At first glance, one can’t tell Vikas Krishan’s Twitter apart from Neeraj Goyat’s. Constant cross-posting means one can keep abreast of both lives by following just one. Pictures of trips together, videos from controlled sparring sessions, headlines either one makes.
March was especially tweet-worthy for the duo. Vikas punched a ticket to his third Olympics with a stellar run at the Asian qualifiers in Jordan. Neeraj returned to the ring in New Zealand, taking his pro record to 12-3 (2 No Contests) after an accident put him out of commission last June.
This was to be a time to celebrate and recalibrate. Instead, the two 28-year-olds have been living in self-isolation since their returns.
“We had made great plans to meet up,” says Neeraj, who braved several flight cancellations for the return trip to India. “Corona ne sab gadbad kar diya (Corona spoilt everything), but we are always in touch. Always discussing everything.”
There’s much to discuss, too. Vikas, who has gold medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games and a bronze at the World Championships, is aiming for his first Olympic medal. Neeraj, who has been slogging away on the professional circuit since 2012, is trying to get a lucrative fight against former world champion Amir Khan re-booked, after it was called off two weeks out due to his car crash.
The parallel career trajectories notwithstanding, one has always had the other’s back. Vikas went after Vijender Singh for calling Neeraj a “kid”. Neeraj, meanwhile, helped Vikas in his pro boxing sojourn, and urged him to drop down a weight class to 69kg.
Both also fire back if one drops the F-word. “Friends nahi. Friends kaafi mil jaate hain (Not friends, you can find many friends),” Vikas says, and launches into an analysis that would make horoscope-matchers proud. “You can become friends if 70 per cent of your traits match with the other person. If it’s 80, you’re good friends. If it’s 10, you become enemies. You find a brother like Neeraj only if it’s a 90 per cent match.”
Asked to list some of the shared traits, Vikas rattles away: “We don’t drink or smoke. Neither do his parents nor mine. We are both family men. We believe in god. Most importantly, we believe in speaking our mind even if it costs us.”
“I won’t call it friendship,” Neeraj reiterates. “Alag alag ma ke pet waale bhai hain hum (we are brothers from different mothers). It’s difficult to sustain a simple friendship for 15-16 years,” adds Neeraj, ‘tau’ to Vikas’ children and ‘bada beta’ to his parents.
Like any good friendship, this too began with one beating the pulp out of the other.
Pune’s Army Sports Institute, circa 2006. Vikas was the brazen sub-junior champion everybody was talking about. An unassuming Neeraj, by his own account, “was absolutely nobody.” Though they ran with separate crowds, Vikas would tease the mild Neeraj endlessly.
“Neeraj is from the Yamunanagar side. They are generally gentle people, who don’t do a lot of cussing,” Vikas cackles. “For us Bhiwani men, it’s natural.”
Neeraj recounts: “Bohot chhedta tha ye mujhe, poora din (He used to tease me a lot, the whole day). Around here people say, Yadavs and Jats generally don’t get along too well either.”
One evening, Neeraj lost his cool and dished out a beating that left Vikas crying. “It’s not like now, when he’s much bigger. Back then he was in 42kg, I was 50. After a while, I felt horrible and went to his room, asked him to shift to mine. I told him, ‘this day onward, we will never fight nor would I let anybody mess with you’,” Neeraj laughs. “Army Sports Institute. Room no. 18. People still remember it as our adda.”
The two also shared a growing boxer’s appetite, and the chicken served in the mess wasn’t enough. Neeraj would hop on his cycle and get a broiler, and his friend would cook up a mean chicken curry.
“We got into some trouble because of that too. He’s a great cook,” Neeraj says. “And he’s the best when it comes to lighting a fire. Give him damp wood and he would still get it going. That way he’s the best person to have around if you’re camping.”
The two broke into the national camp in 2007, and competed at the Commonwealth Youth Games 2008. Neeraj moved to the senior camp in 2009 and Vikas joined him a year later.
“In 2010, we were in the same (60kg) weight category. We have seen boxing friendships fall apart in such cases. But if you’re able to keep the person separate from the rival boxer, these things don’t matter much. In that sense, we have always tried to set an example for future generations.”
There was another fight, more a friendly scrap on the road to the Rio Olympics. Bored in the evenings of an invitational tournament overseas, they decided to get into an impromptu test of strength. The grappling session spilled out of the hotel room into the lobby, leaving bystanders scandalised.
“It went on for 25-30 minutes. Proper kushti (wrestling). The foreigners in the lobby were shocked and urged us to break it up,” says Neeraj. “After a while, we got up and carried on like nothing had happened.”
Neeraj fell one win short of securing a berth to the Rio Olympics, and Vikas one win short of securing a medal. Three days before the quarterfinal loss against eventual middlweight finalist Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan, Vikas called up Neeraj.
“Before that fight, a thought crossed my mind. ‘Let’s do something different’. We created a common mail ID, thought of a great password and decided to start a promotion together. ‘VN – Vikas Neeraj promotions’,” he recalls. “We were seeing how promoters were taking Indian kids for a ride, making them fight for next to nothing. We still have that ID. In fact we have made similar accounts on all three, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We don’t use those accounts often. After Tokyo, we will get started on that.”
“The biggest thing, I believe is that we both follow a rule. Never be with a person who lies,” Neeraj says. “Don’t sweet-talk or try to fleece us. We have met many people in boxing who lie or manipulate youngsters. That doesn’t work for us.”
Neeraj was also instrumental in setting up PBOI (Professional Boxing Organisation of India) to help those looking to transition from amateur to professional ranks. So when Olympic bronze medallist and unbeaten professional Vijender Singh trash-talked Amir Khan for “fighting kids” and said “Neeraj Goyat is way junior to me”, Vikas jumped into the fray.
“Vijender, Neeraj and Amir Khan are of same weight category let them fight. We are of same weight category, we must fight under their card in November this year (sic)” Vikas had tweeted.
“Tune isko baccha kaise bola, tu ladne aaja (How dare you call him a kid, come and fight)” Vikas says. “The ones who have guts call their opponents out. I have seen Neeraj make fighters out of kids who, frankly speaking, were useless. I have seen him help find a job for a petrol pump attendant he’s just met,” says Vikas. “If nothing else, he has helped boxers get roles in movies.”
Neeraj helped actor Vineet Kumar train for Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz and also earned an acting credit for a brief appearance, leaving the meatier roles for fellow friends. He is also training Farhan Akhtar for his upcoming film ‘Toofan’ and suspects he might have a speaking role this time around.
It was also Neeraj who made the category switch decision for Vikas. “It was hundred per cent his idea,” says Vikas. “He said, ‘tune saare band baja ke dekh liye hain but Olympic medal nahin mila (you’ve tried everything but haven’t won an Olympic medal). Try it’. I was unsure whether I would be able to cut to 69kg. But he told me ‘you take a lot of pride in challenging yourself. Take this as a challenge’.”
Early goings in the transition from 75 to 69 were rough, and Vikas’ father rang Neeraj up. “’Beta, he isn’t eating properly. 75 hi theek hai’, uncle said to me. I told him, ‘you will definitely see the results shortly. Please wait till Tokyo uncle’,” Neeraj says.
The other rough transition was from a pro boxer’s life in New Jersey to the national camp return. “It was the qualifier trials in December, and I was feeling very restless. I called him up and he took the next flight to visit me at the national camp in Bellary,” says Vikas. “He did that twice. The support that he has been for 16 years now, sometimes makes me feel I don’t do enough for this man.”
All Neeraj wants is for Vikas to fulfil his potential at the Olympics. “Look at him now. He’s looking deadly. He’s got the 75kg power and 69kg speed. Bas Olympic acche se ho jaaye ek baar (Just let the Olympics take place properly),” says Neeraj.
Vikas, though, is his pragmatic self. “If Olympics happens, great. If it doesn’t, life moves on. I have been to the Olympics two times. The plan is to do something big, something different for the future,” says Vikas. “Let’s put that joint ‘VN’ ID to good use.”
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