As things stand, India will be sending their biggest boxing contingent to an Olympic event with nine having booked their places for Tokyo, going past London 2012’s tally of eight. They did so in thrilling fashion in Amman, Jordan last week.
One of the high-profile male boxers, Manish Kaushik, had a box-off against Australia’s Harrison Garside of Australia in the 63kg final. Kaushik had already lost to the nimble-footed Aussie in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final.
To make matters worse for Manish and the Indian camp, he suffered a injury at the end of the first round. As the coaches were talking to him in the ring corner during the break, the 24-year-old revealed that he was struggling to even lift his arm, leave alone fight a gruelling battle for the next six minutes.
Having established himself as one of the fastest-rising boxers in the circuit and bagged his first World Championship medal, an Olympic event without Manish would have dented India’s prospects even before the start of the event.
But, Manish passed the test in flying colours. He not only did a fine job dousing the fires, but summoned immense might and courage to keep Garside on his toes with his attacks.
“He couldn’t raise his arm and was lucky that he’d won the first round,” Boxing Federation of India’s High Performance Director Santiago Nieva told Scroll.in.
“I just told him to somehow get through the second and then see out the third. But ten seconds into the second round, his adrenaline took over and he [Manish] was fantastic.”
Change of guard
A big difference with the modern-day Indian boxers compared to their predecessors is the sheer number of away tournaments they compete in. Having a stable federation, a far cry from the shambolic nature of how the game was run behind the scenes in the early part of the previous decade, has helped immensely.
Those trips, India coach CA Kuttappa says, have widened India’s talent pool. “The top four boxers in a particular weight category are flying out for different tournaments,” he says. “Now, I feel there we are tough, physically and otherwise and that has been a welcome change. Even the training methods have evolved with time. We were practicing with machines earlier. Now we practice with a free rod.”
The role of the coaches is paramount as the younger boxers figure out about their own style. The likes of Ashish Kumar and Sachin are still relatively new faces in the camp. Kuttappa pointed out that he left nothing to chance.
“We had discussed their opponents in length to make sure they are prepared for what is coming their way. This is an Olympic qualification event, boss. You have to be ready for everything.”
Kuttappa added: “But we expect our boxers to suck their opponents into their game, not the other way around.”
There were a few surprise packages that emerged during the campaign too. Not too many expected Simranjit Kaur to reach the final, a challenge she tackled with the ease of a veteran. The older guard, too, did not disappoint. Despite lacking the verve of the years gone by, veteran Mary Kom got the job done and will be competing in what will only be her second Olympic event.
Of course, there were disappointments along the way too. Gaurav Solanki and Sachin are promising boxers whose tournaments could have been a lot better. The latter, in particular, had a forgettable outing during his box-off against Shabbos Negmatulloev of Tajikistan.
Sakshi Choudhary also came with a lofty reputation. The Bhiwani-based pugilist is a two-time world youth champion but fell short at the big stage. “I have full faith that these boxers will be even better in the 2024 Olympic cycle,” women’s head coach Raffaele Bergamasco said. “They [the younger lot] have all the makings of becoming top boxers in the years to come.”
The Italian went on to say that one of his biggest challenges after becoming head coach was changing the power structures in the women’s game. “When I’d come I found it strange that only two girls [Mary Kom and L Sarita Devi] were dominating. They are legends in their own right but I wondered why that was the case. I wanted to change that. Now, you see, 80 percent of them comprise of the younger lot.”
Nieva, too, had made some tough calls and risked incurring the wrath of some of the more established names. For instance, senior pros such as Gaurav Bidhuri and Manoj Kumar made way for rookies. The Swede has made a habit of pulling a rabbit out of his hat in big tournaments.
“I complete three years in a week’s time and I can see significant development from where we’d started,” Nieva said.
“Winning and losing is not black and white as it seems in boxing. But, winning is important. At some point, those efforts have to translate into results. I can take credit for backing Ashish, who is now doing really well.
“I want to give chances to as many players as possible. Who is the No 1 boxer? It keeps changing with each passing week.”
As things stand, Nieva and Bergamasco, along with the rest of the camp are in quarantine in New Delhi since coming back to India. For Bergamasco, in particular, the coronavirus pandemic has put his family on the edge as Italy continues to grapple with mounting death tolls with every passing day. So far, the country has recorded more than 2,500 deaths, most after China.
Before the start of the qualifiers, the Indian contingent trained in Assisi, central Italy. The coronavirus, at that point, had just started to people’s lives out of gear in Italy.
“We had already decided to go Italy for our training sessions but were lucky,” Nieva said. “I think, had we been two days late, they would have not let us enter Jordan and we would have had to say goodbye. That was how drastically things changed.”
Kuttappa, managing the boxers, insisted that his group was not worried by the noise outside the camp. “It hardly played a role going into the event. We knew that the situation was in control in Jordan.”
However, precautions were in place: “We had to give strict instructions to the boxers to not step out of the premises, to not interact with anyone. We always had masks and sanitisers. We had all the necessary gear in place.”
The Indian contingent will be in isolation till March 27. They will have to wait for instructions from the Sports Authority of India and the sports ministry before resuming training.
Meanwhile, India still have the chance to get their number of quota to double figures and Nieva remains hopeful: “The change in schedules mean that the boxers in contention have a quick turnaround time before the World group event starts. We have to get them upto speed and hopefully, do much better than they did in Jordan.”
Led by Mary Kom, Amit Panghal, Vikas Krishan and Pooja Rani, Indian boxing, in these difficult times can derive strength from their stupendous run.