Amit Panghal's opportunity to surpass who inspired him
- It's the last few days of the preparatory camp before the boxers leave for Tokyo and world No 1 Amit Panghal is making the most of it.
As dawn emerges over the beautifully preserved medieval town of Assisi in Italy, the action has already peaked in the well-lit boxing hall of the hill town. The loud thuds of gloves against the punching bags resounds through the hall. In one corner, Amit Panghal is almost in a meditative state, throwing combinations at the bag: hook-hook, jab-jab, hook-jab, overhand punch.
It's the last few days of the preparatory camp before the boxers leave for Tokyo and the world No 1 is making the most of it.
He probably had a name on his mind as he let fly at the bag: Shakhobidin Zoirov. On his way to becoming the top boxer in the 52kg category, Panghal has beaten, at least once, just about every boxer who has come in his way. Every boxer but one: Shakhobidin, the 28-year-old world champion from Uzbekistan.
Panghal has fought him thrice and lost thrice. Two of those defeats have come at the highest stage: the world championships final in 2019 and the 2021 Asian Championships final (a decision that was bitterly contested since Panghal seemed to be the more dominant fighter). If Panghal has to win an Olympic gold, a first for Indian boxing, there is little doubt that he will have to beat Shakhobidin, who is the Olympic defending champion as well.
"Amit has a perfect jab, he has good combinations, and he comes inside really well," said Vijender Singh, the 2008 Olympic bronze winner and India's only boxing medallist at the Games. "But his greatest advantage is that he is a southpaw. I always found it hard to fight against southpaws, even when I turned professional, because the angle is so different."
Being left-handed works for Panghal very well in the ring, but again, there is an exception, and again, it's that man Shakhobidin, who is a southpaw himself.
Santiago Nieva, Indian boxing's high-performance coach, acknowledges that to get past 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist Zoirov, whose stint in professional boxing has made him a more powerful boxer than most amateurs, Panghal has to be at his best.
“What he needs to do more is block and counterpunch, move and counterpunch, slip and counterpunch,” said Nieva.
To be able to unleash more punches, Panghal has worked on reading his opponent faster.
"Usually, in the 1st round (of a bout) I used to observe," Panghal said. "So, I used to observe for like a minute and 30 seconds. Now that time has come down to 30-45 seconds. After that I start my attack.
“After the Asian Championship my confidence is high. I dominated the second and third rounds (against Zoirov)," Panghal added over a video call before departing for Tokyo.
Along with a low response time, the 25-year-old Panghal said he has also improved his "reach". This does not refer only to how long Panghal's arm extends when he throws a punch. It's also about positioning, footwork, and the kinds of punches he can deploy at the target. Panghal started as a 49kg boxer and shifted to 52kg only when his original category was scrapped from the Olympics. Now the 5ft2 boxer has to contend with taller fighters.
One of the punches Panghal has added to his repertory with devastating effect is the overhand punch: it not only improves his reach, but also confounds opponents as the fist comes from above the line of vision of the rival.
Panghal and his overhand punches are like Harbhajan Singh and the doosra. You know the trick. You know it will sting. Yet rarely can you do much about it.
Put yourself in the position of Panghal's rival to try and visualize what unfolds as the overland punch is executed. First, you see Panghal taking a step back. You watch, shoulders relaxed. Then Panghal takes a rapid lunge forward and throws a right-hand jab at your face. You put your guard up to block, the obvious thing. At this moment what you don't notice, because your guard is up, is that Panghal has loaded his left arm, concealing it with his elbows pressed closed to his ribs and his fist near his ears. What you do notice, because it's directly in your line of vision, is that Panghal is continuing to rush forward at you, his whole body crouched low. What you don't see is that loaded left arm has been released: Panghal has rotated his shoulder and angled his elbow so that the arm is looping down from above your line of vision. By the time you ee it, it's too late. The punch has landed on your head.
Panghal has many variations of the overhand punch, but the basic rule applies: he goes low, with his left arm and hand concealed and then throws a punch that's high.
“My reach has improved quite a lot," Panghal said.
Beating a world champion and an Olympic champion is not an intimidating prospect for Panghal. He has been there, done that, against Zoirov’s compatriot Hasanboy Dusmatov, another 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist (49kg). After losing to him twice, Panghal beat him at the 2018 Asian Games.
“In 2017, I went to Uzbekistan where I played Hasanboy in 49kg. I lost that bout. But I was motivated and felt good after that bout. I thought that if I have played so well against Olympic champion, my Olympic career against other boxers would be good in the coming days. After that my confidence grew,” Panghal said. “I have played him four times. After losing the first two times, I won the next two. I try to dominate the opponent. I try to score many points so that the rival does not control the bout. This is my main aim.”
Panghal is India’s best bet for an Olympic medal in boxing this year. After Vijender Singh’s bronze at the 2008 Olympics, no Indian male boxer has gone beyond the quarter-finals. Among the women, Mary Kom won a bronze medal in 2012. In 2016, Indian boxers returned empty-handed.
“I saw Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar at the Beijing Olympics. When Vijender won the medal in 2008, I saw it. I also saw the bout of Akhil Kumar. He was at his peak then. He lost the quarter-final but the bout was brilliant. I got huge motivation from there. I thought, maybe someday, I will also fight like this,” Panghal said. "I had just started boxing back then."
Now, at his debut Olympics, Panghal has both the opportunity and the skills not just to emulate the people who inspired him, but surpass them.