“I’ll admit, I was very nervous and under pressure today. For one, I hadn’t seen my opponent box before,” Pooja Rani says after the dominating unanimous win over Thailand’s Pornnipa Chutee on Sunday. “But more than that, I realised that it was this one bout between me and the Olympics. Agar ab bhi nahi hua, to mujhe stop kar dena chahiye. I shouldn’t be boxing.”
She laughs it off, but Pooja’s words had put in context the stakes in her 75kg bout. Eight years ago this month, she fetched a silver at the Asian championships but admits she wasn’t ready for the Olympics. In March 2016, she lost in the first round of the qualifiers but believes a federation-less Indian contingent was handed a raw deal by judges — “Can you believe that I was given a warning for landing a clean uppercut?”
The ongoing Asian qualifiers in Amman, Jordan was realistically the last chance. Win the bout and go to the Olympics. Lose and end an unsung 12-year career.
Stakes were further raised given Pooja’s status as the de facto torchbearer of two-time Asian Games gold medallist Hawa Singh’s legacy.
The 28-year-old trained at the Hawa Singh Boxing academy in Bhiwani, under the late Arjuna and Dronacharya awardee’s son Sanjay Kumar, who wants Pooja to succeed more than his own daughter Nupur.
And in a twist worthy of a blockbuster, it was at the trials in December that Nupur and Pooja faced off for a spot in the qualifiers. When quizzed about her feelings on the eve of the fight, a fidgety Nupur couldn’t shake off the exasperated grin.
“She’s my elder sister. I am going to feel really weird fighting her for a berth. And I know my father would also be supporting Pooja di.”
Sanjay was indeed actively praying against his daughter. “You always want your elder child to succeed first. Nupur’s time will come. But if she had won the bout in the trials, we knew getting the quota would be difficult for her.”
Meanwhile Pooja, who won 10-0, “knew for sure I would win.”
“So the night before, I was trying to get out of the bout. I was asking around, ‘please sir, do something that the bout doesn’t take place. I get a direct selection’. I was told that the federation would oppose something like that, so I had to fight Nupur. I couldn’t even celebrate my win because I was feeling so sad for Nupur.”
Pooja’s career began in 2009. “Back then, I didn’t know Hawa Singh. For me, Sanjay sir was the superstar boxing coach.”
It was Sanjay’s wife Mukesh Rani, a lecturer at Pooja’s college, who spotted her. She was already 5’8”, even though she hadn’t filled out her frame. Rani, a former national-level baskteball player, convinced Sanjay to train her, who in turn had to convince Pooja’s father, sub-inspector Rajbir Singh.
“My parents were against me taking up boxing. They were worried, ladki hai, chot vot lag jaayegi,” says Pooja. “Aur chot lagti bhi thi. When there were bruises or marks, I would stay at Rani ma’am’s place. She would call my parents up and say, ‘My husband is out of town. Please let Pooja stay with me for a couple of days’. She would only send me back once my face had cleared up. I have been calling her ‘Ma’ since those days.”
There have been bruises aplenty for Pooja, who admits she was no prodigy. It was also a rough initiation, as other trainees would bully the newbie in the ring.
“Boys, girls… sabse pitayi hi ho rahi thi meri. I ran away a couple of times, but one time Sanjay sir called me back and said: ‘Train dilligently for a month, and if you still get beaten up, then you can quit.’ After a month, I was beating up all of them.”
Sanjay himself would pull a ‘Haanikarak Baapu’ once in a while.
“This one time, I was very angry. Pooja ran away, but I knew where she was headed. I went straight to my home, and she was hiding behind my wife,” Sanjay laughs. “My wife would often be caught in the crossfire but that’s the discipline that helped shape her into an Olympic medal hopeful.”
Her ill-fortune and the resulting start-stop career has had Pooja contemplating retirement before. In 2016, a Diwali mishap left her right hand severely burned, keeping her out of action for seven months. After coming back, in an attempt to guard her hand, she injured her left shoulder. Then the wrist.
Then came the gold medal at last year’s Asian Championships, her biggest triumph thus far, where she beat the reigning world champion to win the 81kg gold, despite being 6-7kgs lighter for the division.
“I didn’t want to compete in 75kg because it was Nupur’s category. Then (foreign coach) Raffaele Bergamasco explained to me ‘listen, India needs a middleweight and it is you. It’s what’s best for everybody’. Normally, a boxer has to fill an application for a weight change but Raffaele himself put my name in 75kg.”
For now, she has repaid the faith of Bergamasco and, more importantly, that of the Hawa Singh clan.
“We were all watching the bout on a big screen today,” says Sanjay. “My wife and Nupur were alongside me. I looked at my daughter and told her: ‘Tu ye waali bout nahi nikaal paati.’”
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