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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Tokyo 2020: Vikas Krishan outclassed in likely Olympic swansong

Vikas Krishan 2.0 isn’t afraid to drop his hands, shake his head, roll his eyes, smile and let the opponent know that he hasn’t connected. Even when he has.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Tokyo |
Updated: July 25, 2021 8:26:58 am
Vikas KrishanIndia's Vikas Krishan stands in his corner during his men's welterweight 69-kg boxing match against Japan's Sewonrets Quincy Mensah Okazawa at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. AP/PTI

Veteran boxer Vikas Krishan opened India’s campaign in the ring at the Tokyo Olympics, but it was his unheralded opponent that fought like a three-time Olympian. Home favourite Sewon Okazawa won the 69kg first-round bout by a unanimous 5-0 decision, leaving the Indian reeling and bleeding.

A lot has been said about Krishan’s foray into professional boxing. The two wins for Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions were ages ago, in the first quarter of 2019. Training and fighting in the US did improve the 29-year-old’s bodywork in amateur boxing, but the stints emboldened an already showboaty athlete. Vikas Krishan 2.0 isn’t afraid to drop his hands, shake his head, roll his eyes, smile and let the opponent know that he hasn’t connected. Even when he has.

To make matters worse for Krishan, a shoulder injury he had sustained during a sparring session flared up during the bout.

“Vikas was not a hundred percent unfortunately. He injured the shoulder in sparring previously, and our medical staff did everything they could,” says high performance director Santiago Nieva. “He was pretty okay, but then he re-injured the shoulder during the bout. When you throw punches as hard and fast as you can, that risk is always there. We give credit to the Japanese boxer. Even before the injury became a factor, he was doing very well in the beginning.”

Okazawa was the better boxer on the day. If Krishan looked slow and heavy, Okazawa was light-footed and swift. He looked confident, smooth and wasn’t afraid to trade punches. Of the two southpaws, it was Okazawa who was willing to move in with body-to-head combinations. And though Krishan waited, countered and caught his opponent multiple times, he was the boxer reacting rather than initiating. In their previous meeting at last year’s Asian Olympic qualifiers, Krishan set the tempo and won 5-0.

“It became difficult for Vikas to close the distance to land more than the occasional single punch. He couldn’t get the game plan going like he did in the previous bout,” says Nieva. “Okazawa was more active and went in with great confidence. He was able to put the fight where he wanted it.”

Okazawa, born in Yamagata to a Japanese mother and Ghanaian father, was fighting both for his country and his gym. He took up boxing relatively late at 15, and considered walking away from the sport seven years later for a career in advertising, believing he would never make the national team. A job opening for a boxing coach at the Kagoshima Amateur Sports Association club gave Okazawa another chance to continue his career. Last year, heavy flooding in Japan’s southwest damaged the gym. “I want to go to the Olympics from this gym,” Okazawa had told The Japan Times. “I want to give something back by helping return the gym to its usual condition.”

On his Olympic debut, the 25-year-old Asian Championships silver medallist and Worlds quarterfinalist was composed and efficient. Krishan lost all three rounds on all five scorecards, with a judge scoring the opening round 10-8 against him. In trying to catch up, the Indian exerted himself and couldn’t stop his head from falling forward. What followed was the umpteenth head clash and a resultant eye cut for Krishan. With time running out and blood running down his face, he got testy — at one point smacking Okazawa from behind, long after the referee had called for a break.

Going into the final round, the coaches had made it clear that a knockout was the only way for Krishan to secure the heist. He leapt and swung, only for Okazawa to land easy counters and move away. It got worse the harder Krishan tried.

“Vikas has made history by qualifying for his third Olympic Games. Obviously we would have liked a better ending. But with the injury it became very difficult,” says Nieva. “We know that at his best, he is capable of winning an Olympic medal. It wasn’t meant to be this time.”

As a 19-year-old at the London Games, Krishan defeated Errol Spence Jr. 13-11 before a protest lodged by the American resulted in the decision being overturned. Competing as a middleweight in Rio four years later, Krishan was the lone spark in the ring for India but fell one win short of a medal, losing to eventual silver medallist Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan. Krishan — who has a bronze at Worlds and a gold each at the Commonwealth and Asian Games — rose as a contemporary to Vijender Singh and is still going strong along with the youngsters. Saturday’s defeat, still, felt like the end of an era.

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