Ashish Kumar was riding an all-time high after a dream run in 2019. Despite being on the fringes for many years, he got the breakthrough year he had craved for. He performed well in international competitions – Thailand Open and the Asian Championships – and had booked his place in the Olympic qualifiers by December.
Then, like a bolt from the blue, his father died after a bout with illness in February. With weeks left for the qualifiers, he took a break from boxing and returned home to Sundernagar in Himachal Pradesh.
“My father died exactly a month before my Olympic qualifying bout – on February 7,” Ashish told Scroll.in. “My bout was on March 8. It was important for me to make my father’s dream come true. He wanted to see me at the Olympics, and subsequently, win a medal there. Now, I have made my first step.”
Ashish’s story is far from a regular boy fighting stiff opposition at home to make a name for himself. The 25-year-old’s entry into boxing was smooth, coming from a long line of sportspersons. His father, the late Bhagat Ram Dogra was a national level kabaddi player during his time. Ashish took to boxing after looking at his brothers and cousins.
“I had a brother in boxing and one in wrestling,” Ashish said. “Looking at them, I was inspired as a kid and my family supported me. My father was already a national kabaddi player at the time. The moment I took the plunge, he advised me on what was required to succeed at the highest level and prepared me accordingly.
“Wrestling and boxing were my options at that point. I tried my hand at wrestling but soon lost interest. My interest veered towards boxing.”
Ashish is the fourth boxer in his family and the first to travel to an Olympic event. There was a chance that he’d not even be a part of the touring party after the death of his father.
“You know, I was down and out after my father’s loss. It was my family – my brothers as well as my sister who gave me strength to compete. If not for them, I wouldn’t have been able to. I can’t even begin to tell you how distraught I was,” he said.
“I didn’t want to stay around for more than two-three days there. My family told me: ‘just go out there and make dad’s dreams come true.’ My brother Sunil constantly give me pep talks. It took me at least 15-20 days to come to terms with it.”
But he did and did so by sealing an Olympic berth. He picked up the pieces, outside the ring and then brushed aside the challenge of Maikhel Roberrd Muskita of Indonesia in emphatic fashion to register a 5-0 win and enter the semi-finals. The gangly 75kg boxer was probably the biggest surprise package of the nine Indians who have booked their places for Tokyo.
The 25-year-old has come a long way after nearly quitting the sport in 2012-’13, a time when he was confused about the style he wanted to adopt in the ring. The results too, were hard to come by.
But under Santiago Nieva and CA Kuttappa, the men in charge of the men’s team, Ashish had more clarity on his game.
“My coaches told me to use my long reach to good effect and it worked effectively in 2019. I was also a bit more aggressive,” says Ashish about the tweaks he made to his game. “Most of the boxers in my weight division are short. When they were playing from a safe distance, I started to see the good effects of it.
Kuttappa, in particular, singles out Ashish as the most-improved boxer in the Indian camp. The young boxer has, after all, big shoes to fill; Vijender Singh and Vikas Krishan are his predecessors in 75kg.
“I trust hard work more than anything else,” Kuttappa said. “Santiago balances that out with the tactical stuff. I have never heard him [Ashish] complain even once, even if we give him extra sparring sessions. He is well built for his weight category and has improved leaps and bounds.”
The Indian coach added: “The Asian Championships was a turning point. He wasn’t even a seeded boxer at the Olympic event but is probably the hardest worker in the camp. I tell the boxers to look at this guy for inspiration.
“During his initial days in the camp, he was missing 80 per cent of his punches. That’s not at all the case anymore.”
The constant need to better himself is a mantra that has served Ashish well. Even after his solid run in 2019, he was unhappy about not creating enough of an impact in the World Championships in Yekaterinburg. Looking at the way Ashish’s career graph is peaking, his father’s dream of an Olympic medal could become a reality as well.