The (probable) good news first. Saken Bibossinov — Amit Panghal’s opponent in Friday’s 52kg World Championship semifinal — is the kind of boxer the Indian excels at dispatching. Bibossinov is three inches taller, and like a typical Kazakh, prefers to fight from a distance. That Bibossinov is a fellow southpaw adds a wrinkle to the match-up, but the wiliness in the ring and the wave of confidence Panghal’s riding should carry him to the flyweight final. Of course, the usual disclaimers (scoring is subjective, better boxer on the day) apply.
Now for the not-so-good news.
The stacked light welterweight division, arguably the most entertaining in Ekaterinburg, has whittled down to a final four comprising Armenian Hovhannes Bachkov (2017 world bronze-medallist and two-time European champion), American Keyshawn Davis (PanAm silver-medallist and touted as a top pro-boxing prospect), Cuban Andy Cruz (reigning world and two-time PanAm champion)… And Manish Kaushik.
The CWG silver-medallist may have had a light resume coming into the tournament, but clean, technical boxing has earned Kaushik a Worlds bronze. Like the 24-year-old from Cuba, the 24-year-old from ‘India’s Cuba’ of Devsar, Bhiwani, has earned his wins in unanimous fashion. And on Friday, Kaushik would like to use his billing as an underdog to spoil the party of Cruz – an amateur undefeated since 2015 – and his legion of supporters.
Since the 63kg draw came out, a vocal section of amateur boxing fans has been counting days till Cruz takes on Davis in the final, deeming other rounds mere formality and a rematch of last month’s Pan-American gold-medal contest all but inevitable.
Cruz and Davis, two showmen who mix punching with theatrics, are engaged in a budding rivalry. Cruz defeated the American 3-2 at the Pan American qualifiers and 4-1 at the continental event.
Davis – who stunned Olympic silver-medallist, lightweight world champ and two-time Euro medallist Sofiane Oumiha in the quarterfinal – refers to himself the “hottest amateur” and is USA’s Olympic hope. Cruz however is a proven real deal. The Cuban won the bantamweight gold at the 2015 PanAm Games, but decided he couldn’t continue to cope with the punishing weight cut and gave up his 56kg spot at the Rio Olympics. The switch up to 64 brought with it a World Championship gold in Hamburg two years ago.
“I’ve been following Andy since I first saw him as a youth boxer in 49 kilos in 2015,” says high performance director Santiago Nieva. “He moved up and made a name in 56, but he outgrew the division and jumped directly to 64 and soon became number one in Cuba and number one in the world.”
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Cruz, who grew up idolising Bruce Lee and practised karate as a child before switching to boxing, is similar to Kaushik in size and style. It’s the skill where he can pull away. Cruz is a chameleon in the ring. Smooth, fast puncher, can switch from orthodox to southpaw and throws combinations from different angles. But Cruz is not a hard puncher, and Kaushik might be a little faster.
“I have watched his bouts 2-3 times,” Kaushik told The Indian Express. “I know that he likes to counter a lot, so I would have to tailor my game accordingly. I know he’s a good boxer and a world champion. But honestly, I will be taking the ring without a lot of pressure. I have already won a medal, the target now is to change its colour.”
Coach Jai Singh Patil, who has worked with Kaushik extensively in the Services camp and has been seconding the boxer in Russia, believes his ward has struck a purple patch. “Cruz is sharp. His punches are clear. There’s no doubt that he’s a top boxer. But Manish is probably India’s most technical sound boxer presently. His style matches up with Cruz’s,” says Patil. “Manish has fought one bout more than Cruz, since he didn’t get a bye. And look at the boxers he has beaten.”
In his run-up to the semifinal, Kaushik has defeated Kyrgyzstan’s Kadyrbek Uulu Argen, Mongolian Olympian and 2018 Asian Championship silver-medallist Baatarsukh Chinzorig, Dutch Olympian and two-time European medallist Enrico Lacruz and Brazil’s Wanderson de Oliviera.
Patil then distances himself from the bout and tries to look at it from a neutral perspective. “Of course I would want Manish to win and go for gold. But I guarantee this, even as a neutral boxing fan, this fight is can’t miss,” says Patil. “I am telling you, no matter what the result is, this has the potential to be this tournament’s best boxing contest.”
Santiago agrees with the assessment.
“Light welterweight is very competitive and a lot of people have been impressed with Manish along with the other three contenders. This weight division has been a classic this year,” says Nieva.
“Tomorrow, we like to believe that we are in with a chance. Cruz has been very, very dominant. But it’s time for his dominance to come to an end.”