“And still…”, or “and new…”
These are the two words every champion and challenger in the world of professional boxing essentially fights for. In the bouts that go the distance, the suspense heightens before the announcer utters either of the two phrases.
In his first title defence of the seven-bout-old career–the WBO Asia Pacific champion Vijender didn’t leave it that late for the result to become evident. He stopped contender Francis Cheka of Tanzania at 1 minutes and 56 seconds in the third round of a maximum 10 to ensure “and still…”
We were led to believe that Cheka was his most accomplished rival so far. The numbers backed up the claim. Cheka had won 32 of the 43 bouts he had faced. The Tanzanian had also hyped up his prospects, promising, in Ali-seque fashion” to “bomaye” Vijender (kill Vijender). In the end, the trash-talking Tanzanian was reduced to tears in his corner.
It was Vijender’s seventh knockout win, and it must have come as a minor relief after he was stretched all the way in his previous fight by Australia’s Kerry Hope.
In front of a packed audience and on a cold Saturday night, the main event began with the local hero cautious and Cheka pressing on. In fact, caution has been Vijender’s hallmark since his amateur days.
While Cheka was swinging for the fences, Vijender used his superior reach and jab to keep the Tanzanian at bay.
In the only meaningful exchange of the round, Vijender rocked Cheka with a stinging right hook just before the bell.
After the bout, Vijender said this was the punch that settled the butterflies in his stomach.
At two minutes and 20 seconds in the second round came the biggest sign that this contest wouldn’t go the distance. Vijender, who was moving well now, swayed a Cheka punch and threw a straight right that caught the rival flush in the face.
If it were cricket, it would be the full blooded straight drive past bowler, one where the batsman doesn’t bother to run. Vijender saw Cheka dazed and indulged himself in some antics. He tied his hands behind his back as if to say ‘I can beat you this way’ and the 6000-strong crowd erupted.
“I had started falling for all that Cheka has said in the media, and all that you had hyped up,” Vijender would say after the bout. “Even a few people in my entourage would read what all was being written and tell me ke ‘bach ke rehna’. So I was a bit nervous, but I sorted him out in the first round. Then because of all that trash talk that he did, in the second round, I started playing with him.”
The 31-year-old Vijender would throw two more meaningful punches in the next round, both powerful hooks that would knock the gumshield out of Cheka’s mouth. As Cheka retreated to his corner mid-round, the referee waived his hand to indicate the bout was over.
It took the crowd some time to get hold of this – the rival was not spread on the canvas and neither was there any standing count. But ‘kya hua, kya hua’ subsided with Vijender raising his hand ecstatically in the blue corner. The crowd got the cue and climbed their seats and started jumping.
One crucial box was checked. Winning a title, they say, is easy. To defend it is the real deal. Now that Vijender has done this, the question arises, what’s next for him. “We want to take one step at a time,” his promoter Neerav Tomar said. “But now since he has defended the Asia-Pacific title, maybe it’s time to find a new title for him: maybe, a Commonwealth or a European one.”
Market for pro-boxing in India
There is certainly a market for pro boxing in India, as was evident from the turnout at the Thyagaraj Sports Complex and the buzz that this bout created on social media. It’s an appetite that has been stoked and whetted by India’s one decade of showing in amateur boxing as well as the advent of UFC on TV.
The spectators came looking for knockouts and Vijender delivered after they had patiently sat through the undercard bouts. Some were engaging, while others were no contests. The only fight where an Indian lost was right before the main event. Scott Edwards defeated India’s Pardeep Dharera in a scrappy but intense bout.
Edwards in fact stepped into the biggest cheer before Vijender. Turned out it was for Baba Ramdev who had just the entered the arena. In whichever direction the Baba waved the crowd went mad.
There were other celebrities, too, from politics and TV, and they were involved in an interesting ringside game of their own. If they or their entourage sat in the rear rows, they would see their chance and jump to the next with every passing bout until they were right on the edge of action, and in the spotlight. In the end, however, there was only one man who was hogging it.