‘Stop’ cried out the referee as he separated boxers Shiva Thapa and Durga Rao in the ring at the boxing hall at NIS Patiala on Monday afternoon. The two bantamweight boxers had been participating in a bout that would determine which of them would take part in the Asia and Oceania Olympic Qualifying event in Quian’an, China from March 23.
The bout was stopped after the referee had noticed a cut above Shiva Thapa’s right eye. It was quickly determined that the injury was not caused by Rao’s gloves. There had been a clash of heads halfway into the second round and Rao’s elbow had struck a glancing blow to the very same spot on Thapa’s brow a few seconds later.
While the blow wasn’t deemed deliberate, there was no confusing its effect as a fair sized tear had opened up under the World Championship bronze medalist’s brow. The medical in-charge had a look and immediately ordered the fight stopped. It subsequently needed five stitches to close Shiva’s wound.
This wasn’t the first time that a boxing selection trial at NIS Patiala had to be stopped owing to an injury to one of the participants. Three years ago during the selection trials to pick the squad for the 2013 World Championships, Devendro Singh suffered a deep gash above his right eye after being headbutted by his opponent early in the first round of his bout. Devendro, who was expected to be one of India’s main hopes, had to be dropped from the squad after his injury failed to heal in time.
Indeed the attacking pugilist has subsequently moderated his attacking instincts, admitting the need to be more careful in the ring in the face of flying elbows and careless heads. Indeed in Monday’s qualifiers, Devendro was extremely measured in his approach against upcoming youngster K Shyam Kumar.
Shiva is unlikely to suffer Devendro’s fate from three years ago. His bout against Rao went on long enough for it to be clear that he was the dominant fighter. His injury, despite its gruesome look, is expected to heal inside a week. The Asian qualifiers are still a couple of weeks away.
However, the question on many lips was whether a boxer like Shiva — ranked second in the world — should have been risked in a headguard-free selection trial with not much time to go before the qualifiers for the Olympic Games.
While one line of reasoning is that in a contact sport like boxing, injuries can be picked up unexpectedly — even during a sparring session — coaches say they do all they can to limit them. “Even when we take part in sparring sessions during the camp we make sure that at least one of the boxers is wearing a headguard. Usually the boxer who is rated better will box without the headguard while the other one wears it. That way the one without the headguard gets accustomed to not wearing one during the contest but is also assured that he won’t get an injury if he suffers a headbutt from his opponent,” says national coach Gurbax Sandhu.
Kishen Narsi, the chairperson of the AIBA appointed ad-hoc committee which is conducting the trials says that boxers wearing a headguard, even during a trial competition is not possible. “According to international rules a boxer is meant to fight without the headguard, so the trials have to be conducted according to those norms,” he said.
Narsi also dismisses the suggestion that it was perhaps unnecessary to conduct two separate trials — one for the South Asian Games, in February, and another to select the squad for the Asian qualifiers — which technically increased the risk of injury. “If the ad-hoc body didn’t conduct a separate trial for two competitions, what would stop someone from saying they were not given a fair chance. I will be damned if I do and also damned if I don’t,” he says.
None of this is likely to help Shiva as he recovers and prepares simultaneously for the Asian qualifiers. “Right now we have to be very supportive of Shiva as he recovers from his injury. It will take about a week for his cut to heal up and he will have to wait before he can begin sparring again because of the fear that the cut might reopen. But it isn’t too bad and it shouldn’t affect his chances too much,” says KC Kutappa, coach at the national camp.