CWG Gold won, closure awaited for boxer Amit Panghal
He won his maiden CWG gold, but the despair over the Tokyo Olympics failure is far from over
Amit Panghal can finally afford a smile. It has taken him 372 days to shake off the expressionless stupor and produce the trademark victory salute. On Sunday, before a raucous crowd at the Birmingham boxing arena, the 51kg boxer took an important step towards exorcising the ghosts of Tokyo.
Panghal brimmed with relentless speed and aggression. He came flying off the blocks in the final, delivering combination punches to great effect against England’s Kiaran MacDonald. The European Championships silver medallist was rattled by the blows, and Panghal gave him a gash above the left eye in the second round. Panghal's footwork too stood out as he danced around the ring, occasionally unleashing a mean left jab that invariably breached MacDonald’s guard.
"It was a good bout. I ticked most boxes,” the 26-year-old said from Birmingham.
Panghal won all four bouts by unanimous verdict in his progress to the final. There was a minor stutter against Chinyemba Patrick in the semi-final, where the Zambian took the first of the three rounds by a split decision (3-2). Panghal rated it his toughest bout, more on fitness than technical aspects.
He barely competed after his first round defeat in Tokyo to Colombia's Yuberjen Martinez. Panghal's only international outing after that was the Thailand Open in April where he won silver, after which he won the CWG trials in Patiala. The former world No 1 was anxious about the lack of match practice before the Games.
That almost came true against Patrick in the final round. “I didn't have enough game time coming into CWG. The thought of fatigue catching up was always at the back of my mind, and in that final round, I felt I was tiring a bit. I pushed through and won, but it wasn't an ideal win," he said.
Lack of competition, especially in combat sports, also builds up fear. Wrestlers rue the absence of the 'feel' of bodily contact while for boxers, it's the fear of getting hurt.
“My first few bouts here, I was really scared of getting head-butted. That's purely due to lack of competition. Most of the time, we spar wearing a head guard, so stepping into an event without much match practice can make you think of your safety."
“As the tournament wore on, my confidence started coming back and I became more assured of my skills.”
Panghal is still some way off his best. He is yet to hit the zone that propelled him to the top a year back. "That level is still a fair way away. I may have won gold today, but there is a long way to go," he said.
The Tokyo closure will have to wait too.
“I have gone through hell. The feeling of carrying the nation's burden as world No 1 and crashing out in the first round cannot be shrugged off. I have stayed up nights weeping. I have woken up in the dead of the night thinking of that tragic day. I sometimes have nightmares. One medal won't end it.”
The boxers had a conditioning camp in Belfast for a fortnight before CWG, but Panghal was neither happy with the sparring partners nor the food. He often sparred with the Indian women boxers to not let the Irish boxers read his game.
“I had that Italy deja vu,” he said, referring to the camp in Assisi in the lead-up to the Olympics. He regularly sparred with Martinez, who he claimed read his technique and beat him in Tokyo.
“The federation did its best to provide us the best facilities. They even made sure we got Indian food in Ireland, but it was mostly too spicy or made of maida (refined flour). There was no fresh juice or coconut juice to aid recovery either.” Refined flour is rich in gluten and elite athletes tend to avoid it. Canned juice is full of processed sugar.
“In boxing, diet is as important as training and sleep. At times, I just had milk because maida upsets my digestion. I ate less which meant I had less energy to spar and took more time to recover. Things improved a lot in Birmingham where the diet was never a problem.
“All that is behind me. This gold means the world to me. Considering the state I was in, and the hit my confidence took, I really needed it. Hopefully, that dark phase will gradually go away too.” Until then, the armyman from Rohtak will continue to fight, targetting one podium at a time.