When Satish Kumar entered his early twenties, he had little knowledge of boxing as a sport and just looking forward to a career in the Indian army after being recruited as a sepoy.
But life took a drastic turn in 2012 for the 30-year-old from Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh, who is now one of India’s best known super heavyweight pugilist.
Kumar, in a conversation with Scroll.in, remembered his first tryst with boxing: “There was a boxing camp when I was posted in the border. One of the coaches saw me and said, ‘ah, you are well built. Why don’t you give this a shot?’ There were two other coaches: Manoj Jha and Ravi Shankar... they convinced me that I’ll be good at it.”
His gangly 6’2” frame was handy in ways he least expected. “If you look at the Kumaon [regiment], there are very few heavyweight boxers. My seniors made the decision to throw my name into the mix because of my size alone.”
He added: “I had not even heard about boxing when I’d joined the army.
“I’d started [watching it] only after joining the forces. I didn’t even have a sports quota to propel my case. When the coaches suggested I take up boxing and I thought ‘why not’. I hadn’t even thought about it as a full-time career at the time.”
Kumar took to the ring like a duck to water and it didn’t take long for him to make a mark. Soon enough, he obliterated all competitors in the super heavyweight division and has been India’s de-facto go-to guy for the big events in the +91 category for many years now.
Medals followed in the Asian Games, Asian Championships and the Commonwealth Games. Towards the end of 2019, Satish dispatched his opponents with some ease to throw his hat in the ring for the Olympic trials, brushing aside his disappointment from the World Championships in Yekaterinburg.
“The last year was a productive one from a personal standpoint,” Satish said.
“There were ups and downs, however. We got plenty of exposure but at the same time, I sat down with my coaches to discuss what the difference was from just competing and winning a medal. The important thing is to learn from mistakes and be more in control tactically; to measure opponents and react accordingly.”
Satish was recognised for his efforts in 2018 with the Arjuna award, which, he says has changed his approach in the ring. “Yes, the Arjuna award was a big honour. I was happy because not too many people get it.
“But being a senior boxer there is a slight difference in the way I approach my bouts. There is a bit of pressure. There are times when I think: ‘Oh, god. What if I lose to a younger boxer.’ That [pressure] is something I grapple with, despite being around for a long time.”
To boost his chances of fulfilling his dream of winning a medal at the Olympics, Satish says he takes great care to study his opponents with coaches CA Kuttappa and Santiago Nieva. “There is a lot of video analysis these days, seeing what my fellow boxers from other countries are doing.
“We are working together on this. In world boxing, everyone knows who their opponents are so there are no secrets as such. I am sure they are analysing what we get right as well,” he added.
Kuttappa, who has seen his rise from close quarters is full of praise for Satish’s work ethic. “If you look at the heavier weights, the boxers don’t throw a lot of punches. But Satish is different in that aspect.
“As a senior boxer, he has a sound temperament and quietly goes about with his job.”
There has been this constant talk in hushed tones about the heavier weights not being treated on par with the lighter ones as India’s medal hopes in big-ticket tournaments have squarely been placed on the likes of Amit Panghal, Manish Kaushik and Co.
But Satish disagrees. “Everyone works hard. I don’t see any kind of bias in the way our coaches train our boxers – be it the smaller or the bigger weights. Both of us are winning medals at big events. We, the Indian contingent, are good across weight categories.”
Kuttappa, too, believes that the next big step for Satish is around the corner, despite the delay in the Olympic qualifiers after the outbreak of coronavirus in China.
“In Asia, the Kazakh and Uzbek boxers are very good,” Kuttappa said. “I was really impressed with his performance at the Indian Open, where he gave the reigning world champion a run for his money. The next step for him is to fine-tune his power punches.”