Muhammad Ali, Rocky Balboa and Bruce Lee posters adorn the walls of gyms and clubs, especially boxing rings all over the land, even though the last 'great' was not even a boxer! And Dingko Singh? Suresh Singh? MC Mary Kom? Aah, our own homegrown ‘greats'!
In boxing circles in Manipur, there is a saying that goes, ‘before you learn to use your mouth, you learn to use your hands…and fists, and arms, and shoulders…’
True to tradition, the people of Manipur revere the sport like religion. More often than not, before most Manipur kids come to terms with their existence in the world, they step into the ring for a bout. And in local events, pugilists hope to take home the modest prize-money or a tracksuit or gloves. Or just fame.
That's where Dingko Singh came from, that's how MC Mary Kom went on to conquer the world. That's how a host of pugilists have entered the world of amateur boxing, with a dream to represent India, secure a job and live happily ever after…
Behind the success of most of the Manipur pugilists — there was a time when the Indian team included at least four-five Manipuris, as is currently the case with boxers from Haryana — there is one man: Ibomcha Singh. Of late, Ibomcha has also been going through a very difficult phase in life, a time of despair and hopelessness.
His close friends reveal his angst, but Ibomcha evades the below-the-belt blows with soft nudges. His eyes, gazing vacantly at the 300-odd students punching sawdust bags or sparring in a cramped hall, suggest a lack of interest, a desire to be somewhere else.
Coax him a little, ask him about his wards. Ask him about his past — about his tenure at the Sports Authority of India centre in Imphal during the time of Dingkos and Sureshes and the national camps, and he finally yields.
“I am trying to forget those days,” he says with a tinge of bitterness. His words smacking of cynicism, he goes on: “What have I got? Humiliation.”
“Every now and then, someone comes and asks me about the Dingkos and the Mary Koms. I have articles on me splashed in a newspaper or a magazine. Then what? Nothing.”
Why must one of the best boxing coaches in the country be in this state of mind? He is nearing 50 but looks in great shape. As he walks with his head held high with pride, one is left wondering why this remarkable man was left behind.
“I don't know. I tried to get associated with the national boxing teams some 10 years ago, but the politics within the boxing fraternity forced me to come back to Imphal."
He narrates a few incidents that are baffling, to say the least. “After Dingko's gold in the Asian Games, the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation called me to train the boxers. The national coach at that time was GS Sandhu,” he says. "The boxers used to come to me for tips, they used to like me, but some officials did not like me…"
"Even (Cuban coach) BI Fernandes was jealous. I knew that. But somehow, out of the blue, a senior — I don't want to name anyone — told me: 'Bura nahi maan-na… people are saying you are indulging in politics!' That was it. I left the camp and never returned. I don't want to go back.”
There were rumours that for a while Ibomcha did not want to coach. "That was when Mary Kom said that Ibomcha did not coach her," says Ibotombi Singh, an SAI official and a close friend.
Ask him and Ibomcha says: "Chhodo yaar." After a pause, he goes on: "She was in the SAI camp. The records will tell you.”
So is his disillusionment a reason behind not too many world-class boxers emerging from the region now? “Not really,” says Ibomcha. “Training facilities here are one of the best in the country... Once they leave this place, I’m no longer connected with them.”
Will he train the national team? “Never!”. His fate is entwined with the place and Ibomcha would love to live his passion in Imphal.
Ibomcha’s is not an isolated story. There are several other coaches who never got their due.
Hope someone is listening.