For at least some time during and after the 2004 Olympic Games, he was the face of Indian boxing. But after becoming the country’s only pugilist to make it to the second round at Athens, Diwakar Prasad faded into the shadows and out of public imagination.
But that’s history now. The man they now call DK-47 is again the target of autograph hunters; kids want to shake his hand and adults want to pose with him. And it’s all thanks to the World Series of Boxing (WSB).
"The world had forgotten me, but because of WSB, I am back in the limelight," says Diwakar, who is part of the Indian franchise, Mumbai Fighters. "Not only has the league given us the platform to showcase our talent, it will also help in the promotion of the sport in the country."
Diwakar is not the only one to benefit from the league. Take Krishan Kumar, for example. The newest star boxer from Haryana has been dubbed the ‘Smiling Assassin’ by his franchise, and is a hit with the spectators because of his boxing style.
“Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that, one day, people would ask for my autograph. Even when I was in the national camp, no one outside knew me. But, now, I am recognised even by strangers in Mumbai,” says Krishan. “Name and fame aside, the WSB is also helping me earn decent money. And it’s not just the contract fee and our wins, we get paid even in defeat.”
The WSB, started last year by the sport's international federation, AIBA, has enhanced the entertainment value of the sport. But it was only this year, when TransStadia launched the Mumbai Fighters, that India’s presence was felt on the world map. Even though the league is yet to gain popularity in the country, it has given birth to a galaxy of stars.
The administrators are now hoping that the WSB will do to boxing what the IPL did to cricket. “The concept of a boxing league is new to the country. But, gradually, you will see it gain momentum,” says Bhupinder Singh, vice-president of the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF). “In the first bout in Mumbai on December 9, half the stands were empty. But a week later, during the second bout, the stands were full.”
All about WSB
The WSB is a franchise-based league in which the boxers have a go at each other without the protection of headguards or vests. The bouts feature professional-style scoring. A WSB match consists of five bouts (one each in the five weight categories — 54kg, 61kg, 73kg, 85kg and +91kg), with each bout consisting of five rounds of three minutes each. The team with the most wins from the five bouts wins the match.
The 12 teams have been divided into two pools, giving each franchise a minimum of 10 matches, including five home matches, in a season.
The first year of the league did not see any representation from India. Initially, Videocon got the Indian franchise, but dispute over getting the boxers into its fold led the company to pull out. This year, TransStadia got the Indian franchise and named it the Mumbai Fighters. The team is based in Pune and has recruited 17 boxers so far, including four foreigners. The Fighters have won only one of the four matches they have played so far.
As a WSB bout consists of five rounds compared to three in amateur boxing, the longer version has become a big challenge for the Indians. Despite leading initially, the Indian boxers, more often than not, have run out of steam after three rounds and eventually given up.
“The franchise came in late, so our first target was to put together a team. Now that a team is in place, our focus will be on training them in accordance with the requirements of professional boxing,” the coach adds.
Victory a must
The Indian franchise’s lack of wins is another reason why the WSB has been slow in gaining momentum in the country.
“Boxing has existed in the country for decades, but it came into limelight once Indian boxers started winning medals. The scenario changed after Vijender's bronze in the Olympics. So, what matters most is victory. Once our team starts winning, people will get interested,” says Akhil Kumar.
“Give us time. Ours is a new team, and the concept too is new. You will see a marked change in the performance after a few more bouts,” he adds.
“You can’t expect people to follow you if you are not winning. We have to show our potential in order to win them over,” says Udit Sheth, owner of the franchise.
Absence of national squad boxers
Except for World Cup bronze-medallist, Akhil, no other boxer from India’s 10-member squad that competed in this year’s World Championship is part of the WSB. In India, the popularity of boxing has less to do with the sport and more with the larger-than-life persona of its brightest stars. So, the absence of big names like Olympic medallist Vijender, Suranjoy Singh and Vikas Krishan has also affected the popularity of the Fighters.
“The WSB is restricted to only five weight categories, so some of the country’s top names have had to give it a miss. Another reason is next year’s Olympic qualifiers. Those who are yet to qualify for London haven’t joined the league,” says PK Muralidharan Raja, secy-general, IBF.
Selection of venues
The selection of venues will be crucial for the league’s popularity. The Fighters started their home campaign from Pune, but the first match, hosted in the city, did not exactly set the stage on fire.
There were few takers for tickets (Rs 250). Later on, the next two home matches were staged at a shopping mall in Mumbai. Because of its location, tickets sold like hot cakes, and the second of those matches saw a full house.
With the sport more popular in the north, especially Delhi and Haryana, staging matches there will provide impetus.
“The TV ratings for the Dec 9 bout are out. After we receive the ratings for the Dec 16 bout, we will analyse them and chalk out a venue-selection plan,” says Udit.