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Lords of the ring

Six hunks with perfectly chiselled bodies and an attitude to match. That’s the stuff of Bollywood, right? Not really. Parul Khanna and Veenu Singh caught up with six young boxers at the...

entertainment Updated: Apr 10, 2010 19:14 IST

Vijender SinghSix hunks with perfectly chiselled bodies and an attitude to match. That’s the stuff of Bollywood, right? Not really. We are nowhere near a film set. Instead, we are at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, Asia’s largest sports institute, chatting with six young boxers, each of whom presented India with a gold medal at the recent Commonwealth Boxing Championship. Vijender Singh, Suranjoy Singh, Paramjeet Samota, Dinesh Sangwan, Jai Bhagwan and Amandeep Singh are all from small town India – but they’ve taken India to the world. And given us a new sport to be proud of.

When we walk into their training area at the NIS, we see exactly why they are all gold medallists. They work with a single-minded dedication that we rarely see anywhere else. Sweat pouring down their bodies, they punch bags with controlled fury. Some are sparring with partners, some are testing their strength, others are practising with their coaches. They are so involved in their training that they don’t even notice us till the session ends.

The foundation of this dedication, we learn later, is the fact that they are grounded. Proud of their roots. They don’t come from affluent backgrounds, so they encourage themselves to push the limits farther and farther. And though they are humble – they don’t throw tantrums like stars – they are quietly proud of what they have achieved.

When we request an exclusive photo shoot with all six of them for the Brunch cover, they don’t fuss. They agree. When we ask them to take off their shirts, within seconds, we’re faced with six-and even eight-packs. When the sun burns down, they worry whether we can handle it. And when we ask for interviews, they humbly tell us that they know nothing beyond packing a hard punch, so what could they possibly have to tell us? But we refuse to believe them, so you can read about them in the next few pages.

Winning punch
It started with Vijender Singh’s medal in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Suddenly, we realised that we could do well at sports other than cricket. Boxers also realised that they could get international acclaim, make money, and make India proud. Aspirations rose and a new era of boxing began.

Now there is a new breed of aspiring boxers, says Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu, chief national boxing coach. “Post the Olympics, there was a 60 per cent increase in sales of boxing gear. Parents brought children to training centres. A few of our boxers were signed by the talent management company Percept.” he says. Sandhu says that there has been an improvement in prize money at the national and state levels too. “So boxers are able to sustain themselves. Indian boxers are being taken seriously internationally.”

Though boxing is a violent sport that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, there is huge spectator interest. At the Commonwealth Championship in Delhi recently, the stadium was full of spectators – even though an IPL match was being played at the same time. “Earlier, at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala, you would see cars parked outside the practice area of the athletes. Athletes get good sponsors and better government jobs. Now there are cars parked outside our practice area – because we have cars too,” says boxer Suranjoy Singh.

Vijender Singh
Age: 24 years
Weight Category: 75 kgs; middleweight
High point: Won bronze at the Beijing Olympics and gold at the Commonwealth Championship. Has never lost a match in India Hometown: Kaluwas, Bhiwani, Haryana
Strengths: Has a cool and calculated style.

India’s hit parade
You could say that when Vijender Singh won the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, he single-handedly brought boxing to the notice of the majority of people in India. Certainly, he’s given the sport a glamour it never had before. Not only has he been awarded a Padma Shri, he’s also walked the ramp for Rohit Bal, modelled for magazines like Maxim, M and Men’s Health, endorses brands like Siyaram, Pepsi and Nike, and also hangs out with Bollywood’s hottest.

But this is the result of hours spent in front of a punching bag. That’s a family tradition, incidentally. Vijender’s grandfather, Subedar Darayo Singh Beniwal, introduced the village to boxing. Today, Bhiwani is a town of boxers. “My father, a driver with the Haryana Roadways, wasn’t interested in the sport, but my brother Manoj was my inspiration,” says Vijender. “I was 14 when I started taking boxing seriously.”

In 2001, Vijender won a gold medal in Germany. And of course, in 2008, he became the first Indian boxer to win a bronze in the Olympics. “I was able to clear the qualifying round for the Olympics only at the third and final attempt. I thought I’d give up boxing if I didn’t qualify,” he reveals. That, as we know, did not happen. Now a deputy superintendent with the Haryana Police, Vijender has become an icon, both in and out of the boxing ring. He had modelled part time even before his historic win, but no one had paid him much attention then. “All they said was that I had a good body and good potential, but there was nothing more. Now, I get recognised easily and people shower the same adulation on us that they shower on any well-known cricketer. For this, I am completely indebted to boxing. Without it, I would be a nobody,” he says.

Vijender has become such a big name now, that there’s even speculation that he’ll get into films. After all, he’s become close to action stars Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan. But if Bollywood were to happen, it wouldn’t be now, says Vijender. “There have been some offers but I’m concentrating on my training for the Commonwealth Games,” he says. “I like Akshay and Salman. They appreciate sports. Akshay’s trainer has been sharing a lot of fitness tips with me, and Salman and I talk a lot about our exercise schedules and the kind of workouts one should do.” Boxing is Vijender’s No. 1 passion, but he does enjoy other things. “I like tennis and football, and am trying photography too.”

Suranjoy Singh
Age: 24 years
Weight Category: 52 kgs, lightfly
High point: Gave India its first gold in 15 years at the Asian Boxing Championship in China in 2009 and gold medal in the Commonwealth Championship in 2010
Hometown: Uchiwa Leirak Achouba, Imphal, Manipur
Strengths: An attacker.

On the offensive
One look at his slim frame and you wonder how anyone could take him seriously as a boxer. But appearances are deceptive. Manipur-born Suranjoy Singh, the son of a farmer, is an attacker. Suranjoy used to play football but, motivated by his brother, an Army man who boxed, switched to boxing at the age of 15. “My brother got a lot of recognition and persuaded me to take up boxing. Initially I was not that keen, but then I joined the SAI (Sports Authority of India) centre in Manipur, and under the guidance of my coach L Ibomcha Singh, I managed to become a National Champion quite soon,” says Suranjoy who holds the position of CPO (Chief PT officer) in the Indian Navy.

Suranjoy moved to the NIS (National Institute of Sports) in Patiala in 2003 and has been there ever since. He’s never regretted giving up football. “Football is a team sport, but in boxing, your individual efforts are recognised,” he explains. “Plus, people back home are deeply interested in boxing. Now, parents of young kids ask me to guide their kids.”

The boxers at NIS Patiala have a rigorous training schedule, but there’s also room for fun. Films, of course, are a favourite, but the strict diets they are put on often lead the boxers to crave junk food. So when Suranjoy leaves the campus, he grabs pizzas and burgers. But he’s a fairly talented cook himself, and enjoys slaving over a hot stove.

“Otherwise, I enjoy watching comedies and am quite fond of the Munnabhai films and All The Best,” says Suranjoy. “Among actors, I like Rajpal Yadav, Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor.” He also loves music, Hindi and western, and then, of course, there’s football. “I’m a big fan of Ronaldo,” says Suranjoy.


Jai Bhagwan
Age:

24 years


Weight Category:

60 kgs, lightweight


High point:

Won the gold in the Commonwealth Championship in 2010, the silver in the Asian Championship


Hometown:

Jind, Haryana


Strengths:

His right punches.

One track mind
Jai Bhagwan had no glamorous reason for taking up boxing. Only a simple dream. “I thought, if I started boxing, I would get free tracksuits,” he grins. That dream began when he was about 13. His father, a working inspector with the PWD, was posted to Hissar, Haryana. Their landlord, Pritam, a CISF inspector, was a boxer. Jai’s family realised that boxing was the ticket to a secure life: a government job. So Jai took to the ring. Now, however, though he’s an inspector with Haryana Police, the government job is not Jai’s motive. Medals and glory are.

“I didn't have any exposure then,” Jai says. “Only after I joined the sport did I realise there was so much more to it than the government job and the tracksuit. I realised I could go abroad, win medals, earn fame for myself, my family and the country.” Tall and thin, Jai doesn’t look like someone who deals punches for a living. But his knuckles are swollen and the wound above his eye is still fresh from his recent fight.

Prize money from boxing has taken him and his family from cycles to a car to a house of their own, but as his injuries prove, the game is tough. When he started, all his teeth broke. He gave up boxing for a year in 2008 because of a wrist injury. And he played the Commonwealth Championship bout with a swollen knuckle that still hasn’t healed. But once he’s in the ring, he says, he doesn’t stop to feel the pain. “I feel nothing but a need to win,” says Jai.

This single-mindedness extends to life outside the ring. Though Jai has been feted by film stars and even took the ramp at Delhi Fashion Week, it’s no big deal for him. All he cares about is the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics. While he was boxing in Delhi, people in his village watched his bout “just like they watch cricket.” This just makes him want to win more medals, says Jai. His dimples flash, but his eyes are steely.

Paramjeet Samota
Age: 22 years
Weight Category: 91 kgs plus, super heavyweight
High point: Won Bronze in the Asia Championship in China and gold in the Commonwealth Championship in 2010
Hometown: Bhiwani, Haryana
Strengths: Right upper-cut punch.

The big punch
Once, Paramjeet was good at nothing. “I was a wrestler, but not very good. And I was pathetic in studies. So in class 10, my father made me quit school, quit wrestling and start boxing. He was a boxer in the Army.”

To get to his training ground, Paramjeet would have to cycle seven kms one way. He went to the centre and returned home three times a day. “So I was cycling some 42 kms every day, plus, at the centre, we had to go through the most excruciating strength-building training.” On his third day at the centre, Paramjeet was sent into the ring to fight an experienced student. “I was badly beaten up.” But Paramjeet was tough. “A week later, I beat up the boy so badly that he left the centre,” he says, beaming with pride.

In 2005, within a year of his training, Paramjeet won a gold at the state level. He hasn’t looked back since. After he won his medal at the Commonwealth Championship, when he went home, half of Bhiwani came to receive him. Boxing, Paramjeet says, has given him stability, a job in the Railways, fame, and respectability for his parents. And as boxers slowly become more popular in India, getting recognition has become a high.

“While the Commonwealth Championships were on, the security staff wouldn’t let me enter from a particular gate. After I won the medal, they were calling out my name!” he says triumphantly.

The other high, of course, is winning medals. Paramjeet wants more of them. More and more and more. He knows he has miles to go in the sport yet, but he firmly gives the credit for where he is now to his father. “He always kept a firm hand on my shoulder and didn’t let me deviate from my path,” says Paramjeet.

He’s luckier than most boxers. In his category, he doesn’t need to worry about maintaining his weight. Fitness is vital, of course, so Paramjeet skips lunch, but otherwise he gorges on whatever he fancies. It’s necessary – in his weight category, he needs to deliver and take strong punches. That isn’t something he grudges. “My guru once told me, punches and injuries are a boxer’s gehna (jewel).”

Who are his inspirations? Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and Dinesh Sangwan, he replies. And while Paramjeet plays cricket in his spare time, he doesn’t enjoy watching the game.


Amandeep Singh
Age:

25 years


Weight Category:

49 kgs, flyweight


High point:

Won gold in the South Asian Games in 2007 and gold in the Commonwealth Championship in 2010


Hometown:

Sangrur, Punjab


Strengths:

Speed & right punch

Fast mover
When Amandeep was 15, his best friend began to box. So Amandeep gave up hockey and followed his friend into the ring. His family was appalled. His father, a granthi in the gurudwara and mother, a homemaker, didn’t approve of the violent game. “But my parents stopped opposing me when I brought home the first gold I won in a state championship. I also won a cash prize of Rs 200,” says Amandeep.

Despite his proficiency at the game, his parents insisted that he join the Army. “They wanted me to have a secure job,” he explains. “Before Vijender Singh’s win, we never made much money in national and state level competitions. Luckily, the Punjab Police had a tournament and they called me back.” Amandeep joined the Punjab Police, but is now a clerk with the Railways and has a monthly income that keeps his parents satisfied.

Now, with a gold from the Commonwealth Championship, Amandeep is a hero. “My photos were all over the place. People have started recognising me. Boys from school, whom I haven’t met for years, are getting in touch with me. And I am eagerly waiting for the bike we were promised,” he says. His parents are supportive too. “They want to see me where Vijender is.”

For Amandeep, the most difficult part of boxing is weight maintenance. He has been the same weight for six years. “I have to keep up my strength but have to check what I eat,” he says. “Even when I go home, I don’t let myself go. That’s my mother’s biggest grouse.”

Dinesh Sangwan
Age: 22 years
Weight Category: 81 kgs lightheavy
High point: The bronze medal in the World Cup in 2008 and gold medal in the Commonwealth Championship in 2010.
Hometown: Mithu thal village, Bhiwani, Haryana
Strengths: ‘He Man’ style punches.

Hanging tough
Dinesh sangwan was 14 when his interest in boxing was sparked, thanks to the training his older brother was undergoing in the sport at the SAI hostel in Bhiwani. “Every day, I took him food and milk from home,” says Dinesh. “Soon I became interested in boxing myself. I was told boxing would ensure a good career and a regular income.”

This was important. Dinesh’s father was a bus conductor with Haryana Roadways – and that was the family’s sole income. So in 2001, he started training at the SAI hostel in Bhiwani under coach Jagdish Singh. In 2006, he moved to NIS, Patiala. “No one from Bhiwani is scared of working hard,” says Dinesh, now an inspector with Haryana Police. “Our lives are hard and that has made us tough. Perhaps that’s why some of the best boxers are from Bhiwani. Not only men – women too.”

The one thing a boxer fears the most is injuries to the hands. “The hands are a boxer’s most important body part, and unfortunately also the most vulnerable,” says Dinesh. In 2007, he had damaged his right thumb ligament so badly, it needed surgery. “My ultimate goal is to win the Olympic medal,” says Dinesh. “I also want to do something for my village and my parents.”