Uzbeks were boxing’s reigning royalty at the Rio Olympics — winning seven medals, the most for any nation, including a gold. That was two more than Russia, US or Great Britain. Hasanboy Dusmatov was adjudged the best boxer and Uzbek fans travel with brass bands, create a din and stomp around arenas like the judges ought to know they own it.
Except, India’s Amit Panghal had other ideas on Saturday.
He bolted out of the blue corner all guns blazing in the first minute and a half, to secure a 3-2 split decision victory — and India’s first gold in boxing and last of the Asian Games in Jakarta.
Flaws had crept into Dusmatov’s boxing the last two years since Rio, and a pattern had emerged to take on his fierce right. Panghal crouched and fought from a low-punching position, going for the chest, while denying the Uzbek any visible dominance by staying out of his range in the first two minutes.
Boxing now is about impressing the judges — first impressions matter, and last impressions endure. Panghal went about with his jumping 1-2 combination, the straight right and straight left. It was the early flurry, even as he got his head out of the way and strongly blocked in the first minute and a half, that Panghal set the tone for the rest of the fight.
The Indian tends to fight firm from a lower position, and while he didn’t always lead from the inside, he got his hooks sinking into the Uzbek’s armour from the very start.
Panghal, who has a Commonwealth Games silver, was the only Indian in contention for the finals after Vikas Krishan had settled for bronze. It was a steep ask against the fancied Olympic champ, but striking on the counter and tiring him out, Panghal kept energy levels high, raising the tempo in the last half of the third round, to put the matter beyond doubt.
This was, in fact, the second victory by an Indian over Dusmatov in three months. Nutlai Lalbiakkima, the Mizo light-flyweight had first beaten the Uzbek Olympic champion from Rio, in June. And it seems India and its high-performance director Santiago Nieva have Dusmatov’s number, as yet another Indian, bobbed and weaved in Lalbiakkima’s footsteps with Panghal overturning two prior defeats to win a massive gold medal.
When Panghal fought him the last two times, the defeats had been lessons, brutally learnt. But Indians had studied Dusmatov obsessively, shored up Phangal’s speed and strength in England, sharpened the tools needed to taken on the Uzbek and learnt a bit of the 1-2 from the fight against the Mizo.
The 22-year-old from Rohtak was drawn to boxing because of his elder brother — an armyman — who had taken leave just to watch his kid brother fight. His uncle was his first coach, and it wasn’t often that he ran into southpaw sparring mates. This meant watching reels of video, watching them again, paused and forwarded threadbare, and drilled into his mind for this battle of southpaws.
It was a unique challenge for India’s only finalist on Saturday though — especially after he’d erred in the opening rounds in the semis, starting slow and having to catch up. Unlike the semis, where the bout was late in the evening, Panghal had to wake up at 5 am and cut ½ a kg in weight before stepping onto the scales for a 2 pm fight. So the day began with intense skipping and running – and lesser time to rest, eat and rehydrate.
Panghal also needed the fortifying belief that he could overcome the man he had lost to twice. “I told him silver is nothing. We can’t be satisfied with silver,” Nieva said, adding that the Amit of now was far more confident than the one went down to Dusmatov before.
A single-minded hard worker, supremely focused and with great speed in both his attack and footwork, Panghal had all the makings of a champion. He is also known in the camp as the most relaxed of all boxers with a light-hearted take on most things in life. “I’m always surprised the way he switches from fooling around to getting intensely focussed in the ring. Like a switch of a button,” Nieva said.
An Uzbek felt the current coursing through him too as the button was switched on. India had its final gold of the Games. Carved on the counter, at the count of 1-2-hook-Go.