Last December, Vijender Singh took his unbeaten professional record to double digits, retained his WBO super middleweight Asia Pacific and Oriental belts and was primed for bigger things, including a possible look-in for the world title picture. The 12 months since however have produced new boxing heroes, in the form of Commonwealth, Asian Games and Worlds medallists. Boxing seemed to have moved on while Vijender remained stuck at 10-0 with his two paper titles.
“It has been a long year”, made even longer by the bombardment by one question. “‘When is your next fight?’ I post something online, and the comments are ‘when is your next fight’. You meet somebody and they want to know the same,” Vijender, 33, told The Indian Express on Thursday. “Forget how it makes me feel. I felt bad for the fans. It is frustrating but how can you tell them what is happening? How can you explain all the technicalities? Good things take time, and I hope people are happy now.”
Last month, the three-time Olympian and 2008 bronze-medallist signed a 15-month deal with Top Rank promotions. The Las Vegas-based company is the brainchild of Bob Arum, longtime friend of Muhammad Ali and the promoter of history’s most lucrative boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr vs Manny Pacquiao.
With the move, Vijender, along with compatriot Vikas Krishan who signed a week earlier, joined a stable that once housed legends like Ali, Oscar de la Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard and current stars such as Vasyl Lomachenko and Terence Crawford.
The US debut could come in February or March, and if the promoters are to be believed, Vijender could be in line to face the winner of next week’s WBA and WBC middleweight title fight between Canelo Alvarez and Rocky Fielding, a possibility discussed during the luncheon at Arum’s estate in Beverly Hills, California.
“Every boxer is a fan of Muhammad Ali, and by extension knows and respects Bob. So it was good to be there, and be welcomed by Bob, his wife and his manager,” says Vijender. “I met (Pacquiao’s coach) Freddie Roach at the gym, and he told me: ‘I have been waiting to train an Indian.’ It was the next big step to be in America because that is the land for of professional boxing.”
It was also the logical step after severing ties with Frank Warren’s Queensberry Promotions, who helped put on the Indian’s first six fights in the United Kingdom. But friction was growing with Queensberry unable to deliver big names, and the breaking point came earlier this year. The Commonwealth champion Rocky Fielding was being courted for Vijender, but the Liverpudlian turned the fight down and vacated the title. Briton Lee Markham agreed and then pulled out one week from the fight in July.
“I didn’t know what was wrong with him, but the fight got postponed. That’s when I realised that we can’t do this every time. I was done with them after that. We also realised that we needed a big promoter, so we reached out to US. But these things take time,” says Vijender. “Now, we were in the loop of things happening. But it was frustrating for anybody looking in from the outside.” Not that a year without action wasn’t frustrating for Vijender, who was pushing 30 for his debut bout in 2015 and was deemed too old for the rigours of professional boxing.
“It was frustrating at times, I won’t deny it. It can be difficult to find motivation at such times, to keep going and keep training. But main Waheguru pe chhod deta hun sab. I tell him, ‘you’ve brought me to this level. You’ll take me to higher places too,’’ says Vijender. “I come from a very small village. Now, I am flying first-class to USA. I have seen zero, and I am experiencing such big things now. You just need to keep the faith that things will happen.”
‘Low risk, high reward’
In addition to the two Indians, Top Rank has also recently added South African Chris van Heerden and WBA regular middleweight champion Rob Brant to its roster. Arum, who turns 87 on Saturday and began promoting fights with Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title defence against George Chuvalo in 1966, is on the ball in the fast-changing landscape of combat sports.
Longtime pro-boxing patron HBO has dropped out, and streaming services like DAZN, who signed Canelo Alvarez on an absurd 5-year, 11-fight deal worth $365 million, have emerged as new rivals. That’s where India, ever-the-alluring market, comes in. Arum tried the ploy unsuccessfully in China, when he nabbed Olympian Zou Shiming who fought in Macau seven times, and in Shanghai twice.
“China didn’t work,” Arum told the Talk Box podcast this week. “You couldn’t sell tickets in China, you had government people constantly interfering, the government people kept constantly demanding free tickets to fights, and so forth. It was always problems in China, which hopefully we won’t encounter in India.”
Arum, whose promotion has a contract with ESPN, is also banking on the parent company Disney’s ties with the Star network and Vijender’s popularity in India.
“(Vijender) is one of the big, big stars in India. He has 3.7mn followers on Twitter. So this move isn’t braggadocious,” said Arum. “We hope to educate the Indian people on the sport of boxing, through these two Indian kids. It’s a very small risk, but the reward can be huge.”
Vijender, who knows that the gambit in China didn’t work for Top Rank, realises his importance as a commodity in India and wants to tick at least one box during this current push. “Not many people know that Madison Square Garden has been a dream of mine since 2005. Even before the Olympic medal. When I mentioned that to Arum, he turned to his team and said ‘let’s get the boy to Madison Square Garden.”