After months speculating the future of amateur boxing at the Olympics, the Asian Championships will bring the action in the ring back into focus. Twenty Indians will compete in the continental showdown beginning Friday, which features several fascinating threads and themes to pull out and examine.
Amit Panghal, Nikhat Zareen
Panghal beat Asia’s best last year to win the Asiad gold in Jakarta, establishing himself as a strong medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics next year. But he did so before his natural weight category of 49kg was dropped from the Olympic boxing programme. Panghal will now compete at 52kg in Bangkok, a move up which has necessitated increased strength training for the 23-year-old. How he manages to match up both power and range with competitors in the heavier category will be the test for the 5’3 boxer.
Zareen announced her arrival with a gold at junior worlds and silver in youth, but transition to senior has been anything but smooth. Injuries and ill-advised forays into higher categories saw the 22-year-old get lost in the shuffle. Veteran Pinki Jangra’s indifferent show at the World Championships creaked the door open, and Zareen forced her way back into contention with a gold at February’s Strandja invitational, while Pinki lost in the first round.
Zareen then put the exclamation mark with a win in the selection trials over Jangra to book her berth in the 51kg category, making Mary Kom her direct competitor. Mary, 36, has already announced her intention to move up to 51kg in a bid to win that elusive Olympic gold. And while nobody expects Zareen to get the nod ahead of Mary, a medal in Bangkok might just a wrinkle to the 51kg situation.
Shiva Thapa, Sarita Devi
It is easy to forget that Shiva Thapa is still only 25. He has a world championship medal, two Asian championships medals and two Olympic appearances to his name, but Thapa’s is a story of failing at the big stage, looking solid in the build-up and suffering devastating losses when it matters. Unfavourable weight cuts and increased competition saw Thapa move up to 60kg, and a medal at 2017 Asian Championships signalled a resurgence, but the comeback ended in a bad defeat at the Asian Games. Young talent Manish Kaushik was supposed to challenge the status quo, but losses in selection trials have derailed the CWG silver-medallist trajectory.
With 63kg the category at Olympics, Kaushik (whose natural weight is 60kg) is a better fit on paper. But Thapa can further close the door on the upstart with a cometh-the-hour performance.
Sarita won one bout at the Commonwealth Games last year, but returned to the national squad after fellow 60kg competitor Pavitra couldn’t impress at the Asian Games either. Sarita then became the first Indian to crash out of November’s World Championships.
Sound fundamentals and experience of 19 years have helped Sarita muscle out younger competition in India, making her the default choice for 60kg. But against quality opposition, she has looked a touch slow. An early exit in Bangkok could prompt the federation to finally look for a viable replacement.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS
Kavinder Bisht, Naman Tanwar
Bisht upset Algeria’s two-time Worlds medallist Mohamed Flissi at the 2017 Championships, but failed to build on the showing. Bisht was overlooked for the Commonwealth Games in the favour of eventual 52kg gold medallist Gaurav Solanki. The 24-year-old continued to generate buzz through the atypical route of semi-professional World Series of Boxing competition, before moving up a division to the competitive 56kg. Bisht then defeated CWG bronze medallist Hussamuddin twice in a week last month — in the final of the GeeBee tournament and the selection trials — to earn a ticket to Bangkok.
On the other hand, Tanwar, with his exciting (if a bit risky) style and open stance, has long been a favoured prospect for the Indian regime. The 2016 youth bronze medallist has remained locked in a tight rivalry with fellow 20-year-old heavyweight Sanjeet for two years. However, Sanjeet’s wins have come in low-spotlight affairs such as the India Open and nationals, while Tanwar beat him when it mattered, at last month’s trials. Tanwar, who won the bronze medal at Gold Coast, would need a strong performance in Bangkok to justify his potential and leave his rival further behind.
Simranjit, Lovlina Borgohain, Sonia Chahal… and Nitu
The medal-winning trio of Kaur, Borgohain and Chahal displayed heart and potential at the World Championship, but also sizeable holes in their techniques. While the two heavy-hitters compete in Olympic categories, Chahal, who fights in the 57kg category, might find it tough to get on the flight to Tokyo. The 21-year-old, would have to cut either 6kg or add 3 to her wiry 5’5 frame to be in an Olympic category. Amidst the more accomplished teammates, Nitu, who will make her senior debut, might go unnoticed. But the two-time world youth gold medallist is one of the more well-rounded boxers in the 48kg division. While competing in the lightest category in an Asian event is an unenviable first assignment, the 18-year-old could spring up an upset or two.
Squads: Men; Deepak 49, Amit 52, Kavinder 56, Shiva 60, Rohit Tokas 64, Ashish 69, Ashish Kumar 75,Brijesh Yadav 81, Naman Tanwar 91, Satish Kumar 91+
Women: Nitu 48, Nikhat 51, Manisha 54, Sonia Chahal 57, Sarita Devi 60, Simranjit Kaur 64, Lovlina Borgohain 69, Nupur 75, Pooja Rani 81, Seema Punia 81+