On January 6, just one day after celebrating his 73rd birthday, one of the greatest boxers produced by India, Mehtab Singh, died at 72.
An Olympian, a national champion and a two-time Asian Boxing Championship gold medallist, he took Indian boxing to the world stage in his prime and nurtured boxing talent in his birthplace Bhiwani.
Subedar Major (Honorary Captain) Mehtab Singh was born on 5 January 1948 in an agricultural family in village called Isharwal in the Bhiwani district of Haryana. He joined the Indian Army as a Sepoy in 1966.
A person who had never seen a boxing ring before, was identified as a future star while training as a recruit. His journey from the Guards Regimental Center, Kota to the world stage in boxing is one of the most incredible ones for any solider-sportsman in India.
Through his dedication and hard work, he became a role model for boxers all across the country. He was the national boxing champion for eight years from 1968-1976. He won gold medals at the Asian Boxing Championship in 1971 (Tehran) and 1973 (Bangkok).
He represented India at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Alan Hubbard, the veteran boxing expert, wrote this when he saw Mehtab Singh fight:
“When people speak of Indian boxing, Mehtab Singh unhesitatingly is their best hope since the days of Ron Norris (who represented India in the 1948 Olympics)”.
Mehtab Singh captivated the audience and won the respect of fellow boxers with his gutsy performances at the Munich Games. The Time magazine rated him as the “most technical boxer” of the Olympics. He lost a very close quarter-final by a split decision of 2-3 to the eventual gold medal winner... so close did he come to an Olympics medal for India.
By winning the two Asian Boxing Championship gold medals, the Golden Glove Army Man of 1 Guards (2 Punjab) proved that he had the qualities to shine at the biggest stages.
In the unit, he was known to be one of the most humble soldiers. In fact, he seemed to be shy of expressing his international reputation. He never wore his Olympic blazer or any of Indian Team track suits or colours while serving in the Army. All his medals and the coveted Arjuna Award (1973) were donated to his parent unit as a mark of dedication to his uniform fraternity.
Post retirement in June 1989, he joined the Sports School at Rai. He created a legion of boxers from Bhiwani, which till is a hotbed of Indian boxing.
Mehtab Singh was a living legend and will continue to inspire generations to come. He will always be remembered for the ethos and culture inculcated and nurtured by him during his lifetime. His demise is a great loss to the boxing fraternity, the Indian Army and the nation.
Major General Yash Mor (Retired) has served in South Kashmir and in Punjab in counter-terrorist operations and with the United Nations in Mozambique. He served with Mehtab Singh in the Army.