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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Ducking, weaving, raging: How Amit Panghal boxed his way on to the top

Before Panghal shifted to 52kg, he was a class act in the 49kg, winning silver at the Commonwealth Games, followed by a gold at the Asian Games.

other-sports Updated: Sep 22, 2019 11:35 IST
Avishek Roy and Navneet Singh
Avishek Roy and Navneet Singh
New Delhi
Amit Panghal in action during World Boxing Championships final.
Amit Panghal in action during World Boxing Championships final.(AP)

“It all started here for me,” said Amit Panghal, standing at the Karmabir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi Indoor Stadium in Guwahati. Panghal was talking about the first time he had won the national championship, back in 2016, but on that day in May, he had just come off a win against Sachin Siwach in the final of the India Open. At 5ft 9 inches, youth world champion Siwach is one of the tallest boxers in the 52kg category. Panghal, who had shifted up to 52kg at the beginning of the year with an eye on the Olympics (his usual 49kg is not an Olympic category), stands at 5ft2; he barely reaches Siwach’s chest. Yet, Panghal weaved, ducked, and slipped through the tall Siwach’s attacks, and landed overhead punches on Siwach’s head.

“Panghal relies on counter attacks against taller boxers,” Siwach, who has now lost twice to Panghal, said. “He will evade and then immediately open his punches, slipping in. And whatever punches he throws, he is on target.”

Before Panghal shifted to 52kg, he was a class act in the 49kg, winning a silver at the Commonwealth Games, followed by a gold at the Asian Games, where he defeated reigning Olympic champion and world championships silver-medallist Hasanboy Dusmatov of Uzbekistan. India’s high performance director Santiago Nieva was unsure of how well Panghal would adjust to his new weight class—his biggest concern was the height disadvantage.

A tall boxer has a longer reach and can therefore hit his opponent from a long distance. Throwing a leading jab, the taller boxer can control the distance, so that his opponent’s punches don’t reach him, but his punches reach the opponent.

A shorter boxer is at a big disadvantage, having to find a way through his rival’s punches and enter the “pocket”, the space inside the taller boxer’s range. Inside the pocket, the taller boxer’s long reach is neutralised, and the shorter boxer is now in range to throw full punches. This is how Panghal turned his shorter stature, his shorter reach, into a dazzling asset.

There are three key weapons in his arsenal: His ability to throw overhead punches—above his own eyeline—with accuracy; lightning footwork and the agility to duck and weave through the opponent’s attack to go “inside” the opponent’s punching zone and into his own range; and the skill to gauge his distance without using a leading jab, relying only on his eyes.

“I have faced mostly taller boxers in my career,” Panghal said. “In 52kg I mostly get boxers who are taller. I train with taller boxers and I practice so much with them that (my) eyelines are set on that target. So when I open up with my punches I am able to reach the opponent and also maintain my balance.”

Being shorter also means that Panghal cannot use a leading hand jab to control and gauge his distance from his opponent. Instead, he relies on his eyes and his instinct.

“He is like a radar and finds his target with his vision, footwork and speed,” Nieva said. “Timing and speed are the most important elements of his boxing. He makes small movements and being short and fast, he is almost elusive. He has a good defence and he plays well inside or out and can hit through difficult angles.”

Take for example the way Panghal counters the most important weapon of a taller fighter, the leading jab. First, Panghal has the confidence to stay within his opponent’s range, luring the boxer to throw the jab. When the punch is thrown, Panghal has the agility to duck under it. Simultaneously, he takes a step inside, moving into the “pocket” in a fraction. And then comes the finishing touch—an overhead punch that comes from above and outside the opponent’s jab, even as the opponent is still moving forward with the momentum of that missed jab. The punch comes from under and outside the opponent’s sightline, and, bam!

Nieva compares Panghal with Rafael Lozano, the two-time Olympic medallist from Spain, who is now a coach with the Spanish national team. “There are very few boxers with a style like this. He is very similar to Lozano who was also short and quick and had an in-and-out technique.”

Siwach said when it comes to judging the reach, Panghal is exceptional.

“That is his biggest strength. He does it with experience. His reach is of course small but he gets to know when he has lined up his target and then he attacks. Till then he will remain behind,” said Siwach.

Another reason for his success is that Panghal has the ability to be on his toes for a longer time. “The fact he is able to stay on his toes for the full three rounds of the match is due to athleticism. He can dodge and evade his rival and at the same time dictate the speed of the fight. It helps Panghal move quickly and safely in and out of the range of the opponent,” said India’s chief coach Kuttappa.

Behind Panghal’s athleticism is a childhood habit of working on “ABC”—agility, balance and co-ordination drills usually done by sprinters.

Panghal’s first coach, Anil Dhankar, used to send him to an athletics coach for his fitness training, which is where the young boxer picked it up.

“Panghal’s footwork has been his hallmark since his early days,” said Dhankar.

Panghal’s “in-and-out”, high-speed, stepping-into-the-pocket game is far from being the finished product; in fact, he has just got started. One key element missing is the ability to throw a flurry of punches once inside the pocket. Panghal said he is working on just that.

“Earlier I used to have one punch, now I have added 3-4 punches. I used to play only counter, but now I am aggressive, and play on the backstep also,” he said.