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Back in June 2015 when he announced that he was turning pro, Vijender Singh’s decision hogged all the headlines, as did his debut bout, a win over Sonny Whiting four months later. Over the next 14 months, the Olympic bronze medallist boxer maintained an unbeaten run, coasting to a professional win-loss record of 8-0.
On Saturday, when Vijender stepped into the ring, the stakes were the highest they’d ever been. He was defending the WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight title while looking to take the Oriental Super Middleweight belt off China’s Zulpikaer Maimaitiali — his first undefeated opponent. Exactly who should have won the fight remains a debate for another day. But each punch that sent the Indian reeling shook the country’s nascent pro-boxing ambitions.
Vijender went the distance and walked away with the two belts. That British boxer Amir Khan believes he “hasn’t won half a major title” is a different matter altogether.
After eight drab fights, the novelty was long gone for the casual viewer; to the point that a glimpse of Baba Ramdev elicited more cheers than the in-ring action during Vijender’s two fights in Delhi. In that regard, the contentious ninth should at least fuel conversations. That it was postponed and took eight months to materialise though is worrying. Meanwhile, Vijender cut ties with Frank Warren’s Queensberry Promotions after the UK-based company shied away from putting together an overseas fight for the boxer.
Which leads us to the all-important question: if India’s biggest and most marketable star can’t sustain interest in pro boxing, what chance do the many hopefuls have?
Despite that, many an aspiring pugilist would have keenly followed every jab and hook Vijender threw on Saturday, hoping to follow in the trendsetter’s footsteps. Before any of them is able to set foot inside a ring, though, he or she will have to navigate a maze.
AIBA. APB. WSB. WBA. WBO. WBC. IBF. BFI. IABF. IBC. SBL. PBOI. IPBA. NIBA. In addition to an overwhelming myriad of acronyms, pro boxing in India suffers from backroom politics and lack of larger-than-life prizefighters.
The first call that all boxers have to take is to move away from the system that gives them medals, cash incentives and job security. The national body, for one, believes most still choose to stay on the well-trodden path of amateur boxing.
“Firstly, it is a matter of pride to represent your nation in international competition, to end up on the podium,” says Jay Kowli, general secretary of the Boxing Federation of India (BFI). “It has been applicable in the cases of Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson. Then there’s cash prizes to be won at international events, and the kind of support that the government provides to amateur boxers, it is a great way of building a career as well.”
However, with the world body, International Boxing Association (AIBA), also giving a thrust to professional boxing in the form of AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) which facilitates pro boxers to compete at the Olympics, BFI can’t be dismissive of the alternate stream.
Kowli, however, believes, “Pro-boxing is never about producing boxers. They are not interested in promoting boxing, training people. They pick up boxers when they do well because they are just interested in big names and putting on their big shows. As far as the scene in India is concerned, everybody is free to assess. Brigadier (PK Muralidharan) Raja has his own boxing set-up. But what happened?”
What happened was, Raja — a boxing administrator who has been associated with the sport for upwards of three decades — launched his own pro boxing body Indian Boxing Council (IBC) in 2015, organised a few ‘fight nights’ and soon had to put them on hold indefinitely.
“It has not been a very happy journey so far,” Raja sums it up. “The plan was to organise around 30-40 fights nights. I was trying to put around 3-4 in a month. But I couldn’t do it all out of my retirement funds.”
Raja says he had plans to promote pro boxing before there was a bandwagon to jump on. While the idea first struck him in 2010 — when Vijender was still busy preparing for the London Olympics — Raja put in the homework during the last three years.
“I went all around the world to study this. I met promoters, bought books, studied the formats,” says Raja, former secretary general of the now-defunct national federation IABF. “The gameplan was simple. We needed to build the fighters. Give them fights, build their record. Once the good ones get filtered, we would get them national titles, then Asian, World. So, I put in whatever money I had, thinking once it picks up, people will come in. The people who did come in, didn’t have money themselves.”
While he is not out of the game yet — “IBC is willing to conduct technical operations” — putting together any more fight nights without a promoter is out of the question.
“We want it to happen. But I’ve spent close to Rs1 crore myself. My team can still help with the referees, judges, doctors and setting up the fights. If anybody wants to come on board as a promoter, the profit is theirs to keep.”
Many bodies, many minds
Jay Kowli clarifies that “I’m not happy when anything goes wrong because it is my sport.” While he wouldn’t comment on the ongoing Super Boxing League (SBL), other than wishing them luck, Kowli believes plans eventually go sour without proper streamlining.
“Because I’m coming from an organised system, I would like these set-ups to be accountable and answerable for everything. Otherwise, I feel it is very risky for boxing.”
As of now, there are multiple organisations and little streamlining. SBL — the second venture of promoter Bill Dosanjh after the MMA promotion Super Fight League — kicked off in July without much fanfare or the backing of the powers that be. Not that it bothers Dosanjh.
“At the end of the day, it’s best that it’s done by people who understand the sport,” Dosanjh told The Indian Express. “Me and Amir Khan understand the sport better than any federation set up in India. (BFI President) Ajay Singh is a chairman of SpiceJet, running a very successful business, but he doesn’t understand the sport. He has a special job at hand to build the fighters for the Olympics. We are here to help them turn pro with this exciting format.”
The format however reminds one of the old adage: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What essentially is a sport of two people punching each other in the face has been twisted into a team competition, with six fighters per side fighting four 3-minute rounds and different number of points awarded to different finishes.
Raja explains: “League concept is not for boxing. It has been tried before by Don King in the 70s. The people trying to do it are thinking they’ll cash in on the mushrooming of leagues and sell franchises. At the end of the day, everybody will be taken for a ride. How are the franchises going to recover the money?”
“Bill has the money. But I don’t think these guys are here to develop things. They are not from India. Outsiders coming to India thinking they will get something with these one-off events is not what professional boxing needs. All of these small groups need to get together and make one consolidated effort. Currently everything is fragmented.”
Too many cooks spoil the pie, more so when each is in a hurry for a slice. India has a number of underground pro boxing bodies affiliated to organisations such as World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Organisation (WBO).
In addition to Raja’s IBC, there is the Professional Boxing Organisation of India (PBOI) which is overseeing the SBL. That the body’s general secretary Kunal Goyat’s brother Neeraj took part in the league, without an NOC from his employer Railways, adds to the convoluted mess. Then there’s Jai Shekhawat of Royal Sports Promotions and North India Boxing Association (NIBA) who alleges that the PBOI has breached an exclusivity deal by signing up with SBL, leaving his pro boxing league stuck in the pipeline.
There’s also the Indian Pro Boxing Association (IPBA), the president of which, Shahe Ali promises yet another league later this year, albeit one “on par with the IPL, to sell out the JLN and Indira Gandhi stadiums.” They sure have their task cut out, seeing how the Facebook page is still inviting donations. The group claims that it has also successfully invited Evander Holyfield to India to promote their league on Twitter, but have nothing more than the heavyweight legend’s retweets to cite.
Shekhawat, Ali and the elder Goyat were responsible for one of India’s earliest forays into professional boxing — a fight night in a Delhi mall two years back which launched Neeraj’s pro career. However, the infighting and the branching out stunted the growth of the sport. So what’s the solution?
“I would prefer a professional body set up under the federation,” says Kowli. “When the national federation runs pro boxing, the boxers will have more reason to be secure and in safe hands. The BFI is already working on a professional boxing programme of our own, to streamline everything. It’s in the final stages.”
Exactly what BFI plans to do with professional boxing remains a mystery. Meanwhile, some boxers who won laurels as amateurs, be it a national championship (Kuldeep Singh) or a Commonwealth Games bronze medal (Amandeep Singh), have taken the plunge and turned pro without waiting for BFI to clarify its intentions. Like the younger Goyat, Kuldeep and Amandeep also ran into trouble with the Railways for taking part in the SBL.
Another odd stacked against pro boxing in India is that it is trying to take off when the sport has cooled off globally. The trash-talking draws of yesteryear are now few and far between. The ones who do crop up are plucked by MMA promotions.
Closer home, Vijender remains the only semblance of a draw. Neerav Tomar — head of IOS Boxing Promotions that has organised Vijender’s three home fights — admits that they need to look beyond the sole flag-bearer.
“Everything is on Vijender’s shoulders. Right now, it is just his stardom and success that we are capitalising on. At least till the time we find a new star,” says Tomar, adding that the 31-year-old is “still five or six fights away from a world title”.
Former light-welterweight world champion and Athens silver-medallist Amir Khan offers a more candid assessment.
“Vijender has not made a big noise,” the 30-year-old told The Indian Express. “He hasn’t won a major title, or even half a major title, which will make people regard him as a good fighter.”
The PR-driven, sanitised machine around Vijender hasn’t helped him develop an outlandish persona either, and the boxer himself has gone on record saying that “my conscience doesn’t allow me to talk trash.”
An exciting breakout is the need of the hour, and Brigadier Raja believes it could be a woman, citing 2014 CWG bronze medallist Sarita Devi as an example. Earlier this year, in front of a raucous crowd in her hometown Imphal, Sarita pummeled Hungarian Zsofia Bedo in her pro debut, only to return to the amateur fold soon after.
“I’m telling you, what we saw that night, she could be a world champion in 6-12 months. Same for Pinki Jangra. Unfortunately, I brought them here but couldn’t get further fights. So I talked to Mr Ajay Singh and told him that these girls are still the best in the country. I told him that let them be in the fray for the upcoming Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. And once they’re done, with your permission, they can return to pro boxing.”
Both Sarita and Pinki had to submit letters of apology to the federation, but Raja believes it was for the better. “I would also give priority to amateur boxing. Asian Games, Olympics is something special.”
Neeraj Goyat, however, wants to make his mark as a professional boxer. He came close too. The 25-year-old took part in AIBA’s Olympic qualifiers in Venezuela last year but fell one win short of booking a Rio berth.
“Amateur is important as you have to go to the nursery class to get to a college,” says Goyat, who defended his WBC-ABC welterweight title on Saturday. “But nobody remembers amateur boxers. Mike Tyson is famous because he was professional. Muhammad Ali wasn’t popular because of his Olympic medal. Boxing ka naam professionals ki wajah se hi chalta hai.”