Comebacks make for some of sport's most stirring stories. Think Andre Agassi, Sourav Ganguly, Alain Prost or Muhammad Ali. Getting ready for next month's world championships, Vijender Singh hopes he is on course for one.
This will be his first competition after the London Olympics. Between then and now, the man who made India believe that it too could throw a mean punch has experienced fatherhood, got out of a drugs scandal and was accused of neglecting training to shoot in Ladakh.
"Leaving the past behind, I am focusing on the world championship (beginning October 14 in Kazakhstan)," said Vijender, who won bronze in the 2009 world championship (India's first in the men's section). "My training is going as per plan and fortunately, I am 100% fit. My weight too is under control," he said.
Vijender is now 76kg and will fight in the middleweight category (75kg). "Right now my taste buds are on holiday. I eat regular, very bland meals apart from protein supplements, vitamins and minerals."
By 6.15 am, Vijender is ready for work. We met last Thursday when weight training was scheduled. "When we start getting ready for a competition, the focus is on volume. With less than a month left, the accent is on gaining explosive strength. We are now working on speed, so we have increased the repetitions," said Vijender.
Besides glovework and weights, Vijender's training regimen comprises cross-country shifts; shuttle running, running on sand and endurance training. To relieve the monotony, a session each week is devoted to football or basketball.
"At the start of the camp, we focus on endurance and gaining strength. In the earlier weeks, we work on increasing the distance of the run from 3km to 10km and, at times, stretch it to 12km. But around six weeks before D-Day, we change the schedule. For example, the run is restricted to 3km, but timings have improved. Now, the boxers are taking around 10-12 minutes. Earlier they would do 3km in 15-18 minutes," said chief national coach GS Sandhu.
Let there be blood
Since taking punches is part of the job profile, there's a saying in boxing as old as the hills: the more blood you spill in training, the lesser you do in competition. Getting ready for a tournament, Vijender starts with two sparring sessions a week. As the clock winds down, the sessions increase to four.
"After the Beijing Olympics (where he won bronze), Vijender became a celebrity. His engagements would come in the way of training sessions. But he never missed a sparring session. And that is the reason for his longevity in the ring," said Sandhu.
At 28, Vijender isn't the youngest around but that, he said, is an advantage.
"It gives me an edge in terms of experience. The youth are more energetic but at the same time, I know how to conserve energy. I am in the sport for the past 15 years and I know my limitations and how to overcome them. The real deal is not to let your limitations overpower you but to let your strong points dominate."
Sandhu puts that somewhat philosophical take into perspective. "He has become more economic in his movements."
The style statement
Vijender doesn't score very highly for flamboyance in the ring. A member of his training entourage said he is more like Rahul Dravid than Virender Sehwag.
"It's been that way from when I was taking part in national championships and it has got me an Olympic medal," said Vijender. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"Right is my strength and I make combinations with it. Right-left, right upper cut… Attack is my best defence but I spend a lot of time training to dodge punches too. One good punch can throw you out or open a cut which will disqualify you," he said.
Because of the change in international rules, there will be no head-guard at the world championships. "I am a bit more cautious because of that but as I said, I stick to the basics. Rarely would you have me playing with my guard down."
Importance of recovery
The sooner you recover, the better you train in the next session. "Recovery is directly related to endurance and right now I am fit, so recovery is not a problem," said Vijender.
"I have gained the fitness level of what I used to be at the time of the London Olympics and I still have a little over two more weeks left. Thank God, there's been no injury."
"Vijender is particular about rest between sessions and whenever he has a cut or takes a strong blow, he takes time out. He looks after his body," said India physio says Hari Sankar Varma.
A week's trip to Ladakh for a shooting assignment before the selection trials for the world championship in August got Vijender into another controversy.
He looks at it differently though. "For me, it was like a week of high-altitude training and only because of my stay there was I was able to get my weight under control before the weigh-in for the trial," he said, the handsome face breaking into a smile.