and the controversy finally ended after an angry Mary Kom defeated the Hyderabadi to not just make the cut, but prove a point about her abilities at 36. But an unfortunate rivalry has emerged when all Zareen wanted was a fair chance and had issues with the federation rather than against the decorated veteran.
The sport itself remained in doldrums internationally with the International Boxing Association taking charge of the Olympic qualification process and the conduct of the competition in the Olympics.
This was after AIBA failed to convince IOC of its financial well-being and integrity, which took a severe hit during the 2016 Rio Olympics due to poor judging.
The coming year promises to be a significant one for Indian boxing, when they will try to erase the disappointment of 2016 Games, where the country failed to win any boxing medals among men and didn’t have a qualified pugilist in the women’s draw.
The talent is there for sure, the hopes are once again high and the Indian pugilists will now hope to push on from a great platform. History beckons at the Olympics for Indian boxing once again.