At an elite club in Mumbai, where the well-heeled dress up to look their glam best, a set of professional boxers stripped right down to their briefs to kick-start the weekend. The makeshift platform at a mini-theatre served as the stage for the final pre-bout weigh-ins. The athletes included the two who will feature in the main event, China’s Zulipikaer Maimaitiali, and India’s 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Vijender Singh. Dressed down in nothing but their basics — and remarkably, their headphones — Maimaitiali and Vijender’s face-off proved to be a rather jovial affair. The two spoke to each other, smiles galore, and then a friendly handshake.
Inside the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Stadium next to the theater, a rectangle was chalked out on the stone floor to mark where the boxing ring will be set up for the following night’s entertainment. Equal care was taken to mark where the VVIP stands would be put up, after all, there is a grand list that is expected to turn up for Vijender’s ninth professional bout. This is to be his most glamourous fight ever.
Vijender’s ninth professional bout will be his third on home-soil, but the first in Mumbai. The 31-year-old is well acquainted with the city, for it was here that he became only the second Indian Olympian (after Leander Paes) to have made a temporary switch from sport to the silver screen.
If his bronze medal at Beijing didn’t give him the glamour the achievement deserved, his foray into Bollywood surely did.
And now that elite community will serve him again. “Mumbai has the glam factor,” says Nirav Tomar, CEO of the company that manages Vijender. “It’s the pinnacle city of India, which has a high commercial and entertainment value. So it’s always expensive.”
The pugilist’s previous two bouts were in New Delhi, where the required bouncers were ordered to patrol an array of political bigwigs along with a smaller star-cast. But glamour comes easy to Mumbai. In India, pro boxing needs the glitz, and glamour does not waste the opportunity to share the spotlight.
The likes of Ranbir Kapoor, Kapil Sharma and Anu Malik are expected to be there. As is yoga guru Baba Ramdev and India’s first Grand Slam champion Mahesh Bhupathi. Then there is the entire Bachchan family – the ultimate benchmark.
There’s an additional list of 20 more that make up the crème of Mumbai, but as is customary for such a star-studded event, the names ‘cannot be disclosed.’
“There’s a greater connect people have with Bollywood stars than with big political names. So having a bout in Mumbai was the obvious next step in Vijender’s career path,” Tomar adds.
“This will be his last bout in India for a while, so we’re hoping to leave with a bang.”
Inside the venue, after the weigh-ins, the undress and re-dress, Vijender’s coach Lee Beard wants to talk boxing, as he analyses each opponent’s game. “Zulipikaer’s got decent jabs and a decent round-hook. But he only goes on one speed and likes to be fast,” he says.
“Vijender is an experienced Olympian and has a good boxing brain. He knows when to take his time and when to pull the trigger. He knows how to disarm an opponent, control the opponent with skill and when to attack.”
What makes the bout even more crucial, is that each opponent comes with a title that will be put on the line. Maimaitiali is the WBO Oriental champion, while Vijender holds the WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight title.
But Beard pips the odds in his ward’s favour, given Vijender’s vast experience compared to his 23-year-old opponent. It’s what helped him get through his first match in Delhi, when he won his title.
“He was aware of the expectations since it was his first title. But he had the ability to do the distance against Kerry Hope. It was all about dominating each of the 10 rounds, and he did that,” says Beard. “In his next match, (a knockout win against Francis Cheka) it was all about that one punch. A boxer doesn’t get paid to fight 10 rounds, he gets paid to win.”
The experience might be required to bail him out again, given the elite line-up of stars that will be guided to the their ringside seats. “In all the great boxing venues of the world, Las Vegas or in Europe, fights attract a star audience,” says Tomar. Though Vijender and Maimaitiali are still small names when it comes to the pro circuit, the host city provides the glamour of a major sporting event.
On Saturday, at a venue just off the Worli sea-face, a celebrity cast from various fields will turn out. There will be glitz, glamour, lots of money. And yes, there will be boxing too.