A year ago, Vijender Singh faced flak and was even called selfish for deciding to turn professional instead of representing India in amateur boxing at the Olympics and other competitions.
But on Saturday evening, when Vijender beat Australia’s Kerry Hope to win the World Boxing Organisation (WBO)’s Asia-Pacific Super Middleweight title, he had no less than President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulate him via Twitter.
Many others cited the victory as a boost to Indian boxing in general. After all, Vijender is India’s first champion in professional boxing. He was also the first to earn the country an Olympic medal in boxing (bronze) in 2008.
Pro-boxing is not new to Olympic medal winners making it big in the professional circuit. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather are among the more exemplary names.
However, the Bhiwani boxer had a less than positive transition with quite a few lampooning him for his choice to turn professional.
When Vijender first announced his decision, amateur boxing in India was a sinking ship. Due to a ban on the national boxing federation by the world body for rigging elections in 2012, India’s amateur boxers have not been able to represent the country at competitions. Boxers are not even allowed to display the tricolour on their tracksuits or outfits at international competitions.
“Most boxers who train here were dejected since they weren’t able to represent India due to the boxing federation ban, but Vijender’s success has given them hope. Some of them are now moving towards professional boxing,” said Jagdish Singh, a Dronacharya awardee and Vijender’s first coach at the Bhiwani Boxing Club.
Singh was among those who voiced disappointment at Vijender turning professional a year before the Rio Olympics.
But as the 30-year-old landed blows on his opponent at a packed Thyagaraja Sports Complex in New Delhi on Saturday, he had both the crowd and fellow Indian boxers in his corner.
In fact, the other Indian boxers participating in the event were playing one of their first matches ever. “We are here because of Vijender bhai,” they said.
Playing in front of thousands of boisterous spectators was another first for these young pugilists.
There were many in the audience, from celebrities to even a few political faces, who were there specifically to watch Vijender in action.
“I didn’t know that India had so many other Pro boxers. From now on, I am going to follow the sport more closely. Siddhartha Varma and Vikas Lohan impressed me the most today,” said Rakesh Saraswat, who travelled from Jaipur to catch the fight.
Watch | From amateur boxer to pro fighter: Vijender Singh
Cricketer Suresh Raina was also there, who came into the ring and said the atmosphere felt “like the World Cup”, showing how the Haryana pugilist had made boxing popular in a cricket-crazy nation.
For his part, Vijender was elated at both the victory and the turn out.
“Thank you India! I didn’t expect it to go to 10 rounds… It is all to my country, not about me! We have been working hard for this. Finally we did it and we will work to improve my ranking now,” he said.
But the biggest gainer on Saturday night seemed to be Vijender’s hometown, Bhiwani.
The Bhiwani Boxing Club, where he first trained, has turned into a boxing hub equipped with all the required modern facilities. Several academies have also sprung up in the vicinity.
With this win, Vijender breaks into the top-15 in the WBO rankings. This will help Vijender build clout in the cut-throat, moolah-raking business of pro-boxing.
“This is just the beginning and Vijender still has a long way to go,” said Singh.