Growing frustrated by his inability to home in on the target as early as the first round, Hasanboy Dusmatov held Amit Panghal’s head down, before putting it in a vice-like grip. Panghal responded by pushing the reigning Olympic champion down to the mat. Dusmatov would try it again in the second round, and would get another hearty shove for his efforts. The message was clear. This wasn’t the Hasanboy Dusmatov show, and Panghal wasn’t ‘the other guy’, only in the ring to be the latest stepping stone in the 25-year-old Uzbek’s quick ascendancy.
The Indian upstaged Dusmatov in a split 3-2 decision to win the Asian Games light flyweight (49kg) gold medal. Panghal had lost the match-up twice before, in the semifinal of the Asian Boxing Championship last May and the World Championship quarterfinal last August. His performance on Saturday however was a three-act play of redemption, put together with equal parts guile and homework.
Round 1: The long game
At the World Championships, Dusmatov set the tone for the unanimous win early, landing a jab to the gut and an overhead right to the head before Panghal had even thrown a punch. In Jakarta, having steamrolled into the final with three unanimous victories, Dusmatov was in the mood to make quick work of the Indian again. But while Panghal had essentially remained a stationary target in Hamburg, on Saturday he was fleet-footed and out of reach, feinting, retreating to make Dusmatov miss his twelve first punches.
“We told Amit to punch and fall back and be safe,” assistant coach C Kuttappa told The Indian Express. “We had seen videos of the Uzbek boxer and the focus was to avoid his long range and counter that with explosive punches.”
The light flyweight category, smallest in Olympic boxing, is ruled by light-fisted volume punchers. Dusmatov, with his shifting southpaw style and quick combinations, both floats and stings like a butterfly. Panghal, the stronger, more muscular of the two on the day, edged the power game and looked a far cry from his lean self of the past, thanks to the weightlifting and strength training drills under high performance director Santiago Nieva. “He is a lot stronger, more intelligent and experienced boxer than when he faced Dusmatov before,” said Nieva. “His punches had more power and he was able to rack up the damage.”
The 22-year-old opened up angles, sneaked in quick one-twos, uppercuts and bounced back. Dusmatov’s trademark lunging right hook was blocked or ducked under, and he couldn’t get his hypnotic weaving going either.
“The coach had asked me get him on counterattack,” said Panghal after the bout. “The training in England and at the camp in India helped as I could deal with southpaws and land uppercuts.”
“We knew we had the first round,” Nieva said. “Amit’s footwork was on point and he didn’t let Dusmatov settle.”
Round 2: Miscalculations
In the semifinal against Carlo Paalam, Panghal sputtered off the blocks as the wily Filipino landed flush shots. “In the semifinal, I did not play the first round well, here I did not repeat that mistake,” Panghal said.
Panghal remained cautious in the early goings, avoiding a slugfest with Dusmatov. But perhaps it was the solid opening round against Dusmatov, or the fact that he seemed to have the measure of his opponent, but Panghal reverted to his old self and went in to do some damage. He aborted the new plan within seconds, but it was enough time for Dusmatov to hit the groove and start snaking in and out. Suddenly, it was Panghal whose shots thudded against the upheld gloves, while Dusmatov began landing flush, including a counter right which stunned Panghal.
“Bout se pehle hi plan banaya tha ki close main nahi rehna,” said Kuttappa. “But in the second round, Amit committed that error and suffered because of that.”
Dusmatov rode the wave but couldn’t replicate his earlier bouts against Panghal, where he would step in and pepper the Indian with body shots. Then, with 45 seconds left on the clock, Dusmatov went for a step out right when Panghal stood his ground and planted a straight left. Dusmatov lost his footing and put his gloves on the mat for a split second. The knockdown-that-wasn’t meant Panghal finished the round strongly. And while he lost it on three of the judges scorecards, the late flurry meant Dusmatov went into the corner possibly behind on points.
Round 3: Reaping benefits
“In the corner, I told him it was all about the third round,” says Nieva. “We believed it to be one round apiece. Going into it, Amit knew that despite all the hardwork in the previous rounds, he had to stick to his gameplan.”
Dusmatov, who had long been a boogeyman for Indian light flyweights, lost the last time he took on one. The unheralded NT Lalbiakkima from Mizoram stunned Dusmatov in the Kazakhstan President’s Cup this June, using his small frame to turtle up and move inside. Against the 5’3” Panghal however, the two-inch shorter Dusmatov faced a different problem. Looking to take the final round in a dominant fashion, Dusmatov moved forward while Panghal used his reach advantage to launch counters.
And thus in the final round, Panghal put on a counterattacking clinic. A Dusmatov desperate to engage spelled good news for India. As the Uzbek overextended, Panghal used lateral movement and sharp angles to turn him around and quick step-in combinations to pick him off, essentially beating the world number one at his own game. Playing catch-up for the first time in a long while, Dusmatov extended and expended himself, growing sloppier with the second. “He faded a little bit towards the end, and his punches didn’t have enough strength,” says Nieva. “Amit however finished strongly, and didn’t lack in energy.”
Panghal’s precise movement and clean striking in the dying moments hinted at the other major improvement in his game — conditioning. He missed out on the Commonwealth gold after appearing to gas out late in the final against England’s Galal Yafai. Sessions of short sprinting on the track in the four months since meant he had energy to spare on Saturday. Panghal finished the third round, and the fight, strongly to nudge the decision in his favour.
“A bout of such high caliber is testament to the progress he has made in a short time. He was fast throughout this tournament, and even in the final minute of the final bout he didn’t slow down,” said Nieva. “You need to remember that this wasn’t a bad day in the office for Dusmatov. He has looked good throughout this tournament. But Panghal showed character in this bout. Plus he is young and wants to keep learning. Based on this performance, you have to rank him right up there with Dusmatov and other top boxers.”
There are obvious flaws in Panghal’s game, not least of which is the open guard. But the mental and physical progress he has made in twelve months, the mettle he showed against the top Asian boxers (the toughest in the category) and the attitude with which he owned the ring on Saturday make him an exciting prospect to follow.