Five years ago, Jhinjhar village resident Neeraj was like a regular college student. The youngster would travel to Dadri for her studies but when her elder brother Hitesh tore a ligament during wrestling training, which ended his career on the mat, Neeraj thought of taking up a sport. The youngster had seen some boxers training in Dadri and along with her brother, Neeraj shifted base to Bhiwani to train under coach Sanjay Singh at the Late Captain Hawa Singh Boxing Academy. The hard work put in over the years resulted in Neeraj winning the solitary gold medal for India in the Sixth Nations Cup in Serbia, where she defeated Kazakhstan’s Jaina Shekerbekova.
“I had not thought about any sport or boxing before my brother got injured. I was concentrating on my studies and had not even travelled to Bhiwani alone. My father always wanted one member of the family to pursue sports and it was up to me to take my father’s dream forward. For two years, I trained on my own before approaching Sanjay sir in Bhiwani. My brother shifted to Bhiwani and we stayed at a rented place for my training. It was tough but now when I will take home our family’s first international medal, it will be a reward,” shared 22-year-old Neeraj on her return from the tournament where the Indian team under chief coach GS Sandhu won a total of six medals.
Neeraj had to wait for two years for her first medal at the national level when she won the title in the 51 kg category in the All India Inter-University Championships in Varanasi before winning a bronze at the 2015 women’s nationals in Guwahati. It was in November last year that Neeraj emerged as the top contender for a slot in the Indian team in the 51 kg category after clinching the title at the women’s nationals in Haridwar, an event which also saw her defeating former junior world champion Nikhat Zareen in the semi-finals.
“I was disappointed as no medals came my way for the first two years. Training at Sanjay sir’s academy included sparring with male boxers and it helped my game. There were five or six girls who trained together along with the boys and we would usually spar for longer durations, which helped me in Serbia. Winning the title at the nationals and the semi-final win against Nikhat made me mentally strong,’ said Neeraj, the daughter of a farmer. Coach Singh remembers Neeraj initially struggling with training as a late entrant, but her persistence finally bore fruit. Neeraj also spars with Singh’s daughter Nupur, a 6’2” boxer who competes in the 75 kg.
“She trains hard and that is her strength. She practises with Nupur and sparring with a boxer of a higher weight category helps her game, which she showed against the Kazakh in the final. Before the nationals in Haridwar, she and her brother went for jogging and her brother was left behind and she missed the hotel and ran three km ahead. Later we had to go and find her. She only thinks about training and that is her strength,” said Singh.
Last week’s tournament was also the first tournament where AIBA introduced the format of three rounds of three minutes each in women’s boxing. Coach Sandhu, who is now the chief coach of the women’s team, has also spent time with Neeraj at the national camp.
“Instead of fighting four rounds of two minutes each, the boxing time has now increased to nine minutes. So it is also about the right strategy and balancing the three rounds, which Neeraj did well. It is tougher mentally as one has to dominate two rounds and there is no chance of a comeback unlike in four rounds,” the coach said.
The last few months have seen the Phogat sisters making headlines due to the movie Dangal, but not many know that Neeraj’s surname too is Phogat. Her father did not use his surname when submitting birth documents and hence Neeraj uses only her first name.
“Yes, I know what Geeta and Babita have done for wrestling. And this medal is just the beginning for me. I will make sure that there is a Phogat in boxing too with international medals,” signs off Neeraj, an MA II year student.