For long, the world perceived Indians as being physically weak. But four summers ago, Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar won medals in boxing and wrestling respectively, and made the world take note of India’s warriors of the ring.
“Today even the best in the business can’t afford to take us lightly,” says Kumar, excited about participating in his third Olympics. In London, India is expecting to win most of its medals in boxing and wrestling. For the first time, women are a part of India’s fight club. With women boxers making their Olympic debut, five-time world champ ‘Magnificent’ Mary Kom will pack a punch, as will Geeta Phogat, the first lady Olympian grappler.
The debate over which of the two disciplines – boxing or wrestling – is tougher continues to rage. While Singh, on the verge of becoming the first Indian boxer to take part in three Olympics, says there is no comparison as “just a punch is enough to floor the strongest person”, London-bound wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, also heading to his third Games, disagrees.
“Have a look at data regarding injuries to sportspersons, and it is obvious who the real fighters are.” Let’s leave that question unanswered. There’s no need to pick and choose – only the desire to watch our medals tally swell.
Category: 51 kg Hails from: Manipur Sporting highs: Five-time world champion (2002, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010) Arjuna Award recipient (2004), Padma Shri (2006), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2009)
“When she enters the ring, she has the guts to take on even King Kong,” says English coach Charles Atkinson, under whom MC Mary Kom is training for the London Olympics. “Respect her for everything she has given to the sport. She is more popular in England than in India.”
With five world titles under her belt, Kom is an undisputed champion. But while those triumphs came in lower weight categories, in London, she will be competing in the 51 kg class. “The only difference between men and women’s boxing in India is the Olympic medal. I want to bridge that gap,” says Kom, currently training in Pune. “Ever since I won my first world title, I was waiting for women’s boxing to become part of the Olympics. Now that the time has come, I will fight to give India a moment to cherish.”
At the world championship held in May, the mother of two children lost in the quarter-finals, but was lucky enough to bag a ticket to London. “At times, a defeat is good for you, as it motivates you to train harder,” says Kom.
Category: 56 kg Hails from: Guwahati, Assam Sporting highs: A quarter-final place at the World Championships in 2011 and a silver medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics
A father’s dream to see his kids attain greater heights than he ever could has given India a world-class boxer. Karate enthusiast Padam Thapa could never make it beyond the state level. His older son even made it to the boxing nationals. But Shiva Thapa, his younger son, is now living up to his father’s greatest expectations.
The 19-year-old is the youngest of the seven Indian male boxers headed to London. “Due to limited resources, my father couldn’t proceed beyond the state level,” says Thapa. “But he provided us with the best of facilities. Despite having six children to feed, he made sure that money was never a problem when it came to my training.”
Thapa started learning the basics of the sport under Sports Authority of India coach Amar Deka in Guwahati. After excelling at the sub-junior and youth levels – including a bronze at the Youth World Championship – he graduated to the big league, stepping into the shoes of Beijing Olympics quarter-finalist Akhil Kumar. “For the past one year, London has been my only focus,” he says. “I want to win a medal for all the sacrifices made by my father.”
Category: 64 kg Hails from: Kaithal, Haryana Sporting highs: Commonwealth Games gold medal (2010) and a quarter-final spot in the World Championships (2011)
As far as Manoj Kumar is concerned, movement and other techniques take a backseat in the boxing ring – it all boils down to the punches you throw. "So, one should have power in his punch and the stamina to keep on punching till the last second of the bout," says Kumar, who made it to the quarterfinals at last year’s World Championship to win an Olympic spot.
"Having missed out on the Beijing Games, it’s only now that I’ve got a chance to realise my dream of competing and winning a medal for my country at the Olympics," says Kumar. " I hope my dream comes true in London."
As a child, Kumar took up the sport because of his dad. His father Sher Singh, who was part of the Indian Army’s boxing team, wanted his son to fulfill his dream of making India proud in the ring. Since then, Kumar has made the punches count.
There was a time when, despite good performances during trials, Kumar was not picked in the squad and only got a chance on the basis of a rotation policy. "Call it my luck or destiny, but those picked ahead of me didn’t perform, because of which I got a chance," says Kumar.
"My first big break was at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where I won gold. But a month later, I was not part of the Asian Games squad because of the rotation policy. So, when I was named for the world championship, I had to book my Olympic berth there, as there was no guarantee of getting another shot at qualification." Rookie Rising: Sumit Sangwan, 19
Category: 81kg Hails from: Karnal, Haryana Sporting high: A gold medal in the Asian Olympic qualifiers in 2012
Financially, his family was not in a position to let both his brother and him pursue boxing. Eventually, his older brother was forced to make the sacrifice of helping their father plough their small piece of land so that the younger one could pursue the sport.
The elder brother, Amit Sangwan, who had wept when he had to give up the sport he was so passionate about, holds no grudges today. "Sumit has made us proud," he says. "Through him, I am living my dream of playing at the Olympics."
Sumit Sangwan, who upset the seasoned Dinesh Kumar to get a place in the squad, is thankful to his brother and father. "Things are better now, but even a decade ago, money was hard to come by," recalls the 19-year-old. "Even so, my family didn’t let anything disrupt my training.
My brother sacrificed his passion for boxing for my sake." Sangwan, who began training with Arjuna awardee Raj Kumar Sangwan, earned his Olympic berth at his very first international outing in the senior category earlier this year. "Now that I’ve gained some experience, it’s just a matter of time before the results start showing," he says. "I hope to do my country proud at London."
The Pugilists: A Cut Above
Eight boxers plan to make a good fist of India’s Olympic hopes
Category: 75 kg Hails from: Bhiwani, Haryana
Sporting highs: Olympics bronze (2008), World Championship bronze (2009), Asian Games gold (2010); Arjuna Award (2007), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (2009), Padma Shri (2010)
Being fearless is his credo. For boxers, it is the only option, says Vijender Singh. "Once you step into the ring, if you don’t hit your opponent, be prepared to face the blows," says the Olympic bronze medallist.
Married to software engineer Archana Singh, the boxer does nurse one fear: that of scarring his face. "A week before the Beijing Olympics, Singh got a scratch on his face during practice. He was after his training partner’s life till it healed! His scratch remained a topic of discussion for almost a week," recalls Ram Singh, Singh’s roommate at the national camp.
That one fear, however, has not stopped Singh from taking on the best in the world and emerging victorious over and over again, including at the Beijing Olympics (2008), the World Championships (2009) and the Asian Games (2010).
Now he is all set to become the country’s first boxer to compete in three successive Olympics. "I don’t want to be known as the boxer who competed in three Olympics," says Vijender. "I want to be recognised as the one with two Olympic medals." Poster Boy: Vikas Krishan, 20
Category: 69 kg Hails from: Bhiwani, Haryana
Sporting highs: Asian Games gold (2010), World Championships bronze (2011)
Racquets, not gloves, are what this Bhiwani boy started off wielding. But after seven months, Vikas Krishan gave up badminton for boxing. “In 2002, my father had enrolled me at the local badminton centre. But I was uncomfortable with the sport. Being an indoor discipline, I used to feel claustrophobic,” says Krishnan. “It took me seven months to decide that it wasn’t my cup of tea, after which I joined the Bhiwani Boxing Club.”
The new poster boy of Indian boxing is the youngest winner of an Asiad boxing gold and only the second Indian to win a world championship medal. But what set the ball rolling was a gold in his very first national appearance at the 2003 sub-juniors in Noida. Krishnan was a good student, but after this triumph his father gave him the freedom to choose between academics and sports. He chose to pursue a correspondence course. “Boxing has got me name, fame and money,” says this DSP with the Haryana Police.
Category: 60 kg Hails from: Hissar, Haryana Sporting highs: Reached quarter-finals of World Championships (2011), CWG bronze (2010)
Today, he sports the best brands on his feet. But there was a time when financial constraints forced Jai Bhagwan to look for the cheapest pair of shoes in the market. At times, he managed with completely worn-out soles.
"Hailing from a very humble background, budgeting was my biggest challenge. Till a while back, I used to buy shoes worth less than R50," recalls Jai. "Somehow, my family and I managed. Today, I have everything from a house to a car – all thanks to boxing."
After being dropped from the national squad prior to the 2008 Olympics, Bhagwan quit the sport and went to Hyderabad, where Indian Railways had posted him. The triumph of close pal Vijender Singh in Beijing changed his perspective. He returned to boxing, and bagged bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Bhagwan booked a ticket to the London Olympics thanks to his quarter-final finish at the World Championship in 2011. Glove Prodigy: Devendro Singh, 20
Category: 49 kg Hails from: Manipur
Sporting high: A commendable quarter-final finish at the 2011 World Championship
In one year, this rookie has gone from a non-entity to possible medal winner. Laishram Devendro Singh, 20, who joined the senior national camp last year, stunned the country’s top names in his weight category during the trials for the 2011 World Championships. "At the championships, my confidence helped me reach the quarters and win a place at the London Olympics," says Singh. "Now, I want to make up for not winning a medal at the World Championship by bagging one in London."
Since he made the cut, Singh has become a household name in Yurembam Awang Leikai village in Manipur’s Imphal West district. BB Mohanty, chief coach at Army Sports Institute, Pune, hand-picked 32 kids from Manipur, but only seven were able to endure the training beyond a month. One of them was Singh. "Before being picked by Mohanty sir, I had little idea about boxing," says Singh. "Boxing has given me everything. I even got to fly and visit many countries."
The Wrestlers: Hold ’Em In Thrall
Expect wrestle mania to grip India when five grapplers go on a medal hunt in London
Category: 55 kg Hails from: Sonepat, Haryana Sporting high: Bronze at Asian Championships (2012)
Just two international tournaments old, 18-year-old Amit Kumar is confident of putting up a good show against the world’s best wrestlers in London. "Once you are on the mat, your opponent won’t ask you your age. Nor will he ask you how many tournaments you’ve competed in before," reasons Kumar.
At nine, Kumar joined the Chatrasal akhada in West Delhi that has produced champions like Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. He was eyeing a spot in the 2016 Olympics, but Kumar has achieved his target an edition earlier. He bagged a place in the continental qualifiers early this year and won a bronze at the Asian Championship in Korea. "I’ve grown up watching Sushil and Yogeshwar. So from the beginning I wanted to be part of the world’s highest sporting arena," says Kumar. Mat Effect: Geeta Phogat, 23
Category: 55 kg Hails from: Bhiwani, Haryana
Sporting high: Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2010
Eight years after women’s wrestling was introduced as an Olympic sport in Athens 2004, India’s lady grapplers are making their presence felt in the quadrennial games. Geeta Phogat, 23, created history by becoming the first Indian women wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. "It feels good to be recognised as a frontrunner. But making it to the Olympics is only half the job done.
Ultimately, a medal is what matters," says Phogat, the older daughter of Mahavir Singh, who left a Haryana State Electricity Board job to train his daughters for the Olympics.
Singh’s younger daughter Babita won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Their youngest sibling Ritu is also an international medallist.
Today, the the village of Balali near Bhiwani is praying for Phogat’s success. But before her Commonwealth exploits, the same villagers objected to the Phogat sisters slugging it out in the mud with the boys. Gritty Grappler: Narsingh Pancham Yadav, 22
Category: 74 kg Hails from: Varanasi
Sporting high: Gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2010
The first thing Narsingh Pancham Yadav did after his sporting achievements began to pay off was to relocate his father back to their hometown in Varanasi. "My father wanted me to become a wrestler and provided me with the best facilities required to excel in the sport, despite enormous financial constraints," recalls Yadav. "He even shifted to Mumbai to help me realise my dream."
With the cash award that Yadav received after striking gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, he bought land in his native village. Recently he convinced his father to stop his milk distribution business and shift back to Varanasi.
He learned how to wrestle in Mumbai, but Yadav’s big break came when he was picked for the 2010 Commonwealth squad and won a gold medal. This year, he earned the London Olympics qualification mark in the continental qualifiers. "Since I was a child, my father wanted me to be an Olympic wrestler. I will try my best to fulfil his dreams," he says. Inspired By Ali: Yogeshwar Dutt, 29
Category: 60 kg Hails from: Sonepat, Haryana Sporting highs: Asian Games bronze in 2006 and Commonwealth gold medal in 2010
His discomfort with speaking English hasn’t prevented this athlete from seeking inspiration from the greatest boxer ever. A quote by Muhammad Ali: “I don’t stop when I’m tired, I stop when I’m done,” serves as a guiding light for Yogeshwar Dutt. “Fighters never quit.
I continue working till the time I am done with my training schedule,” says Dutt, who will be competing in his third successive Olympics. “In Beijing, I lost the quarter-finals bout by just a point, that too in the dying seconds,” he says. “I hope to make amends in London.”
Hails from: Delhi
Sporting highs: Asian Games bronze (2006), Olympics bronze (2008), CWG gold (2010),Padma Shri (2010)
The first time he could afford a pair of jeans was after winning an Olympic medal. Today, Sushil Kumar routinely sports smart sneakers and jeans to events and drives a Ford Endeavour. But he remains humble at heart. An episode four years ago illustrates this. After his Beijing Olympics triumph, Sushil was competing in an exhibition match with a Pakistani wrestler in Delhi. Before the start of the bout, a girl approached him for an autograph. As the bout was to start, Kumar promised to meet her once the contest was over.
Sushil floored the opponent with ease, but even after winning the bout he was disappointed. He couldn’t trace the girl. “When she came to me I was concentrating on my bout. After the match I searched for her for at least 15 minutes, but couldn’t find her. To date I feel sad about it,” he says.
Sushil, who trains for at least six hours every day, is known the world over for his extraordinary strength and agility. Marriage in 2011 seems to have brought luck to the Herculean wrestler. “I have won one Olympic medal for my parents and coaches. Now I want to win one for my wife Savi,” he says.
From HT Brunch, July 8
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