“He couldn’t even look me in the eye. We were in the ring, and ek haath se dia usko,” says Siddharth Verma, dramatically lifting his left hand up and, in slow motion, throwing a jab. “He couldn’t even get up. But then… forget it.”
There’s more disgust than pain in his voice. It has been six years since that lightweight bout with Dilbag Singh — a trial for the Delhi Commonwealth Games — that Verma claims he won via knockout. However, when the team was named, Dilbag was selected ahead of him. “I didn’t have a godfather in boxing so no one cared,” Verma says. Six other boxers surrounding him have a sympathetic look on their face as Verma narrates his story. It resembles one of those self help clubs where people pour their hearts out.
They all have a tale to tell. At some point, they all feel they’ve been cheated by the amateur boxing system. There’s anger and disappointment. But sympathy is not what they’re seeking. Instead, they’re now keen to resurrect their long-stagnated careers by ditching their amateur tags and moving to professional boxing. On Saturday, 22 young men with somewhat similar storylines will be part of the pro-boxing fight card that will be conducted by the newly-formed Indian Boxing Council at the Siri Fort Complex here.
And they’re hoping it will be a small first step in reviving their fortunes. “If you’re an amateur boxer, then the only way you can go on to represent the country is if you have someone’s blessings. In pro-boxing, it’s down to your hard work,” says cruiserweight (heavyweight in amateur) boxer Sukhwinder, who was in the national camp for five years but claims he was constantly ignored in favour of Dinesh Kumar.
Sukhwinder missed the first fight card last month after he injured himself while travelling from his hometown Bhiwani to Delhi during the Jat agitation. Travelling on a bike with his coach Sukhbir Sangwan, they stumbled upon a tree, which was felled by the protestors to block the road, near Rohtak bypass and severely injured himself. The scar is still visible on his face, which only adds to the persona of the 200-pound fighter. “If you do well in pro boxing, there’s fame and money,” he says. Others nod in unison.
The money’s decent, though not even half as exorbitant as other pro bouts elsewhere in the world offer. The debut fighters on Saturday stand to earn Rs 2,500 per round; grade 1 boxers will get Rs 3,500 and the prize money goes up by nearly a grand for every category that follows. The maximum a boxer in some categories will be able to take home from Saturday’s card will be around Rs 40,000. “It’s just the beginning so the prize money is less. By the time we conduct our championship match in around 5-6 months, we are sure it will fetch the boxer around Rs 4 lakh,” says Brig. Muralidharan Raja, the president of IBC.
Starting from scratch
Raja, a former secretary of the now-defunct Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF), has been in the sport’s administration for long enough to understand its challenges and hurdles. Though pro-boxing has had a very marginal presence in India, it shot to prominence following Vijender Singh’s switch last year. The formation of IBC followed soon after but Raja insists he had been working on forming a professional federation for the last two years. “In 2008, I had originally proposed formation of a pro body to the International Boxing Federation. But it was rejected by its president CK Wu since they had their own pro tournaments coming up. After that, I started working on it again two years back and it was just a coincidence that IBC was launched after Vijender turned pro,” Raja says.
With no existing framework, he had to fall back on his former colleagues at the IABF to be the technical officials, but since no boxer in India was formally trained for pro-boxing, that turned out to be his biggest challenge. The boxers are primarily former national champions and long-time campers. With the amateur boxing federation suspended, they’ve been out of action for a couple of years since the national championships haven’t taken place and the camp being restricted to a handful few. They were quick to jump the ship and join the pro circuit, and Raja roped in American Joe Clough — who has coached the likes of Evander Holyfield, Jonny Bumphus, Sugar Ray Seales and Rocky Lockridge besides being the head coach of Muhammad Ali Boxing Club in 1979 — as the technical director.
Clough’s brief was simple — to coach the coaches. But it extended much beyond that. He conducted a camp for boxers in Pune ahead of Saturday’s fight card and on Friday, also had some advice for the referees. “Be invisible,” he began. “In amateur boxing, the referee sometimes likes to take the spotlight. But don’t indulge in theatrics. Keep it simple, keep your voice firm so that the boxers respect you in the ring.”
Eventually, it’ll come down to what happens in the ring. There will be 11 fights on Saturday, including six-round bouts which will be held for the first time in India. Clough has rechristened some of the boxers according to their style. So we have a Gagan ‘The Pitbull’, Pradeep ‘The Dancer’, Krishan Kumar ‘The Gentle Giant’ and ‘Tau’ Sumit Rangi. But that — and the ring girls — is as close to fancy as these pro bouts will get. There will be no showmanship and extravaganza that we generally associate it with.
For the time being, the focus is firmly on setting up a structure and ensure a smooth transition for the boxers. “We are in this for money and fame. But we’ve been ignored for far too long. So mainly, we are here to prove ourselves. This is our chance,” Verma says.