Assembled at Rohtak’s Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex this weekend was a ragtag bunch of skilled Indian boxers. With the eight Commonwealth Games medallists enjoying a well-deserved break, these were the de facto second-best the country had to offer for the World Series of Boxing bouts against Russia and China.
The franchise, Indian Tigers, comprised the likes of chirpy flyweight Kavinder Bisht, heavy-hitter Mandeep Jangra, towering heavyweight Sanjeet and Shiva Thapa, long the poster-boy of Indian amateur boxing. Together they formed a gritty sidegroup in contrast to the glamorous eight medallists; The Guardians of the Galaxy, to Gold Coast’s Avengers, if you will.
The 3-2 and 4-1 wins over Russia and China, the team’s first victories in the semi-professional tournament, point towards the depth of talent Indian men’s boxing enjoys at the moment. Thapa and Jangra got their comeback bids to a strong start while upstarts Bisht and national youth champion Mohamed Etash Khan proved their worth.
The performances also hint at the battle beyond the ring. The boxers weren’t just squaring off with foreign opponents. There were many looking to punch their way into the national fray ahead of the Asian Games in August. With chief coach SR Singh and high performance director Santiago Nieva for cornermen, there were never any worries about a performance going unnoticed.
“This was always the plan,” says Nieva, after his first WSB assignment. “It’s not a case of fielding second-string sides. It’s more about giving everyone an opportunity to prove themselves in an elite competition. It’s a fresh slate and everyone wants to make their mark.”
It’s still a safe bet to assume that the CWG medallists will have a stronger claim at the second multi-sport event of the year. After all, the contingent was finalised after months of competition, both domestic and foreign. A little more than two months may not be enough time to change the status quo for Asiad selection, and Thapa and Co realise that. And while ‘it’s us versus them’ isn’t stated, it could be read between the lines.
“The men’s team won two gold, three silver and three bronze. But who knows, if some other boxers were there, they could have won even more gold,” says 2014 CWG silver medallist Jangra. “It’s all about setting personal goals. If we believe that we are even better than the medallists, and strive to work that hard, it will be good for the nation. Every boxer here wants to be better than the ones that went to CWG.”
Precisely why when a finely-dressed Naman Tanwar walked into the locker room to wish the red-jersey-clad Indian team good luck, the CWG bronze medallist stood out in more ways than one. His heavyweight counterpart Sanjeet defeated the 20-year-old at the India Open in Feburary, but couldn’t make the cut. There’s no explicit disgruntlement however.
“It was his time. And he performed well,” said Sanjeet, who received a walkover win on Sunday. “Now onus is on me to improve my game.”
“Yahan kisi ko bhi dekh lo,” Bisht motioned towards everyone in the locker room. “These are top boxers. It’s not about competing with anybody else. We are all trying to compete at the level we know we can.”
Even Thapa, who lost to 60kg silver medallist Manish Kaushik twice in the run-up to Commonwealth Games, waves off any rivalry talk. “What a result like Commonwealth Games does is boost the sport’s profile in the country,” says Thapa. “More people will look to achieve such performances and take up the game.”
Bisht expresses disappointment over missing out on the CWG bonanza, but justifies the selection. “There was a point system for selection before Commonwealth Games, and I accept that. I lost at the India Open and that cost me. But I am raring to go for the Asian Games.” When reminded of Gaurav Solanki’s gold medal, Bisht says, “I can’t start thinking about what the other person is doing, or how good he is. My control is over my bouts. If I keep the performances up, I don’t see why I won’t be picked. I just need to show intent.”
On Sunday, the intent was visible when Jangra came out swinging for the fences against Haerheng Wulepaer. And while he rattled the Chinese a couple of times, the all-out tactic didn’t quite impress Nieva.
“He can get a bit wild,” said Nieva. “It is a very entertaining style for the viewers, but as a coach, I would like my boxers to conserve their energy. Especially in a five-round fight.”
Nieva isn’t oblivious to the motivations though. The coach welcomes the scenario of multiple boxers vying for a berth, if it keeps resulting in the performances Thapa, Bisht, Jangra and Etash put in.
“I can only say that such performances will help them a lot. The bouts here will give us necessary insight. Plus going five rounds will give them the confidence to raise their performance in amateur events. Everybody who has done well here, and maintains the standards going forward, will have a good chance of getting selected,” asserts Nieva. “There is a lot of competition lined up. May will be the preparation period for us, and June will be the competition period. We will be going to Russia, Serbia, Romania, Germany and Thailand. There will be plenty of chances for everyone to make the Asian Games team.”
The road to Jakarta is underway. And some would say the second-stringers have taken a head-start.