Stop,” shouted a voice outside the ring, with only a few seconds left for the conclusion of the bout between Pankaj Saini and Devendro Singh at the boxing hall at NIS, Patiala. It’s only the referee who regulates the action during a boxing match. But in response to the shout, the man in the ring separated the boxers whose heads had just clashed. Kishan Narsi AIBA’s representative in India and a senior international judge who was overseeing the trials had called for the break. He now had the ringside doctor to examine Devendro’s right eyeline. Instinctively Devendro brushed the spot with his glove and then checked it for blood.
It must have been a nasty case of déjà vu for the 22-year-old looking to make his first Commonwealth Games. About 10 months back, in the very same hall Devendro had been boxing against the very same opponent, in the trials for the World Championships.
Devendro, ranked second in the world then, was seen as one of India’s best prospect at the World Event — where boxers would be participating without headguards for the first time. As such no headguards were used during Devendro’s bout – the first of last years’ trials as well.
Thirteen seconds into the bout, as the boxers charged forward, an accidental headbutt split open a nasty gash on Devendro’s left eyebrow. The bout was halted and as per the rules, Devendro forfeited the match and a place in the world championships.
And while there were hopes that he may still be considered for selections, Devendro ultimately didn’t make the cut. “All the other boxers — Nanao bhai (Nanao Singh, who ultimately went to the WCs in the 49kg category) and Santosh — all came up to me and said that I was very unlucky that I had missed the world championships. At that time I felt others were more disappointed than me that I missed the world championships. For me after the initial disappointment of all my effort being lost, I forgot about not going to the championships,”says Devendro.
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With a barnstorming, hyper aggressive approach that had taken him to the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics, and won him a silver at the 2013 Asian Championships, Devendro Singh may have been India’s most exciting fighter but he was clearly susceptible to taking damage especially in the absence of a headgear. “There is nothing wrong in being an aggressive boxer, but before, Devendro would sometimes take more risks than he had to,” says assistant coach C Kuttappa. And while Devendro says he wasn’t disappointed on missing the World Championships, Kuttappa believes that missing out, has made him an improved boxer.
“Devendro is still aggressive. He is still aggressive but he takes his chances well,” says Kutappa.
And while Devendro may have missed the World Championships, he finally got a taste of competition without a headgear at the Istvan Bocksai memorial tournament in Hungary in February this year. Devendro comprehensively won India’s only gold- decimating a Kazakh opponent 3-0 in the final.
“Regardless how well you fight, you are going to take a lot of hits to the head. Not just punches, but also through elbows or even headbutts. After the first couple of days, my head was really sore, but I got used to it. I made sure that I always had my head protected,” says Devendro.
In Wednesday’s bout against Saini, Devendro, now ranked third in the world, seemed to have found an agreeable mixture of defense and offense. While Saini had the height advantage, he unusually was leading with his head while throwing his shots. This made it easy for Devendro to keep scoring with lightning handspeed made him wary of walking into a headbutt. Indeed even while tangled up with Saini, Devendro ensured his forehead was as far away from the action as possible. Devendro stayed out of trouble for most of the bout and even the headbutt in the final seconds was a slight one.
The resultant cut was a only slight one and was nearly invisible, but for a slight swelling in a couple of hours post the steady application of an icepack. Narsi though stopped the fight with a few seconds still to go. The scoresheets declared Devendro the winner.
“I don’t want to risk injury to any of my boys, especially when it is clear what the outcome of the bout is. Devendro had a big lead on all the scorecards, so there was little point in carrying on for extra few seconds and risk another cut,” said Narsi.
Despite very nearly missing out on another tournament with another headbutt from Saini, Devendro bears no grudge against the Punjab boxer.
“There wasn’t any question of his apologizing. In this sport, you never know where an injury can come from. In fact Pankaj came up to me and said even he got a cut above his eye because of me. Of course the difference was that the one I gave him though was intentional,” Devendro added.