Akhil Kumar, the bantamweight pugilist, earned a unique distinction on Saturday in Beijing. The big-hearted boxer from Bhiwani became only the third in Indian history after R. Norris (1952, Helsinki) and Gurcharan Singh (2000, Sydney Olympics) to enter the quarterfinals of the quadrennial event.
Two years ago, at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, he had become the second Indian boxer after Mohammed Ali Qamar (2002, Manchester) to win gold. The Indian boxing fraternity had started rejoicing, expecting bigger things from him. But his first-round exit in the 2006 Doha Asian Games came as a shock and it seemed the boxer wouldn’t be able to recover from that debacle.
But the gritty boxer fought back and on Friday, at the Worker’s Gymnasium in Beijing, he defeated world champion Sergey Vodopyanov of Russia.
After Doha, he was so dejected that he didn’t even disclose the wrist injury he was carrying. The reason: “Right now I am a loser and nobody is going to believe me.”
The very next year in May, he won bronze at the Asian Championships in Mongolia. The champion was back and the critics were made to eat their words. With support from the Mittal Champions Trust, it seemed he had overcome the bad patch. But the injury was back.
He went for a rehabilitation programme in Mumbai and missed almost seven months of training and competition. Meanwhile, India picked the squad for the World Championships in Chicago --- the first Olympic qualifiers --- and Akhil wasn't part of that entourage.
Akhil was so determined that despite his injury not having healed completely, he decided to return and train for the first Asian qualifiers in Bangkok (Feb 2008).
“I had to qualify at any cost as that was my last chance to book my ticket to Beijing,” he had told HT. “I will then go slow after that and concentrate on the healing process,” the boxer had said during a practice session at National Institute of Sports (NIS) Patiala, his first home. For the last couple of years, Akhil had spent most of his time in Patiala.
He went on to participate in the first Asian qualifiers in Bangkok in February, winning the toughest bout of his life on way to clinching gold and the ‘best boxer’ award. For the Olympic berth, he defeated Athens Olympic silver-medallist Worapoj Pitchkoom of Thailand 21-11.
Everyone was happy that he earned a quota place for Beijing. But his wrist still ached. He underwent surgery --- in South Africa --- and stayed there for six weeks for the rehab programme.
“Now that I have qualified for the Olympics I am focussing on improving my right wrist, so that I become 100 per cent fit by the March-end. And then I can concentrate on my Beijing preparations,” Akhil had told HT before boarding the flight to Johannesburg.
Hours of sweating in the ring after the rehabilitation to control his weight, Akhil finally achieved peak fitness. As one saw Akhil overpowering his Russian opponent in the ring on Friday, the heart went out to the man who was spending sleepless night just a few months back.
“Dreams are not those that come while sleeping, but are those that do not let you sleep,” Akhil had once said while going through that ordeal.
But before leaving for Beijing, he said, “I am going there for a medal.” He was certainly a man on a mission, again.