A child taking to boxing or wrestling is not an uncommon sight in the Bhiwani district of Haryana. Some of India’s finest boxers and wrestlers hail from the area and that, in turn, has clearly had a cascading effect of sorts. Sport is a serious career option for many but more than that, children are encouraged to participate and play.
The career of Manish Kaushik, who hails from the Devsar village, followed a similar path. As a 12-year-old, he was inspired by the exploits of Jitender Kumar and Vijender Singh – India’s first Olympic medallist in boxing – in the 2008 Beijing Games. There was no looking back from there.
As fate would have it, Kaushik, now 24, had to cross several hurdles before realising his Olympic dream.
And now having achieved qualification, even as the threat of the 2020 Olympics being postponed because of the coronavirus threat continues to loom large over Tokyo, Kaushik fondly remembers donning the gloves for the first time.
In his weight category, he had to compete with Shiva Thapa, one of the recognised faces in the Indian boxing sphere just to be a part of the Olympic qualifying event. A designated 60kg boxer, he had to scale up to 63kg to be in the race.
And there was also the small matter of facing elimination in a box-off. Kaushik was up against Australia’s Harrison Garside, who had defeated him 3:2 in the 2018 Commonwealth Games final. There were further complications as Kaushik was hit on his right elbow during the do-or-die bout against Garside.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking going into the box-off,” Kaushik told Scroll.in. “It was just one bout and it could make or break your career.”
“I was caught in the first round and the medical staff were on their feet during the 15-second time-out.”
There was still little hope that Kaushik could see out the bout for the six gruelling minutes. While the coaches frantically gave him instructions, it was his own will that served him well for the rest of the bout. To the Indian boxer’s advantage, he had got the better of Garside in the opening round.
For a change, scores were announced at the end of every round in the event in Jordan, which helped the boxers map out their strategies accordingly.
“I won the first round and that was a big boost for me,” Kaushik said. “That gave me the confidence I desperately needed at that stages. Yes, my coaches [Santiago Nieva and CA Kuttappa] motivated me too. At the back of my mind, I knew that this was a ‘now or never’ moment to realise my Olympic dream.”
High Performance Director Nieva remembers those tense moments that ensued. “We were trying to make sure what he should and shouldn’t do. But ten seconds after the bell rang, his [Manish’s] adrenaline took over (laughs).”
Kuttappa, who was one of Vijender’s mentors, had seen Kaushik’s rise from the time he entered the national camp. He was in charge of devising a fool-proof strategy for the next two bouts. “Counter-punching and fients are some of the tricks in his repertoire I really like. I told him to draw Garside in with his right and clip him with his left.
“I have to appreciate the way he went about with it the bout. He showed immense character and spirit.”
The Indian defeated Garside 4:1 on points.
While Kaushik nurses himself back to full health, while maintaining social distance after landing in India, he reflected on a whirlwind year that has been punctuated with a slew of highs.
“I have been advised rest and the injury [he suffered in the final] could take about three months to heal. But these are the best years of my boxing life and can’t wait to enter the big event [the Olympics].
It won’t be a stretch to say that Kaushik is, right now, ahead of Thapa in the pecking order. The duo have shared a pretty intense in-ring rivalry in recent years and it all started with the army man’s stunning win in the 2017 Nationals.
There are laurels to boot too. “The World Championships medal [bronze in Yekaterinburg last year] was a big turning point in my career. It gave me the belief that I could replicate the feat in the Olympics as well,” Kaushik added.
He, though, already has his eye on following in the footsteps of some of the stalwarts that emerged out of Bhiwani’s talent-rich stables.
Kaushik said: “Right now, I want to fine-tune my game. I always had the speed, which served me well when I moved up a weight category. But I am not as powerful as some of the other boxers. That is something I have been working on.”
At the moment, Kaushik is one of the most technically gifted boxers in the Indian camp. While his class served him well to outmanoeuvre opponents, it is Kaushik’s uncluttered mind that has played a part in churning out big wins.
Manish explains: “Even if you look at my CWG bout, I lost 2:3 in the bout that could have gone either way. It isn’t rocket science. Going into the box-off, I just thought, ‘OK, I ran him close here. This time, I’ll get the better of him’. That’s what worked for me.”
Kaushik’s recent results now makes him a hot prospect to follow in the footsteps of Vijender and further enhance Bhiwani’s ever-growing reputation.