New Delhi: Glory and humble self-assessment make for an odd couple, especially in nouveau riche celebrities (rightfully) basking in their moment, but Amit Panghal comes as a pleasant surprise. Back from winning a historic silver medal at the World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia, Panghal, in his oversized T-shirt and flip-flops, is at ease with his new-found stardom – that manifested itself in hordes thronging the airport to catch his glimpse.
“Oh, that crowd was nothing. I had to ask people not to come,” he says. It is the closest he would come to vanity. Panghal does not have a boxer’s bluster, no intimidating physique, no posturing, no trash talking, no languid walks with the medal, and an odd nickname — Chhota Tyson — to boot.
“It’s an incredible feeling. To make your country proud and to come home to that kind of reception is so overwhelming. I must thank everyone who extended their love to me over the past few days. I have done a very small service to my country with this silver; I’ll try to go a step ahead and win gold next time,” he says.
— Amit Panghal (@Boxerpanghal) September 23, 2019
“I need to improve a lot. My stamina, power, endurance…” That’s pretty much every intangible in boxing. His coaches insist on some technical points too, but more of that later.
“I was confident that I'll win a medal. We had prepared very hard. My only thought was not to come back empty-handed. I was determined to do something special. I knew that no Indian male boxer had won more than a bronze at World Championships, so I wanted to break that barrier,” he says.
Panghal’s rise, over the past two years, has been stunning. Ever since he broke into the senior national team, the 23-year-old Army man has been winning medals with remarkable consistency.
He won the bronze medal (49kg) at the Asian Championships in 2017 and made it to the quarter-finals of his debut World Championships the same year. Next, he won gold medals at the prestigious Strandja Memorial in Bulgaria and the Asian Games, and moved up to the 52kg category earlier this year after AIBA dropped the 49kg class for the Olympics.
Panghal then won a gold at this year's Asian Championships before making it to the final of the World Championships in Russia. The result also means that he has made the cut for next year's Olympic qualifiers in China.
“It has not been an easy ride. I returned empty-handed from my first World Championships in 2017. I remember I was really gutted. I wept a lot, but then I decided that ki kuch bhi jaye, bina medal ke nahi aana hai [whatever may happen, don't have to return without a medal]. I realised the only way to get better is by practice, and I gave my all in the ring. This silver medal is a result of all the sweat and preparation."
“I feel nice that people have expectations of me and think that I am worthy of getting a medal. I am fully focussed on next year’s Olympic qualifiers now because representing one’s country at the Olympics is an athlete’s dream, and I am no different.”
Sweet-talking done, now was the time to throw in some punches. Having beaten Kazakhstan's Saken Bibossinov 3-2 in the last-four clash, Panghal’s final was expected to be a close affair. However, the bout against Uzbekistan's Shakhobidin Zoirov, the reigning Olympic champion, turned out to be an eye-opener.
Zoirov used his height to maximise his reach, and never allowed Panghal to settle and dominate. As the bout wore on, the Haryana pugilist found it increasingly difficult to land his punches, and lost by a unanimous decision. Though the 0-5 verdict looks harsh, it doesn’t paper over the need for an all-round development of his game.
“He needs time,” feels High-Performance Director Santiago Nieva. “In some of the bouts, he boxed to his optimum, but in tough bouts when things are not going your way or when the bouts are really close, when the tiredness comes into play, all faults become obvious. It is easy to do good things when you are dominant, you can look like Muhammad Ali, but when the bouts are close or you are fighting an awkward or a stronger opponent, you need to have a good base and bring variations. That is where we are looking to improve him.”
Panghal’s own analysis is not much off the mark. He understands the balance between power and weight that he has to maintain, and the challenges that come with a category upgrade.
“I have to increase my power while maintaining my weight, and the more I play, the better I’ll get. I’ll also work on my stamina because more power requires more stamina.
“It might only be a change of three kgs, but 52kg category requires a lot of power. I have worked really hard to increase my power, but there is still enough room for improvement which I am sure can be done by more practice. The main problem is that of reach. In 52kg, all the boxers are taller than me, and their reach is better than mine. This means that I’ll have to stay close to them to punch them. The closer you get to the opponent, the better are the chances of you landing your punches. It also doesn’t allow your opponent to open his arms. The downside is that boxing is a sport where getting too close to your opponent can cost you,” Panghal explains.
The difference in height means taller boxers inevitably start from a vantage position against Panghal, and if he concedes ground early, it becomes increasingly difficult to mount a counterattack. The solution, chief national boxing coach CA Kuttappa suggests, lies in going on the offence early.
For an intrinsically defensive boxer such as Panghal, it is an approach that goes against his natural grain, but learn he must.
“In the final, Amit would hit and run, hit and run, which is his strength also, but sometimes you get the advantage when you keep attacking. What I mean is you can’t stay glued to your style,” the Dronacharya Awardee tells Firstpost.
“Amit’s defence is his natural strength, but we are also building his attack. In the semi-final, he was up against a very difficult opponent and we all told him to be wary of him. Amit went on a full-throttle attack right at the start and won rather easily. Had he attacked more in the final, he might not have lost the first round, which could have made the difference."
“I want our boxers to be more rough and tough. It gives an unmistakable edge to a boxer. I observed the Uzbek boxers too, and I think they are technically nowhere close to us, but they really go for their punches relentlessly. We have to cultivate aggression in the training. When they spar, they don’t have to play safe. That’s why we have reduced the training to short sessions of 1-2 hours, so that boxers can really be aggressive. We are doing that, but it is a process that will take some time.”
The ‘process’ that Kuttappa alludes to has been in motion at the national camps for sometime now. More thrust is given on aggression and with the help of video analysis, the technical weaknesses are identified and worked upon.
“Once a boxer is at the senior level, you can’t change his technique, but you can alter the tactics. Our boxers do not counterpunch as much, but they’ll learn as they play more competitions."
“In Amit’s case, I pad up and instruct him to advance and hit. Even during sparring, I ask the boys and coaches to punch him relentlessly if he backs away. The idea is to get him to go on the offensive and stay at it. We record his sessions and discuss his game. If you don’t know you game, no point watching Tyson or Ali’s videos.”
An earshot away, Panghal is fooling around with his teammates, comfortable in the knowledge that while silver medals are still welcome, gold remains an unfinished pursuit.
"I don’t just want to win an Olympic medal; I want to change the colour of the medal." Amit Panghal's caffeine-induced attempt at vanity will keep the nation hooked, come Tokyo 2020.
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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2019 18:22:18 IST