On Thursday, by beating Kazakhstan’ Kairat Yeraliev to reach the bantamweight finals of the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualifiers, Shiva Thapa became the first Indian boxer to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Standing in his corner, a tired Gurbax Singh Sandhu says he breathed a huge sigh of relief.
On Wednesday night, in his room in Quianán, China, Sandhu, coach of the Indian boxing team had slept fitfully. “I was walking back and forth and simply couldn’t relax and lie down,” said Sandhu. What was bothering Sandhu was his team’s results thus far at the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualifiers. India had sent a thirteen member squad to the tournament. As of Thursday morning, only three had the chance to book a place for Rio.
“Frankly the results we had got so far had been disappointing. Boxing in India has been facing a lot of problems with the lack of a federation but at the same time, how would I be able to explain that we had gone with a 13-member squad and hadn’t had a single member qualifying for the Olympics so far,” said Sandhu.
“Vikas Krishan lost a very one sided bout in his first match. Mandeep Jangra, from whom we had a lot of hopes too lost early. Yesterday Sarita lost a very close decision. So we were wondering what we could do to finally get some good news,” Sandhu adds.
Thursday itself indeed started poorly. First up, Devendro Singh lost his semifinal bout. With only the top three finishers in the men’s half of the tournament qualifying for the Rio, Devendro would have to fight for the third place to determine his fate. Sandhu says he was visibly worried before Shiva’s bout. “I was very nervous before Shiva’s bout but he was extremely confident. He told me ‘don’t worry sir. I will win today,’’ he says.
While Shiva was the top seed in the bantamweight (56kg) division his outsized confidence wasn’t entirely justified. The Kazakh Yeraliev was a former world championship bronze medallist. Shiva was also coming off a draining split decision quarterfinal win against Japan’s Arashi Morisaka.
“Yeraliev is a very good boxer with a lot of experience. I was expecting a hard bout because he had just fought a very strong Japanese opponent in the previous round. He had just one days rest after that fight so I was hoping he had recovered enough,” said Sandhu. There were other issues, beyond Shiva’s control as well. “One of the problems we face is that because we have no representation among the judges and technical officials, very often, we will lose when the bout is a close one,” said Sandhu.
Shiva though never let it come close to that as he picked up a comprehensive 3-0 win. “He fought a perfect game. Both Shiva and the Kazakh boxer are counterpunchers. But Shiva was more aggressive and that made the difference,” says Sandhu.
Indeed while he connected his punches consistently, he made sure he didn’t engage in a lot of exchanges, and got his punches in and then got away before Yeraliev could respond. while Shiva did his best to convince his coach of his confidence, he admitted being emotionally charged before what would be the third time he was just a win away from a place in the Rio Olympics.
“I was very worked up about this bout, it was the most important bout for me. So I am totally exhausted and relieved at the same time,” he says. Sandhu reckons Shiva’s win will have be significant for the boxing in India.
“His win will give confidence to the rest of the boxers that despite the number of problems the team is facing, it isn’t impossible for us to qualify for the Olympics. I have no doubt that many more will be able to qualify in the World qualifiers in May,” he says.
The chief coach is still not ready to stop worrying. He is waiting for the results of Devendro’s third place bout with Mongolia’s Gankhuyagiin Gan-Erdene.