Pooja Rani: fast, furious and a big right hook
- The tall, experienced boxer is India's best hope for an Olympic medal in women's boxing. She proved it by winning her second straight Asian Championship.
A single punching bag hung from a concrete roof at some distance from the indoor hall of Karmabir Nabin Chandra Bordoloi Stadium in Guwahati, where the India Open boxing was in full swing in 2019. Outside the arena, the Indian women's boxing team coach Rafaelle Bergamasco spotted Pooja Rani among a group of boxers and took her aside. The conversation began quietly enough, before Bergamasco's tone became urgent, then furious.
Then he walked Rani through the field outside the stadium, muddy with fresh rain that May evening, and towards the punching bag. All the while, Rani quietly absorbed a barrage from the coach. At the bag, the coach continued to rapidly talk, but this time he moved the way boxers move--quick steps, throwing shadow punches, ducking and weaving.
Bergamasco was telling her exactly how Rani should have fought in the bout she lost the day before. The lesson continued for more than an hour, as the day's light faded.
The Italian’s plans of an Indian berth in the 75kg category hinged on Rani, and with six months to go for the World Championships, there was no time to be lost.
Rani had just shifted to a new weight category on the insistence of Bergamasco. She was still finding her feet.
A month ago, Rani had won the biggest bout of her career, beating world champion Wang Lina of China in the Asian Championships title contest in 81kg, before making the switch to prepare for Tokyo Olympics qualification. And here she was losing to lesser opponents.
Bergamasco rated Rani highly for her technical ability. She could attack, counter, punch with tremendous power, use her feet deftly for defence, and adapt to the requirements of the fight.
Bergamasco now needed to get her to find her rhythm and power in the new weight.
On Sunday, two years from that rainy day in Guwahati, Rani showed that her transformation was complete. With powerful hooks and deft footwork, she took apart Mavluda Movlonova of Uzbekistan in the 75kg title fight at the Asian Championships in Dubai with an unanimous verdict.
With less than two months before the Tokyo Olympics, this is exactly where Bergamasco wanted her to be.
“I am very happy with the progress she has made in these two years,” said the women’s team high performance coach. “She has improved on her footwork and physical strength. The change in categories was fundamental for her. She is no doubt the best in India but it is important for me to see that she is best internationally.”
After Mary Kom, Rani, at 30, will be the most experienced woman boxer from India to fight in Tokyo and Bergamasco believes she can beat anyone. “I want her to have great confidence in herself and aim for an Olympic medal,” he said.
Yet the run-up to the Asian Championships was not ideal for Rani. Her preparation suffered after the national camp was called off following a spate of Covid-19 cases. Rani moved to the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, Karnataka, and trained there, calling on 2016 world youth champion Sachin Siwach to spar with her.
“She was worried about her training. She was not able to train well because of the break. She was not able to find sparring partners, " said Siwach, who trained at the same academy in Bhiwani, Haryana, where Rani learnt her boxing.
“From the beginning she has been very powerful. She used to beat me in my junior days," Siwach said. "She is very strong with her right hook and she uses it to very good advantage.”
The Bhiwani connection
Tall, strong and fast, Rani had the makings of a good boxer when coach Sanjay Sheoran spotted her at a school competition in the boxing hub of Bhiwani. Sheoran, who runs a local academy in the city referred to as India's "little Cuba" because it produces so many international boxers, is the son of the late Hawa Singh, the only Indian boxer to have won two gold medals at the Asian Games.
But to get Rani into the ring was a challenge. She had picked up the sport on a whim at 18, but her father was not a fan--he did not like the idea of Rani getting injuries. So, for months, Rani kept it a secret from her family. In her early days as a boxer, Sheoran said, "if she got a cut or something she would not want to go home." Instead, she would stay over with friends.
In 2009, within a year of starting out as a boxer, Rani had made it to the youth national championships, but once there, she was too scared to fight.
"I had to convince her," Sheoran said. "But once she was in the ring she was comfortable. She was someone who did not know that she had the talent to beat anyone.”
She won the title, and it changed everything. Her parents began to support her wholeheartedly and she started winning more and more medals.
Not making the cut for the 2016 Olympics was a difficult time for her in her career. She made up for that disappointment by becoming the first woman boxer from India to qualify for Tokyo
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