“I would be lying if I say life hasn’t changed after reaching World Championships final,” Amit Panghal, who became India’s only Worlds silver-medallist male boxer in September, says. “People stop me in the streets for photographs, they recognise me at the airports.”
“The other day in Rohtak, I was having golgappe,” says Panghal, quickly clarifying: “They’re healthy. The spicy water is good for your digestion. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. But a person walked up to me, clicked a photo and asked, ‘sir, aap bhi golgappe khaate ho? (You also eat golgappe?)” Kyun bhai, main insaan nahi hun kya? (I’m not human or what?)”
The straight-shooting flyweight, currently the top dog in Indian boxing, isn’t particularly bashful about the attention — “I really enjoy it. It was a dream growing up that people will know me” — but says he ceases being ‘Worlds finalist Amit Panghal’ when in camp.
“It’s history now. The medal hasn’t added extra weight to my voice. Indian boxing is in a good place and a lot of us are actually at a similar level. So I don’t feel I am necessarily better or have to give tips to others now,” says the 24-year-old. “If I had qualified for the Olympics through that silver medal, it would be a different thing.”
Panghal is currently in town for the ongoing Big Bout League. The long-planned league kicked off alongside the women’s nationals and the South Asian Games and gets over on the 21st, leaving top boxers with a week to prepare for the trials for the Olympic qualifiers. There have been rumblings from some boxers of the league being a distraction and an injury-risk with crucial events approaching, but Panghal believes it is a perfect tune-up event.
“Sparring, training is one thing. But when you are actually competing, you are getting match practice and getting your body ready for the more important tournaments ahead,” says Panghal, who has won three bouts for his table-topping team Gujarat Giants. “I fought an Uzbek in my first bout. Earlier, if you wanted foreign opponents, you’d have to go to an international meet. If you failed there, your morale would drop. Here, you are competing at home. This will help all of us peak at the right time.”
Road to Tokyo
Panghal and Worlds bronze-medallist Manish Kaushik will have their first crack at Tokyo at the Asian Olympic qualifier in Wuhan in February. Panghal was in the Chinese city in October for the World Military Games, where he uncharacteristically failed to win a medal.
“It was nothing. Just departmental games. I have defeated the Mongolian I lost the quarterfinal to before, and I know my level,” says Panghal. “It’s fine, every tournament should come with its lessons.”
The speed bump notwithstanding, Panghal is feeling good about the road to Tokyo. For one, he feels the new scoring system, which allows judges to share the scoring publicly at the end of each round, suits his guarded, wait-and-watch style.
“I have already told you, that’s what cost me the Worlds final. We all thought I had the first round in the bag. This league is also following the same scoring. It will make a lot of difference as I would know to switch gears. “More importantly, Panghal is feeling “invincible” and “in the zone.” A handful of times during the conversation, Panghal alludes to how well the practice is going. “Really good, the best camp I’ve ever had.”
Asked to elaborate, Panghal explains: “After the Worlds, my level dipped a bit. It’s normal, your body has to recover. I took a break. But while previously I would practice for 5-6 rounds in the ring, now it’s 8, 9 even 10 rounds. I’ve been working on my endurance. I feel tough, the best I’ve felt.”
Listen to IE Sports Podcast: 99.94: A new series by Express Sports
The move of the men’s national camp from Patiala to warmer climes of Bellary, Karnataka also had something to do with it. Firstly, it allowed Panghal the buzz-cut he had long wanted. “This suits me well,” Panghal rubs his shaven head. “The weather there is nicer. If we were in Patiala, our warm-ups would have started later because of the cold. Here you wake up early, you feel fresh. There are no delays to the daily routine.”
A timely daily routine means some daily downtime as well. For Panghal, it usually means a couple of rounds of PUBG. “PUBG… or TV. I watch cartoons,” Panghal laughs. “Tom and Jerry, or other good cartoons. After hours of practice in the morning and evening, you just want to switch your brain off and watch something light.”
Then there’s the solitude of Bellary. “Ekaant. That’s something every sportsperson needs. Training in Patiala or Rohtak brings distractions. There are people you know, you’d want to go out somewhere. At the weekend, you would leave for home on Saturday, come back late Sunday. You’ll get tired unnecessarily,” says Panghal. “Here there’s a small market, sometimes we go there to hang out. But it’s far from everybody’s home, so nobody has time to get homesick.”
Not even Panghal, who would bunk and skip and call in sick to run home any chance he got, according to tales made famous by chief coach CA Kuttappa? “Wo aadate toh kahan sudharti hain…” he laughs. “But if I do skip any day, I make up for it by training on the following Sunday too. Kuttappa sir will confirm this. He’s the one in the ring with me.”