The dark clouds that seems to be hanging heavily over Indian boxing parted, if only for a bit, last week as Shiva Thapa picked up only the third medal — a bronze — ever for the country at the World Championships. His achievement matched those of Vijender Singh in 2009 and Vikas Krishan in 2011. For followers of the sport, it may have seemed the dark clouds had cleared over Shiva’s career as well.
Only a few years back, few would have doubted Shiva would be part of that select group. Back in 2010 Youth Olympics he had won a silver. A couple of years later, in 2012, he became the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympic Games.
In 2013, he reached the quarterfinals of the World Championships and won India’s solitary gold at the Asian Championships. However, since those heady achievements, the bantamweight boxer’s form had slipped. Much of the blame for that goes to factors beyond his control.
The derecognition of the Indian federation meant that exposure tours and competition almost came to a halt. With no way to find out and analyse his game in a competition setting, Shiva as the rest of the Indian team, would make mistakes where they could least afford it.
2014 saw Shiva fail to win a medal at either the Commonwealth Games (where he was beaten in the first round) or at the Asian Games,(where he lost in the quarters). Making matters worse, India’s Cuban coach BI Fernadez, who used to work on an individual basis with Shiva, was handed a two-year ban by AIBA after the Asian Games. Fernandez left for Cuba in February the following year. “I was disheartened at that point of time. But I kept believing in myself,” Thapa admits.
Despite his self belief, at the Asian Championships in September Shiva form didn’t seem to have returned. Although he had won a bronze, he had been comprehensively beaten in the semis by Uzbekistan’s Murodjon Akhmadaliev.
Shiva says it was at that point that he felt he needed to do something to arrest the slide. “My loss to the Uzbek hurt because he was a new boxer. I thought I would win easily but it was a one-sided contest,” he says. After that, I decided to analyse my videos to see what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right,” he says.
His strength was his accurate long range style — a technique that was perfect for the point scoring style of pre 2013. But the problem was a recurring one. “Shiva is probably the best technical boxers in the Indian camp. But like every boxer, he has a weakness. Whenever he faces a boxer who closes the gap and starts throwing punches, he gets trapped. Because he has long arms, he isn’t able to get any leverage on his close punches, and when Shiva’s opponent grabs him, he isn’t able to escape,” says KC Kutapa, who after Fernandez’s departure, began working on an individual basis with Shiva in March this year.
The solution wasn’t to make Shiva a hard punching boxer. “I was never going to be a completely attacking boxer. That isn’t my strength because I can’t trade punches,” says Shiva. Indeed Shiva says he wasn’t trying to throw more punches , he was simply throwing them more judiciously and in better combinations.
“I’ll punch with a straight right and then will follow up with a left hook to the body. And then get out of range. I worked a lot on mid range skills — hooks and upper cuts. I’m still a counterpuncher but I’m a more positive counterpuncher now,” he says.
Along with coach Kutapa, Shiva also worked on getting out of harm’s way during his opponent’s attack.
“In the past, whenever he would start getting hit, he would simply just stand in one place. But we worked on getting him to moving when the opponent was punching,” says Kutapa.
The change of approach clearly helped at the Worlds. Kutapa says he knew things were on the right track after Thapa connected with a short uppercut in his first round. In the pre- quarterfinal’s against the African champion, Thapa remained unfazed by his opponents brawling style and instead timed his left hook to pick up a knockout win.
In the semifinals, Thapa faced Uzbekistan’s Akhmadaliev in a rematch of the Asian Championships.
The bout was a far closer contest this time around. All three judges scored the bout 29-28 with Thapa unanimously winning the last round. The scorecard was replicated in the third-fourth position box off against Dzimitry Asanau of Belarus.
While Thapa believes he won both bouts, he thinks he knows where he missed out.
“It is a lack of exposure,” he says. With this in mind, Thapa says he wants to take part in the WSB.
“It will give me a chance to box a lot more. At the World Championships I noticed that the WSB boxers were simply getting more favourable scoring than the others. I think it is simply because the judges are used to seeing them more. The rest of us aren’t as familiar, so our performance doesn’t get noticed as much,” he says.
Thapa has another reason to give the WSB a try. Having lost his box-off, he isn’t yet assured of an Olympic quota.
The Asian Olympic qualifiers are only next year and Thapa isn’t willing to wait. “I should have qualified at the World Championships, but if I want to do well at the Asian qualifiers, I need to get as much exposure as possible,” he adds.