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Friday, December 03, 2021

Days after losing mother to lung infection, Akash punches his way to World Championship medal

National champion, who entered the semifinal of the 54kg category, beat Yoel Finol, the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medalist, to advance.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt |
Updated: November 3, 2021 7:47:47 am
Akash, after stunning Rio Olympic silver medalist Yoel Finol of Venezuela 5-0 in the quarterfinal and securing at least a bronze medal at the Men's Boxing world championships in Belgrade, Serbia on Tuesday. (BFI)

On Tuesday, Akash Kumar became only the seventh Indian boxer to win a medal at the World Championships. The 21-year-old did so in his debut senior tournament, dominating an Olympic medalist to enter the 54 kg semifinals in Belgrade. His relatives back home in Paluwas, Haryana though felt no nerves watching, only bittersweet joy afterwards.

“We are very happy but it is not surprising. I only wish that Akash’s mother was here to witness his rapid rise,” Akash’s uncle Bhawar Singh tears up. “But everybody here believes that her blessings are a reason for his success.”

Akash’s mother, Santosh, died of a lung infection after contracting a viral fever in September; the eve of the national championships in Bellary. Throughout the week, as Akash broke opponents and reputations, his uncle Bhawar — alongside Services and current national head coach Narender Rana — kept the news from him. It was only when he returned home, looking to place the gold medal at his ailing mother’s feet, that Akash realised his mother had gone.

“The last time we spoke, she made me promise that I will bring the gold medal home,” Akash had told his paper. “I know they kept it to themselves for my own good. I would have left the tournament midway. The run that I had, the top boxers that I defeated this week… I assure you, now I understand that it was all because my mother was in my corner. I will do justice to my talent at the Worlds. And I know my mother will watch over me there as well,” he had said.

Hawa Singh product

During the brief stay at home before leaving for the national camp, Akash sharpened his skills at the Hawa Singh Academy in Bhiwani, under the titular boxing legend’s son Sanjay.

“He has always been a confident boxer, but his focus was something else this time. He had fulfilled one dream of his parents by becoming a national champion. The next dream of course was the world championship medal,” says Sanjay, who has been training Akash since he was 9. “He is a very reserved kid. Very polite. But in the ring, his mentality is his strength. All the troubles outside have also made him tough.”

Akash celebrates after securing the victory. (BFI)

Growing up, Akash and elder brother Suraj regularly accompanied their state-level wrestler father Rajbir to the akharas. But after neighbouring village Kaluwas’s Vijender Singh won India’s first boxing medal at the Olympics in 2008, Rajbir enrolled his sons at Sanjay’s academy. He passed away later that year.

Akash’s elder brother Suraj, an even better boxer by all accounts, won the sub-junior national championship in 2012 and multiple medals for Haryana. But he is currently in jail in connection with a murder case. “Buri sangat,” Akash had summed up Suraj’s troubles.

“Everything plays a part,” says Sanjay. “The struggles have sharpened him mentally. The striking footwork is clean. But his mentality and spirit are different from others. Nothing fazes him. You look at the bout today. Did he box like he was taking on a top Olympian boxer?”

In Tuesday’s quarterfinal, Akash defeated Yoel Finol — the evasive southpaw from Venezuela whose bronze at Rio 2016 was bumped up to silver after Russian Mikhail Aloyan failed a drug test. The first round was close, but Akash landed a sharp right cross at the bell to win four out of five cards.

“The coaches and I had discussed that getting the first round was most important. All I had to do was counterattack his shots,” Akash said after the bout. With the all-important opener going his way, Akash showed why he has been earmarked by coaches as the next poster boy: the real-life filmy boxing style.

Stalking with swagger

He often drops his hands, crouches, slinks and stalks with swagger. His eyes light up when the opponent is on the ropes. There’s the goading smile when he connects, and the petulant grins and chest thumps to shake off punches. He charges into a skirmish at the start of the rounds, and puts unrelenting pressure.

But, at least on Tuesday, it wasn’t all bullheaded boxing. In the last two rounds, having taken a comfortable lead in terms of shots landed, Akash was sensible to step back and run down the clock. And when his desperate opponent came in, Akash slipped, swayed and threw long combinations.

Akash Kumar stuns Rio Olympic silver medalist Yoel Finol of Venezuela 5-0. (BFI)

“As a young trainee, he lost a couple of fights due to aggression. I sat with him and simply told him, ‘Apne guru ki beizzati karayega?'” Sanjay laughs. “He hasn’t lost his head since then.”

Up next is Makhmud Sabyrkhan of Kazakhstan in Thursday’s semifinal. The 19-year-old has won three Asian titles in 2017, 2018 and in 2019 as a junior and youth boxer.

“I spoke with Akash after the bout,” says uncle Bhawar. “It’s the same story. He is happy but he maintains that the job is unfinished. He has a bronze medal right now, but he knows that his parents always wanted gold.”

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