Updated: July 28, 2021 6:27:19 pm
Pooja Rani entered the 75kg quarterfinals with a commanding 5-0 win over Ichrak Chaib on Wednesday. Pooja, a two-time Asian Championships gold medallist, was simply too good for the 20-year-old from Algeria. A win against the second-seeded Chinese LI Qian on Saturday will assure Pooja of a bronze medal.
Pooja, 30, was the middleweight with experience and a plan. The tone was set in the first round as the Indian often caught the overeager Chaib on counters. While she settled down in the second round, the orthodox Algerian could never get going against the southpaw Pooja. The straight lefts coming in were barely defended. And once Pooja found her range with the right hooks and crosses, Chaib — whose best result so far has been a fourth-place finish at the 2018 Youth Olympics — was left open as target practice.
Pooja won all three rounds on the five scorecards, with one judge ruling the second round for the Indian 10-8, a score reserved for a “clear winner”. Not a bad debut for a boxer who was one loss away from retiring last year.
After the win that secured her the Olympic berth in Jordan last March, Pooja had talked about being “very nervous and under pressure”. “I realised that it was this one bout between me and the Olympics. Agar ab bhi nahi hua, toh mujhe stop kar dena chahiye. I shouldn’t be boxing,” she had told this paper.
On Wednesday, if there were any nerves, she did well to hide them. It was the maiden Olympic bout for the Bhiwani boxer, also the de facto torchbearer of two-time Asian Games gold medallist Hawa Singh’s legacy.
She learnt the sport at the Hawa Singh Boxing academy in Bhiwani, under the late Arjuna and Dronacharya awardee’s son Sanjay Kumar. And when Pooja had to take on Sanjay’s daughter Nupur in the selection trials for Olympic qualifiers, the teacher prayed for his student instead. “You always want your elder child to succeed first. Nupur’s time will come,” Sanjay had said then.
“I haven’t eaten or drank anything all day,” Sanjay laughs, minutes after Pooja’s win on Wednesday. “I’m getting some juice right now. That is what happens when your child is at a big stage. I had full faith that Pooja was going to win today, but I was still nervous.”
Pooja has come to Tokyo with some decent form behind her. She won the Asian Championships gold (she only had to fight once) in May and beat former world champion Athenya Bylon from Panama at the Spain invitational in March.
“We have discussed everything about every opponent, every game plan. We are constantly talking over video calls. Today also, before the bout she video-called me,” said Sanjay. “‘Accha, main ja rahi hun bout ke liye. Apna aashirwaad do (Alright, I’m going for the bout. Give me your blessings.'”
“I am very happy with her performance. Even the straight right, which is not a strong punch for her, was on point. This is the kind of win you need to prepare for tougher rounds,” Sanjay adds.
Up next on Saturday is Li Qian, Rio bronze-medallist and 2018 World Champion. Pooja lost to the Chinese in the semifinals of the 2014 Asian Games and last year’s Asian Qualifiers.
“Today, Pooja was extremely focussed and she fought intelligently,” says women’s high performance director Raffaele Bergamasco. “Li Qian is very mobile and difficult to attack. We will be working on some counterattacking strategies for her.”
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