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India's box office set to hit London
In a first, seven Indians will be competing for a boxing medal at the London Games. Boxers from Haryana and the North East have succeeded in edging hockey out as ‘India’s’ sport at the Olympics.
Shiva Thapa really has to go. You can immediately tell. With those rabbit-in-theheadlights eyes and a face that says anything but Olympic boxer, right now Thapa is that schoolboy who knows that he can't hold on any longer. Eyes darting, constantly shifting from one foot to another, he distractedly replies to your questions in short, breathless takes.
Actually, the fidget is part of the Shiva Thapa make-up. Having to pee for the National Anti-Doping Agency, needing to drink more water to do so, rushing for a sponsor's engagement, needing to pack for the two-week Kazakhstan training camp, not remembering where his room keys are, at 18, Thapa is living an event-filled life. Son of a karate instructor from Biru Bari in Guwahati, little Thapa has been thrust in the limelight after becoming the youngest-ever Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympics.
In the next few weeks, he will have to get used to this constant tizzy as the Olympics come within touching distance. Like him, another half-dozen boxers are packing, unpacking - and re-packing - hope and expectations along with their kits. Last minute doubts are being examined, and then offloaded. Somewhere, fear - so vital to get you fired up - is being surreptitiously packed inside like a travelling salesman tucks in his hipflask.
These are busy times for Indian boxing, and as we suddenly awaken to the idea that the sport sits on the cusp of something exceptional, the buzz gets bigger. Someone like Jai Bhagwan, at 26 a hardened veteran of many a battle, sums it up best. "The judges' scoring favours us now, " the 60-kg class boxer points out. In boxing understanding, in a contact sport where the judges have to take split-second decisions, it is the sign of a big team on show and the implicit acceptance of that in the international circles. A decade or so earlier - during the reign of international boxing chief, Pakistan's Anwar Choudhary - an Indian boxer getting points out of a bout was considered a victory in itself. Today that has changed.
A Facebook nut, Jai Bhagwan constantly receives friend requests from boxers he's fought against all over the world: "Bhaisaab, itne aaten hain, ki reject karne padte hain. " "Earlier at tournaments, we'd be the ones going over and trying to say Hi. If we caught their eye, then great. Now that's turned around, they seek us out, " he says, his Hindi laced with Haryanvi.
As a kid, I'd just run, " says Thapa, at Patiala's National Institute of Sports, trying to explain his constant flurry. He recognises his story is becoming the story of Indian sport this season. A rarity in the sport in that he is an urban product. Earnest, polite to a fault, the bantamweight boxer speaks easily of how his father dipped into his savings, even sold their land in the village so that his youngest son could learn boxing. "Dad knew nothing about boxing, he learnt about it for our sake. He would wake us up at 3 in the morning, get us to finish our homework. Then my running would start. I'd run to the gym, then I'd run for the school bus. After school, I'd again run to the gym. After that I'd run straight to bed and at 3 am a new day would start. "
So, armed with the same fluster, Thapa bundles his lithe frame past the squeaking doors of the hostel canteen. There, in the breakfast bustle sits an oasis of calm. Sumit Sangwan, a year older and London-bound as his roomie, carries the detached air of a heavier weight boxer. Conserving energy is as second nature to his ilk as jumpy is to Thapa. In his first year on the senior circuit, this Karnal boxer has surprised people by making the Olympics grade so early in his career.
Sangwan is chalk to Thapa's cheese. He took to boxing like the proverbial fish, but unlike the salmon making the trip back, for Sangwan taking punches - and giving them back in right earnest - was the ticket to stay away from home. Nearly a decade ago, this Sheikhpura boy arrived in Delhi on a short exposure trip, and simply dug his heels in. "Bas yeh tha ki gaon hi nahin jaana, " he says with an embarrased laugh. "Don't know why, but kids who were with me in the group would go home on Diwali and Holi, I'd look for excuses not to return" Today, as his roommate is on tenterhooks, preparing for his future ahead, the light heavyweight Sumit Sangwan sits back and quietly attacks his breakfast. It is a reflection of his boxing too. "We have nine minutes in a round, that's ample time, " he explains, "So why rush in? Let the other guy come out attacking. When he can't get a punch in in the first 30 seconds or more, he'll get frustrated. That's when I move in. "
The intensity inside the Boxing Hall at the NIS is palpable - raw, visceral and frenzied. You can sense it too, once pulled inside the maw of the noisy, brightly-lit arena. The dull clatter of reinforced foam hitting foam has its own echo. The door opens and former women's world champion and London hopeful, L Sarita Devi has long peep, before turning to her partner. "Let's go. These guys are just hogging the hall, " she sighs.
As the wait hits the home straight, each boxer indulges in a little personalised psyching up. Manoj Kumar has to be literally restrained. The Commonwealth Games gold medallist speaks of how endurance is his forte and how he can outlast any opponent in the ring. The drive shows in the morning runs where he ensures that he beats everyone across the weight categories by a good dozen yards in the sprints. The physio Hari Shankar Varma immediately checks his pulse and asks him to go easy.
In contrast, the more moody Jai Bhagwan likes to reach out and shake his vial of fight memories to make sure the cream rises to the top. "Aaram se laet kar, apni best fight ko yaad karte hain, " he says. He fondly remembers how his landlord in Hisar - Pritam Singh Thakur, a former boxer in the 91-kg class - used to hoist him on his shoulders and take him to the nearby gym where he first got his first taste of this gloved seduction. It was in the Hisar Nationals of 2004, he remembers, where the great Dingko Singh was dethroned in the then bantamweight category. "Sonu Chahal beat Dingko. I beat Sonu, " he says simply. "It was my first National title. I was only 18. Two years later Sonu committed suicide in the Bhiwani SAI Centre. He hung himself after a drunken brawl and a promising talent was gone. " Memories fire young Thapa too. "It was my father's dream. He's been dreaming of this moment ever since we were three. " he says. "It is here now. "
It is here now, but while seven's a great count, it can be a killer. Instantly expectation grows exponentially. For a country that is only just learning to discard viewing boxing as a four-yearly indulge, this means sitting on a knife's edge. And as this youthful squad prepares in the frenzy that only they know and understand, Indian boxing's longest survivors - chief coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu and his able Cuban ally, Blas Iglesias Fernandez - are only too well aware of this. The number is unprecedented, but despite the experience of their wards, being so young could easily turn things on its head. As Thapa unwittingly reveals that all this was a longer-term programme with the 2016 Rio Olympics in mind, you get the feeling that emotional and mental readiness for a event of this magnitude could be an issue.
And that is why the Sandhu and Fernandez duo ensure that on the surface nothing should seem changed. Even after a decade in the business - critics owe it to his exemplary inter-personal skills both ways of the chain of command - Sandhu never lets go of his Mother Hen persona. He is quick to pounce on anything that he senses is an intrusion. Breaking the ice with him is an everyday routine - boxing's version of 50 First Dates.
No less grey than he was when bringing home a deliriously happy Dingko Singh and a shock Asian Games gold medal in 1998, the disappointment of a robbed Gurcharan Singh medal at Sydney 2000, two years later quietly deflecting the ignominy of a medal-less campaign at the Busan Asian Games, currently fussing over a golden generation, Sandhu can still be exasperating one minute, engaging the next. But this time, the laugh lines cannot hide the gnawing worry. "It is a strange position to be in, " he says. "Everyone's saying 'Seven Indian boxers for London!' Only I understand the burden. "
Both Sandhu and Fernandez are thankful then, that Vijender Singh discovered his competitive juices just in time, kept his head and is back in the fray. For, the handsome Bhiwani boxer is the focal point of this boxing revolution that has spawned the likes of Thapa, Devendro, Jai Krishan and Sangwan. He is the one they idolise.
Even Vijender recognises it. Qualification for London - his third Olympics - has been a personal journey. Sandhu describes how he had almost lost his prize fighter after his early exit at the Baku World Championships last year. "I saw him standing at the airport, alone and desolate. No one came to receive him, he had tears in his eyes. I let him be, " recalls Sandhu, "But then he simply dropped off the radar. He wouldn't take my calls, even when he did, he'd talk of giving it all up. "
So Sandhu drove up to Kalwash village in Bhiwani and literally laid seige at Vijender's door, chipping away, working on his inner circle, friends, family in trying to drill some sense. It worked. "Finally, I am back, " Vijender had roared, relieved perhaps at rediscovering himself.
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