Indian Boxers Punch Their Way to Glory


New Delhi, Dec 23: After decades of spilling blood, sweat and tears with little or no recognition, it took three men from a small town in Haryana to change the face of Indian boxing in a watershed year, the most exhilarating moment of which will without doubt be the country getting its maiden Olympic medal in the sport.

Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar, a trio from what is now called the cradle of boxing in the country, Haryana, combined to pack an unexpectedly powerful punch all through the year to do what the Dingko Singhs and Mohd Ali Qamars could not - put Indian boxing firmly on the world map.

Of the record five boxers who qualified for Beijing Olympics, Vijender went on to make history winning a bronze medal - a first for the country.

And though Akhil and Jitender couldn't finish on the podium, ending up as quarter-finalists in Beijing, they somewhat made up for the heart-break with bronze medals at the year-ending World Cup in Moscow.

Apart from the trio, which has undoubtedly become the face of Indian boxing, MC Mary Kom returned from a two-year sabbatical to become women's world champion for an unprecedented fourth time, prompting the sport's world governing body to call her 'Magnificent Mary'.

The mother of two from Manipur relied on just four months of training and sheer determination to stamp her authority yet again in the increasingly competitive women's World Championship even though India failed to retain the overall title against a record 41 teams competing this year.

In between, another diminutive Manipuri ensured that India made its presence felt even at the junior level. Thokchom Nanao Singh, an 18-year-old who defied his parents to take up boxing, clinched the light fly weight gold at the inaugural World Youth Championship in Mexico.

"This has been without doubt a fantastic year for Indian boxing. It has set the tone for the times to come. We have shown the world that we can match up to anybody, be it Cuba or Russia or any one else. It wouldn't be wrong to say that Indian boxing has truly come of age," said Vijender looking back at the year which made him a household name.

It all started with the first Asian Olympic qualifiers in Thailand in January where Akhil, returning to the ring after a career-threatening wrist injury, didn't just clinch a gold medal but also went on to claim the 'Best Boxer' trophy, a rare feat for an Indian boxer.

A month later, Vijender, who had failed to make the cut for Beijing in the preceding two events, got his last chance to qualify for the Olympics in the final Asian Qualifiers in Kazakhstan.

The 22-year-old strapping middle weight pugilist was battling poor form and lack of confidence going into the tournament but once there, he found his footing to win the gold and ensure a ticket to Beijing, where he - along with Akhil and Jitender caught the attention of a cricket-obsessed nation with some lion-hearted performances.

Vijender was also India's lone medallist at the inaugural President's Cup, winning a bronze after beating Olympic champion Bakhtiyar Artayev.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in Indian boxing. It has been an unbelievable year. Because of boxing, other minor sports also got a big boost," said Akhil, who was surprised at being showered with adulation despite not getting a medal in Beijing.

The 27-year-old, whose perilously low guard in the ring invites appreciation and criticism in equal measure, beat reigning world champion Sergey Vodopyanov of Russia but lost to a little-known Moldovan Veaceslav Gojan in the Olympic quarter-finals.

But even without a medal, he was lauded, felicitated and recognised by a nation that was revelling in its best-ever Olympic performance of three medals, one gold and two bronze.

Similar was the case of Jitender, who won hearts after fighting with 11 stitches on his chin, during the Olympic quarter-final - a bout he lost.

The Olympic euphoria had not even settled when Akhil, Jitender, AL Lakra and Dinesh Kumar took off for Moscow for the World Cup, a tournament where India's best has been a bronze each in 1990 and 1994 through Zoram Thanga and V Devarajan, respectively.

Akhil came tantalisingly close to making the finals before losing on count-back in the last four stage. Nonetheless, the four ended with bronze medals to cap a brilliant year for the sport.

"A start has been made but more important is how we take it forward as a nation looks up to us with high expectations," said Akhil, summing up aptly what has changed in Indian boxing. 


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