Let me tell you something you already know,” says Rocky Balboa in Rocky Balboa (2006), the sixth and final part of the Rocky movie franchise. “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth.”
This very Hollywoodish dialogue, delivered by Sylvester Stallone to his screen son, has resonated not only with Rocky and boxing fans, but boxers as well.
Just ask Akhil Kumar, who claims to have remembered those very words as he stepped into the ring at NIS Patiala for the Incheon Asian Games trials. It was one of the most important bouts of his career; a career that stood at a crossroads.
For those present at the venue, and there were quite a few, it was a comeback of Hollywoodish proportions. Akhil, their beloved hero, in the wrong side of the 30s, hoping to make a comeback after having battled everything from the odds to injuries to a weight problem, taking on a boxer in his early 20s. Three rounds later, the movie script had been written.
As the crowds roared as one, Akhil, known for his open guard stance and swinging arms, raised his arms in the universal gesture of triumph and walked up to his opponent Rohit Tokas for the mandatory post-bout fist-pump. Quite like Balboa, Akhil’s story too had just got a new lease of life.
The Indian Stallion
Akhil’s nickname could well have been The Indian Stallion — a boxer who has been one of the constants in the ever-changing line-up in the Indian boxing scenario since he first joined the senior national camp in 2001 in Himachal. But this time around, even he faced several challenges in his quest to return to the top level.
An injury in his right calf after the 2011 World Championships at Baku, Azerbaijan, forced Akhil out of the game for four months. While injuries are a constant companion in a boxer’s life and are part and parcel of the game, Akhil found it hard to stay chained to his bed despite his doctors pleading with him to take complete bed-rest. Why? Because the trials for the Asia-Olympics qualifying tournament, which could earn boxers tickets to the 2012 Summer Olympics, were around the bend and Akhil did not want to miss the chance to make his third successive Games. But despite his strong will, the injury had taken a toll on Akhil’s body. Unable to train as well as he hoped to, Akhil failed to nail his London ambition.
“The injury that I had was not letting me get back into my flow and that really made things very difficult,” says Akhil, who first made front-page news with his gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. “Injuries are always there, but the last four years have been the toughest. I had never endured such a difficult period ever before.”
So, instead of just sitting around twiddling his thumb, Akhil decided to complete his one-year training with Haryana Police, where he is a DSP. While the training went ahead smoothly, Akhil began gaining weight rather ferociously.
With no regime in sight to take him to the gym or stop him from eating his favourite foods had its effect. The man who competed in the Bantamweight category (54 kilos) at the Beijing Olympics was now tipping the scale at 75 — nearly 40 percent extra on his original body weight.
“Maintaining your weight is a challenge anyways, but shedding weight with an injury is even more difficult,” says the 33-year old. “There were times when I literally had to starve myself to make sure that I was not above the required weight.”
Fitness was becoming an issue but there was little Akhil could do about it — what with his morning parades, afternoon classes and evenings with his wife Poonam Beniwal. Those late evening chats were hardly fun as they spent the time discussing his newly-hit career lows and weight highs.
However, Poonam, a boxing coach herself, knew the problem her husband was dealing with and took great pains to help him return to full fitness. To start with, she prepared a diet-chart with the help of Jaidev Bisht, national coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu’s deputy. Help also came from wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt, bronze medallist at the London Olympics, and Ravinder Sangwan — a former classmate of Akhil’s.
While Ravinder often accompanied Akhil on training sessions, Yogeshwar introduced the boxer to Dr Sanjay Vats — who treated him as he struggled to regain full fitness.
Fitness, a concern
Full fitness, however, was not that easy to achieve. “Akhil is a motivated person in general. But in that period of his life, he had started to doubt himself,” says wife Poonam. “But we all knew he could do it and we told him to at least give it a try.”
It was here in May last year, during one marathon training session where he passed out due to fatigue, that Akhil realised that he still had the same hunger and passion to get back in the ring and perform at the highest level.
The extra pounds around his waist, though, just refused to drop. So coach Bisht stayed constantly in touch with Poonam, collecting details on development. When it came to pass that Akhil indeed needed to undergo full rehabilitation, he and Sandhu requested the Sports Authority of India officials to allow him to use the SAI rehabilitation centre at NIS Patiala.
During his rehabilitation, weightlifting coach Amreek Singh worked on his fitness training while Bisht prepared a special training chart for his ward. At this point, Akhil had started sparring with the coaches again, but now he faced a remarkably different weight issue. He had lost too much too quickly and hence began constantly picking up niggles and injuries — from calf-pulls to hamstring-strains to stomach pains. Such was the steep fall in his weight that people from Akhil’s entourage began suggesting that he was perhaps suffering from Pancreatitis. So a nervous Akhil underwent tests in New Delhi just to get a second opinion. He had fallen on hard times, personally and professionally.
When his Delhi tests returned negative, Akhil sighed and hit his training harder. Six months later, in December 2013, he was ready. This was when Akhil decided to take part in the All India Police Games in Ranchi to prove to himself more than others that he was fit. And that he could still punch. He survived five bouts in the lightweight category (60kg) and won gold.
There were of course doubts over whether he could adjust to the new weight category, having been a Bantamweight ever since he made a splash at the Melbourne Games eight years back. But few are aware that shifting categories was not something new to him. Akhil had in fact started off as a 48kg boxer and it was in this weight category that he won his first international medal in Russia, 2001. At the Athens Olympics, Akhil had jumped up by three kilos to 51. And then by three more for his first major medal at the Commonwealth Games two years later.
“My doctor has told me not to drop my weight any further as it could prove fatal for me,” says Akhil, explaining why getting back to 54 kg was just not a possibility. “I felt comfortable in this category and I think I have adjusted to it nicely now.”
It was also a strategic move. The most well known Indian pugilist in the 60kg category is Vikas Malik — a man who is best known for reaching the quarterfinals of the 2013 World Championships. The other core members of this category are Anil Kumar, Dheeraj and Rohit Tokas. Akhil perhaps sensed that this category was his best backdoor-entry into the Indian team.
When the trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games began in Patiala, Akhil was among the first to turn up in the boxing hall, despite that fact that the coaches had decided not to send any boxers from his weight category to Glasgow (they didn’t send any boxer from the 52kg category either).
Taking that disappointment in his stride, Akhil focussed his energies on the Asian Games trials. With a bucketful of experience by his side, he overcame Malik (according to Akhil, one of the fittest boxers in the national camp) and Tokas to qualify for the Asiad.
Plenty left in the tank
“Akhil bhai proved he still has a lot left in him,” says Mandeep Jangra, silver medallist at Glasgow in the 69kg category who considers Akhil as his role model.
“People had written him off but he showed he is still one of the best around. That is why he is an inspiration to a lot of us. He has helped me a lot in life.” The story goes that back in 2007, Akhil was not satisfied with Jangra’s progress in Bhiwani, so he asked the youngster to join him in Patiala to keep a watchful eye on him.
“He has been more than just a mentor, he is more like a brother to me,” says Jangra. “I have always dreamt of taking part in a tournament alongside him. That dream will come true in Incheon.”