The electric kettle’s used oftener than the saucepan, his phone trills off considerably less frequently in Manchester than it used to in India and Vijender Singh has gotten used to being punched harder in his pro bouts. There’s already a Christmas week routine planned that ties in with living in the United Kingdom — his second December there — he intends to watch a lot of animation movies with son Arbir, the ‘cartoon films’ having replaced the erstwhile Bollywood staple.
“I miss India but I don’t miss the distractions!” Vijender says from Manchester a week before flying back home to defend his WBO Asia Pacific Super middleweight title in Delhi on December 17. “People automatically stop making ISD calls because I’m no longer in the country,” he continues guffawing. “Earlier they would just pick the phone and call me for a shoot here, and as chief guest there, interviews and functions. There used to be a lot of calls. Now that they know I’m in UK, my phone doesn’t ring that much.”
Vijender is in the middle of the first two of three sparring sessions of the day – training hits top gear a week before he sets off for home, and will eventually taper off, as the razzmatazz of the big fight against Tanzanian Francis Cheka begins. Cheka fancies himself as a gatekeeper with 43 fights (32 wins including 17 knockouts), and has let loose a few verbal torrents in the lead-up, though having developed a bit of a taste for knockouts – 6 out of 7 – Vijender wants a lot more of those. “I want many more KOs,” he says, adding, “but I’ve been training hard and need to be prepared for 15 rounds.”
He was stretched to 10 rounds – the max he’s gone in his nascent pro career – but he says he’s coming loaded with lots of energy for the fight at the Thyagaraja Stadium in a dozen days, and believes he’ll be able to draw from his experience to add to his tally of knockouts. He’s come a fair distance from his amateur boxing days where a lot of “punches happened without really hitting” and his strikes are getting more potent with each progressive bout. “Actually it’s more about getting hit harder. I face a lot of power hits in training,” he says.
Vijender, on either side of the historic Beijing Games bronze for India was a shrewd boxer, believing in economy of movements, and not the chirpiest of talkers. In fact he eschewed bravado – both of the uttering and battering variety – and hulked down to get the job done – get the Commonwealth, Asiad and Olympic medals won.
“I didn’t believe in talking initially. But you have to change yourself,” he explains, of the general difference in decibel. “Why do people come to see me fight?” he asks almost rhetorical. “Because they want to see an aggressive fighter who talks back and gives it back in punches. They come to see the KO King,” he says, hitting a baritone for a label he’s begun to like.
So, Cheka has one of the more civil threats issued to him: “We’ll take him, we’ll point him the way to go back to his home,” he says. Google and Youtube’s told Vijender what he needs to know about the challenger — two years his senior albeit with a lot more mileage in the ring. The “We” is hard to miss, because naturally it is to be imagined that the whole of India will be raining down on Cheka. His second home fight is an experience for his team from UK.
“The first time they watched, they said it was amazing, and they kept saying how the crowd throbbed supporting the Indian. They said, ‘So all these people while walking down a street know you?’ and I told them of course they know me,” he laughs.
It was a departure from the early days of his turning professional – his first two fights specifically. “In the UK people hardly knew me to start with. And in the first two fights they didn’t even support me. I could sense the response,” he recalls, even as he was getting used to his phone not ringing as much.
Slowly though, people started trooping in from London and Birmingham even as the man described as the Beckham of Boxing acquired his first set of fans away from home. “Yes, but I don’t think much of the tags. People look at a boxer and start calling you Rocky and Mike Tyson and I’ve heard the Beckham thing too. But I want to be known as Vijender the boxer,” he stresses. KO King – if he’s in the mood to be humoured.
Bout with Amir unlikely
There were wild suggestions early this year urging him to fight British Pakistani origin boxer Amir Khan, and Vijender doesn’t want to fuel speculation. “It’s a nice story but improbable,” he laughs. “He’s won a world title, I’m just starting out. He’s welterweight, I’m fighting super middleweight,” he patiently explains the 66 kg – 76 kg divide in divisions. What he has gained in Manchester though, is a host of Pakistani fans as most South Asians hang out together. “They’ll come and talk in Punjabi and say bhaiyya we’ve seen you in Roadies, and wish me luck. It’s different in the UK and they come and cheer for me,” he says.
What’s also different is Vijender watching son Arbir start going to a local kindergarten St Patrick’s in Manchester. “When I first went to school, it used to be such a serious occasion. Here they don’t force children to do this and do that. He’s started speaking a different English language than mine,” the 32-year-old chortles.
Vijender himself is not getting ahead of himself, dreaming of fights in the US or talking tall of world titles. “I don’t want to make any claims of ambitions,” he says. He reckons his job is to hunker down and prepare for the next fight. “I just want to keep doing my boxing. My job’s to fight,” he says displaying the same focus that fetched him an Olympic medal even as those before and after him faltered around. It was this singleminded bullheadedness that keeps him warm even in freezing north of England. “Manchester’s the hub of cold,” he says, adding, “When other cities are 5 degrees, here it’ll be minus-1. But we’ve gotten used to the winter now,” he says.
It’s kept him aloof from distractions and parked inside a gym where he’s headed for his toughest spar of the day. Starting December 12 though he’ll be airdropped into the swelter and sweat of the fight. “There’ll be lots of heated moments when I fight Cheka,” he pledges some menace. After that, he’s promised son Arbir back to back, daylong expeditions of Finding Nemo, and others of that animated ilk.