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I have kept my hunger alive: Shiva Thapa

Shiva Thapa could not bring down Kazakhstan’s Zakir Safiullin in the semi-finals of the Asian Championships back in April, but he set a record anyway—his bronze made him the only Indian boxer to have won four medals at the continent’s biggest boxing event.

other sports Updated: May 16, 2019 23:40 IST
Avishek Roy
Avishek Roy
New Delhi
Shiva Thapa
India's Shiva Thapa (60kg) poses for photos after securing a bronze medal at Asian Wrestling Championships 2019, in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, April 26, 2019.(PTI)

There he was, matching aggression with aggression, in the heat of Bangkok, in an almost empty boxing hall. He had dropped even the semblance of a guard, arms wide open, sticking his tongue out to taunt his opponent, dancing around the ring—‘come get me!’

He needed an opening, that split-second gap as his opponent came at him both arms swinging, where he could slip in the decisive punch.

It never came.

In the end, Shiva Thapa, 25, could not bring down Kazakhstan’s Zakir Safiullin in the semi-finals of the Asian Championships back in April, but he set a record anyway—his bronze made him the only Indian boxer to have won four medals at the continent’s biggest boxing event. He won his first Asian medal, a gold, back in 2013, when he was just 19.

It is difficult to mark the passage of time looking at Thapa—back in 2013, he was the fresh-faced, wiry, body-like-Bruce Lee sensation who already had an Olympic under his belt—his 2012 London appearance made him the youngest Indian boxer ever to qualify for the Games.

He is still all that—boyish, lean, ropily muscled—but now, as he prepares himself to make a stab at yet another Olympics, he finds himself a veteran of the national boxing team, a mentor-figure who survived almost a decade at the elite level of amateur boxing.

“I don’t feel like I have been in the senior level for so many years, I feel like one of them,” Thapa says. “We have such a good bonding, the way it used to be when I came from youth to seniors.”

At training, it’s Thapa who offers the nuanced advice that comes from experience.

“Small things,” he says, “like the last 10 seconds in the ring, you are tired and your hands don’t know (what to do), you need a voice that (tells you) ‘if you win these 10 seconds, you are going to win the round.’

“What matters most, what I have learnt from my past, is that when you are young, and you have so much to learn, the one thing that needs to be done is just to let you know how good you are, or how much better you can be. It is always a realisation about your quality, about your talent. Because sometimes when we don’t hear the voice from inside, we need someone to tell us.”

He doesn’t need anyone to tell him how good he is anymore, but he did have to dig deep to remind himself. They may be his brothers-in-training, but the new generation of boxers are also always pushing the more established names, looking for their opening. In 2017, Thapa lost to upcoming boxer Manish Kaushik in the 60kg finals of the Nationals; Kaushik beat him again at the 2018 India Open, the only international tournament held in India. Thapa was suddenly not the top pick in his weight class. It hit the boxer hard.

“I have gone through a bad phase in 2018,” he says. “It left me demoralised. I felt I was not really getting the best out of me but I tried to (get a) hold over my emotions and focus more on the positive side. I believed in me, my coaches believed in me, my family was very supportive.”

The youngest of six siblings, Thapa opens up to his sister Kavita and calls her an inspiration.

“When at home, there are two things that he doesn’t miss, training and meditation,” says Kavita, an MBA graduate.

“Meditation helps me know myself better because everything starts from within,” Thapa says.

Kavita has closely seen his struggles with his loss of form last year.

“It’s really internal for him,” she says. “He has trained hard, he is strong from within and doesn’t allow setbacks to deviate from his goals.”

Kavita knows her brother is an introvert, one who doesn’t show his bruises.

“But I get to know, it’s a sibling bond. Whenever he is low, I try to pep him up. Yet, he shares his happiness with everyone.”

With his Asian Championship performance, Thapa has turned it around. Leading up to the 2019 India Open in Guwahati from May 20-25, he finds himself once again in the spotlight ahead of another Olympic year.

“This medal has put me back on track,” he says.

The boy wonder

When Vijender Singh broke the glass ceiling with a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Thapa the boy-wonder was already making big strides. In 2009, he was the lone medallist from the Indian team at the Junior World Boxing Championship. At the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, he won a silver. He was brought into the senior national camp.

“There were boxers like Akhil Kumar, Vijender Singh, so many good boxers, won so many medals,” Thapa says. “There was so much of motivation for me, never seen before.”

In 2012, he was headed to the Olympics.

“London was beautiful,” Thapa says. “I was in Olympics for the first time!”

He lost in the first round, but he was well on his way to becoming one of the top amateur boxers in the world in his category.

By the the time he headed to Rio in 2016, he had already fought in two World Championships (with a bronze in 2015), two Asian Championships, an Asian Games, and a Commonwealth Games.

Yet, at Rio, he bowed out again in the very first round. It was a hard lesson.

“I went as the best boxer from India but my opponent was better,” Thapa says. “Even your best is not enough.”

What Thapa does not feel comfortable talking about is the backdrop against which he was performing.

After the rapid rise of Indian boxing during the Vijender and Akhil era, when it was time for the next generation—Thapa, Devendro Singh, Vikas Krishan—to step up, they were grounded.

India’s boxing federation was suspended by the world body from 2012 to 2016 due to electoral mismanagement. For those four years, as the boxing officials of the country fought their own bitter fight, the boxers themselves were left without funding, training camps, or even regular competitions. Many of his contemporaries fell through the cracks.

“I have kept my hunger alive,” Thapa says.

Getting inside

As always, the hunger had to be backed with hard work.

To keep up with the changes that amateur boxing has gone through in the last few years, including in its scoring system, Thapa has had to change his game.

A defensive, watchful boxer before, Thapa has had to learn a far more aggressive style.

“You need to have that killer instinct,” Thapa says. “You don’t have the time to watch. You have to start from the first round. You have to throw the punches and it has to be impactful.”

If earlier he kept his distance and threw long jabs, now he takes the fight inside, using hooks and upper cuts. He has worked closely with national chief coach CA Kuttappa—someone he has trained under from the very first time he came into the national camp—to smoothen the rough edges of his game.

“He was always very good tactically, punching from long range and defending,” Kutappa says. “Boxing is about attacks now. You have to be rough, close-range and medium-range boxing give you maximum results. It has taken him some time to change.”

Shifting weight

The coming few months will also be a test of his mettle as he shifts to 63kg category to earn a Tokyo Olympics qualification berth from the World Championships—60kg is not a part of the Olympics. Before that he has to prove himself at the domestic trials again.

“I have been trying to shift my weight category keeping Tokyo in mind,” Thapa says. “So last couple of years I have been fighting in 60kg (moving up from his usual 56kg). Now I will move to 63kg which is an Olympic category.”

India’s High Performance Director Santiago Nieva has high hopes from the most experienced boxer in his team.

“He is able to put good pressure on his opponents,” Nieva says. “Many times he fought faster opponents, who were winning the first round, but slowly he broke them down with his punch variations—going into the body, mixing body and head punches.”

Shifting to a higher weight will put Thapa at a reach-disadvantage in front of taller opponents, but Nieva has no doubts he can make up for it with his skills.

“He has looked good in sparring with boxers above his weight category,” says Nieva. “He will face stronger and taller opponents. With the extra 3kg, he can become stronger as well.”

First Published: May 16, 2019 23:40 IST