Two knockdowns in two minutes, and Gaurav Solanki was on dream street. He had hopped back up after the first, when a meaty left hook from Vidanalange Ishan Bandara put him flat on his butt. The second crushing hook, however, left him crawling. A noodle-legged Solanki was subjected to his second standing eight count. While his mouthed “OKs” and incessant nods managed to convince the referee, Solanki was visibly-stunned at the bell.
Outclassed in the first round, the 21-year-old looked out for the count. Instead, Solanki came out of the corner with a fresh gameplan and, thanks to some lenient judging, won the next two rounds to reach the 52kg Commonwealth Games final on debut.
“Sometimes in boxing these things happen, but by the second round I felt much more in control,” Solanki told reporters after the bout.
Coach Narendra Rana had a different take.
“I think he was unconscious at one point,” is coach Rana’s assessment. “You could see it on his face. He was out of it. I’m glad the referee allowed him to continue. But if anything, this win shows his determination. The other boxer was strong, but those were some lucky punches.”
For Solanki, trouble began when he tried to slug it out with the Sri Lankan. The orthodox boxer overcommited with his left and waved his chin about, whereupon it was clunked by big in-swinging hooks coming over his right hand.
“We call them bowling punches, because the motion is like a fast-bowler’s action,” says Rana. “I don’t know if it’s the technique or the tactics, but Sri Lankan boxers have a tendency to do that. They set up punches with overhead attacks, increasing the distance and thus the power. Gaurav had to switch up his game.”
The second round onward, Solanki decided to stick and move. Save a few moments where he got in close and paid the price, Solanki countered the all-attack style of Bandara, opening and closing flurries with his left from a distance.
During a sparring session at Pune’s Army Sports Institute, Solanki was knocked down by a junior. He took it out on Rana, who had been imploring him to use his left.
“He got very angry. ‘Why do you keep yelling at me to use my left hand? That cost me today’s session.’ So I showed him clips of the sub-junior, junior bouts he won with his left. That was when he realised the value of his lead hand.”
Chief coach SR Singh agrees on the left hand’s effectiveness, but believes Solanki is a work in progress. “You could see it today. He needs to improve his strength a lot. There are a few issues in the ringcraft as well. But not many have the determination to get back up after being knocked down by such wild swings. That is why he is in the team and in the final.”
Till last December, Solanki — a Commonwealth Youth Games silver medallist — wasn’t in the fray for Gold Coast. A contentious loss at Nationals to eventual winner Salman Shaikh left him low on the totem pole. But strong work ethic and potential helped him get the nod for the India Open. A bronze there and a silver at the Bulgaria invitational booked him a Commonwealth Games trial against Shaikh, where he avenged his defeat.
“The split decision at Nationals left a bad taste,” says SR Singh. “Gaurav lost that fight but convinced us enough to keep him in the pool. Then we saw him in the gym, putting in the hours and adapting quickly to different levels of competition. That’s why we decided to hold a trial in the category. It gives us satisfaction and pride to see him vindicate our decision.”
Up next is Northern Ireland’s Brendan Irvine, who had his own struggles against Scottish Reece McFadden before scraping through via a split decision. A gold medal for Solanki will turn his ‘comeback from the canvas’ tale into the stuff of heroes.