A pungent mix of liniment, anxiety and taut nerves hangs in the Haryana Warriors’ dressing room. There’s also blood and sweat, but no tears, yet.
“Kaun sa round haara main?” asks Pramod Kumar for what seems like the tenth time. Minutes ago, the boxer had been duking it out with Maratha Yoddhas’ Andy Chuaua during the Super Boxing League (SBL) final at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium on Saturday. His split-decision loss put the pseudo-home team behind by six points. Defeated and confused, Pramod wipes off the rivulet of blood escaping the thick blob of cotton under his right eye.
“They put on this huge bandage because the bleeding wasn’t stopping,” he explains, before repeating his query. “Chautha round haara tu,” Neeraj Goyat says as he steps in and offers to remove Pramod’s gloves. “I told you the other boxer would stick and move. He kept doing that throughout the fourth round and got the points.” The Haryana captain would have fought Chuaua if not for a shoulder niggle, caused by “carelessness.” After defending his WBC Asia Welterweight title in Mumbai, Neeraj got into the the ring the very next night for the SBL semifinal. “I had to take my team to the final. But yeah, back-to-back fights was not a good idea.”
It seldom is, especially when Neeraj says the title fight against Allan Tanada was the toughest of his career. By his own admission, the 25-year-old was left loopy for almost half of the 12 rounds by a left hook from the Filipino. Or was it a right hook? He isn’t sure.
“I didn’t see that punch coming in the fourth round. Uske baad chaar round kahan tha pata nahi chala. I fought with my coach when he told me it is the ninth round, because I thought it was the sixth. Turns out, I had read the board wrong. The last rounds I smacked that guy,” quips Neeraj. “He was a much better boxer than me. More experienced too. I only won that fight because of my conditioning.” The two-month training camp included scaling a 700m hill in Pune’s Ramtekdi thirty times and sparring with national champions at the Army Sports Institute. “Amateur boxers ko bhi faayda hua. During the fight week, I faced 50 rounds against 40 boxers. Hum professionals 12 rounds khelte hain, amateur boxing ke 3 survive karna bohut aasaan hain.”
Is that a shot at the amateur boxers?
“Absolutely not. I respect that system. It felt good to see Ajay Singh (Boxing Federation of India president) and Jay Kowli (general secretary) in the crowd to watch mine and Vijender Singh’s fights. I just know that if four amateurs get a shot at an Olympic medal, what’s the harm in two qualifying through the professional stream? Give me a chance to represent the country at the Commonwealth Games. If I lose, fine. But at least promote us till then.” A medal has been on his radar for a while, but Neeraj knows winning a world title is a different thing altogether. Ranked 32 in the WBC welterweight ranking and with “Vijender se bhi zyaada title defences”, Neeraj is on track but admits he still has some way to go.
“The Filipino gave me a tough time. It’s about fights like those. The immediate target is to keep defeating the more experienced boxers and reach the top 20. Conversation for the world title should start by 2019. Ek dum upar na chadunga, gir jaaunga nahi toh.”
The conversation is interrupted by roars from those assembled around the television. The team’s middleweight fighter Sandeep Nain has pulled a shocker, defeating Maratha Yoddhas’ undefeated captain Deepak Tanwar and levelling the scoreboard. Neeraj walks up to the the team’s final fighter of the night. Jagdeep Singh has six years and 30 kgs on Neeraj, but he still listens intently.
“Peeche jaana, peeche jaana. range pe rakho, Kareeb aaye toh pakad lo, dhakka do peeche ho jaao,” Neeraj puts on a demonstration. Jagdeep goes out, fails to keep the distance and gets knocked down four times in the first round. His teammates shadowbox his opponent Sandeep Chhikara in front of the TV while the exasperated captain watches on with an ‘I told you so’ expression. Perhaps he realises that while there’s room for teams in boxing, it still largely remains a single-person sport.