Updated: August 1, 2021 6:34:57 am
For four years, Amit Panghal had been the surest thing in Indian boxing. A run during which he earned a full set of medals at the Asian championships, an Asiad gold, a Commonwealth Games silver and a historic silver at the Worlds. Then he ran into a freight train from Colombia.
The top-seeded flyweight at the Tokyo Olympics was ousted in his first bout, beaten 4-1 by Rio silver medallist Yuberjen Martinez of Colombia.
It wasn’t a typical Panghal defeat. The 25-year-old did not lose a close decision because he started slow and left it too late. He took the first round 4-1, which, with the open scoring, is half the bout won.
The 5’2 Indian did not lose to a natural flyweight either. Martinez, though three inches taller, has had to move up to the Olympic category of 52kg like Panghal. The 29-year-old is yet to win a major medal in the weight class. His Olympic and Pan American silvers, and the bronze at Worlds, came in the 49kg category.
Instead, it was the relentless pressure from Martinez that left Panghal battered and breathless. The Indian corner, who had never seen their boxer “so tired” in a bout, had seen the Colombian’s handiwork up close before.
In the run-up to the Olympics, Panghal had sparred with Martinez at the team’s training base in Assisi, Italy, where the Colombian often similarly overwhelmed Panghal. So, when Panghal drew Martinez as his opening opponent in Tokyo, the team knew what to expect.
“This bout was not difficult to plan tactically,” high-performance director Santiago Nieva tells The Indian Express. “You have a boxer that comes forward all the time. There is no point matching him with the same tactic. The plan was to keep him at a distance because he was not difficult to hit. You needed to stick and move. But not moving too much because that will take some energy out of you.
“The tactical part wasn’t too difficult. In theory, it is very simple,” he adds. “But you need to implement it too.”
It was implemented in the opening round. Panghal countered Martinez’s blistering pace by sticking-and-moving, scoring and side-stepping. When cornered, he would feint and slip under the counter. He bobbed, weaved and ducked to safety. He also landed — a couple of straight lefts flush on the face — and, at one point, traded shots in an exchange.
Quality over quantity got Panghal the first round. In the next two, Martinez had both quality and quantity. The Indian corner was hoping that their opponent had emptied his gas tank, but the Colombian had gallons to spare. Behind on the scorecards, Martinez, incredibly, upped the volume and pressure even more.
“I remember in the first minute, when I saw that the Colombian kept coming, coming, coming… I realised that he will not tire,” says Nieva.
Ordeal for Indian
Thus began the long punishment for Panghal. He was swarmed and each time he held on to his opponent for some respite, Martinez poured on the bodywork, uppercuts to the torso and multiple ‘ganchos al higado’ — liver punches, a Latin American speciality.
“I would have to ask Amit (how much the bodywork took a toll on him) but we all know about the body punches, especially to the liver. It takes all your strength, your stamina, legs away. It knocks the wind out.”
It didn’t help that some of Martinez’s body punches slipped below the belt.
“The referee could have stopped and let Amit recover a bit. But it is okay, this is no complaint. Overall, all credit fair and square to Colombia. They came with a gameplan,” says Nieva.
The pressure also meant Panghal could never get his biggest weapon going — the looping overhand left. The punch is at its best when Panghal lunges back to create distance, before closing the said distance with a quick, looping shot. With the opponent in his face all the time, there was no distance to create or close. There was no overhand left, nor a straight right to follow it.
Constantly backpedalling and side-stepping against an untiring Martinez, Panghal had nothing to give in the third round.
“In the first round itself, we knew that we needed the second round,” says Nieva. “We needed to get three judges (in the second) because we knew the last round we wouldn’t win because the Colombian guy has incredible stamina. And it’s difficult in the third round when you are tired.
“I have to see the next bout to better evaluate how (Martinez) will go,” he added. “Today he looked like a potential gold medallist.”
With Panghal out, four of the five Indian men lost their first bouts in Tokyo.
“We still have a bullet left,” Santiago says, referring to super heavyweight Satish Kumar, who will face reigning world champion and clear favourite Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov on Sunday.
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