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The Contender

india Updated: Jul 27, 2012 14:34 IST
Saurabh Duggal

Success does strange things to people. It alienates them from their near-and-dear ones, meeting friends no longer evokes the same camaraderie and they lose touch with reality. But Vijender, the man whose punches wreaked havoc in Beijing four summers ago, is not the one to lose his connect with terra firma.

Despite name, fame and glory, the Bhiwani boxer’s reaction soon after being assured of bronze at the Beijing Olympics was to thank his friends — Ram, Jai, Bunty and Manoj. By remembering them in his most cherished moment, the champion expressed gratitude for their support in helping him clinch the country’s first Olympic medal in boxing.

The medal not only changed the Indian boxing scenario, it also turned around his fortunes. Overnight, Vijender became a celebrity, travelling by bus was passé and staying in five-star hotels became a norm. Fame brought in big endorsements and huge fan following.

Inseparable mates

But one thing remains unchanged —Vijender’s friendship. "I may be a celebrity now…but I will not drift away from my friends. They are my life and will remain so forever," says Vijender. "They are everything to me and, without their support, it would have been impossible to win the medal. Whenever I felt low, they motivated me. They always made me believe in myself. And, if all goes well, hopefully, I’ll win a medal in London and a major portion of the credit will again go to them," says the champion boxer.

For eight years, Vijender has been sharing a room with Ram Singh at the Dhyan Chand hostel at NIS, Patiala. Bunty and Jai Bhagwan, who has qualified for the London Olympics, are his boxing mates from early days. Manoj is his elder brother, who initiated him into the sport.

“When I saw Vijender for the first time at NIS during the national camp, my first impression was that he did not look like a boxer. He had a child-like face. But when I saw him practice, I realised he was exceptionally talented. Now, we want him to win his second Olympic medal, this time gold,” says Ram.

“I have an agreement with Vijender and Jai Bhagwan. They will give me a 15 per cent cut in kind and 10 per cent of their share of money if they win a medal. I am confident both will make me richer by the end of the London Games,” says Ram jokingly.

Solid ring sense
Vijender is perhaps the only Indian sportsperson who has got every international medal in his kitty — Asian, Commonwealth, Olympics and World championship. Over the years, he has become a mature boxer and developed a solid ring sense. “At times, Vijender is criticised for spending too much time off the ring. But I want to make one thing clear that he knows when and what he has to do,” says chief national coach GS Sandhu. “I have never seen him miss a sparring session and the ring sense that he has developed over the years is extremely solid, giving him an advantage over others of his ilk,” he adds.

During the cool-off period after Beijing, the perception was that modelling had taken precedence over boxing. But the next year, he proved his critics wrong by clinching the country’s first World championship medal in the sport. The gold at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou was enough evidence to prove that boxing was his top priority.

“Even my wife, Archana, knows that boxing is my first love,” says Vijender.

Before going to Astana (Kazakhstan) for the last Olympic qualification tournament, Vijender was confident that the sequence of events would, for sure, be like what happened before the Beijing Olympics. Vijender had attained the Olympic quota in the last qualification event at the same venue — Astana.

“Though before the Beijing Games, I was under pressure till the time I had not qualified, this time around there was no such pressure in my last qualification tournament,” says Vijender.

Changed times
On May 18 this year, Vijender celebrated his first marriage anniversary and he threw a party at one of Delhi’s lavish five-star hotels. The country’s top politicians, including union ministers, were among those who were on the guest list.

“Boxing is big now. We used to hear about such parties hosted by cricketers. Today, a boxer is hosting such a big bash. It gives me immense satisfaction,” says Jai Bhagwan.

Vijender was never a wallflower, even before his Beijing exploits, but after the triumph, he has simply waltzed into limelight as if he was a born celebrity. He’s on TV chat shows and reality shows. He’s walked the ramp, done several ads and parties to the hilt when he has the time.

“Now, people recognise me even on the streets. I’ve got the chance to share the stage with Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar and have featured in TV shows,” says Vijender.

“The Olympic medal made all the difference. Earlier, we had limited resources But boxing has changed everything.”

A change which augurs well for every single boxer in the country who dreams of making it big.