Celebrate Muhammad Ali, but don't lose sight of the bleak state of Indian boxing

While many internet Indians are mourning this great man’s death, the state of India’s boxing culture has remained mournful in the recent past.

Aprameya Rao June 10, 2016 16:19:21 IST
Celebrate Muhammad Ali, but don't lose sight of the bleak state of Indian boxing

Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest boxer of all time, passed away on 3 June after a prolonged illness. His death sparked off an extraordinary outburst of emotions, thanks to the international media and especially the online community. Netizens, celebrities, world leaders and people across the world came together to celebrate the late sportsman’s achievements. Similar sentiments were echoed in India too, with even Prime Minister Narendra Modi describing Ali as an “exemplary sportsman”. Memes, photos from his glory days and some of his popular quotes, went viral — not to mention the usual “RIP” statuses and tweets that flooded social media.

But the fact remains that the late Muhammad Ali was an American boxing world champion. Not an Indian. While many internet Indians are mourning this great man’s death, the state of India’s boxing culture continues to remain sorrowful in the recent past.

Administration woes since 2008

Though there was a visible spike in the popularity of boxing after Vijender Singh won the bronze in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the game has had a tumultuous journey thereafter. Four years later, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) banned the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation for alleged manipulation in the election process. Indeed, political interference in Indian sports associations — including BCCI — has ruined the essence of sporting activities in India.

Celebrate Muhammad Ali but dont lose sight of the bleak state of Indian boxing

Boxers in Bhiwani. AP

After the federation was banned, Boxing India was entrusted with the administration of the sport but that arrangement too fell apart due to internal discord. Currently, an ad-hoc panel appointed by the international boxing body governs the sport.

The lack of proper administrative set-up irked many boxers including Mary Kom, who won the 2012 Olympic bronze for boxing under the flyweight category. While speaking to Reuters, the ace boxer lamented the lack of federation in India and felt that this has led to decline of the sport in India.

Unrelated to the ongoing fracas over the boxing federation, former world number one Vijender Singh decided to turn pro. His decision shocked his coach Gurbux Singh Sandhu who believed that his absence would hurt the team’s prospects at the Rio Olympics. With only one boxer qualifying for Rio so far, the downfall of this sport looks complete.

Turning pro new option for amateurs

A 2012 report in the British daily The Guardian covered the Bhiwani Boxing Club and how it succeeded at creating a robust boxing culture in Bhiwani. The Haryana town is often called “India’s Cuba” — a reference to the socialist-ruled island’s boxing craze.

One startling fact that came out of the report was the potency of boxing as a means to secure a government job — in railways or police. It also quoted a teenage boxer who believed that a successful career helps in getting good marriage proposals!

This is not surprising given the fact that only cricketers, and to an extent tennis stars too, have had the opportunity to lead a financially secure life. Gone are the days when even cricketers had an “official job”. With cricket dominating India’s sporting arena, other sportsmen are forced to find a government job to secure their sporting dreams.

With Vijender moving on to professional boxing, there is hope for many amateur boxers who feel betrayed by the politics of the federation. A News18 article published in December 2015 stated that turning pro helped many amateurs who otherwise missed raking in some good money and also fame. The report quoted Balbir Singh, a Nanded based amateur turned pro, “I turned pro this year (2015) since there is no federation politics here and we can carve out our career freely."

Another article published by the same website added that Gurbux Singh Sandhu, Vijender Singh’s coach for about 15 years, backed his former student and believed his success as a professional boxer might work as a catalyst for many aspiring boxers. He was quoted as saying, “As of date, there is not much craze about pro boxing and kids avoid it. If pro boxing in India is run in a proper way, then it could get popular in the country."

Last year, Jai Singh Shekhawat, a 30-year old boxing enthusiast from Rajasthan, launched India’s first pro boxing championship in a Delhi mall. Organised by his North Indian Boxing Association (NIBA), the event garnered many eyeballs but was reported by media for many administrative gaffes too. Shekhawat plans to bring more amateurs wanting to pros to such kind of a platform. This might be good news for many who aspire fame and money that has been eluding Indian pros since a long time.

The Rio Olympics will be inaugurated on 5 August this year. The administrative logjam in India, however, remains. The problem is coupled with the fact that there is no full-time minister in the sports ministry to look into the matter. Just one boxer, Shiv Thapa, is in the fray so far. This is unless Vijender Singh qualifies for Rio after AIBA allowed pros to participate in Olympics. However, the possibility of such a scenario looks bleak as professional commitments might hamper his chances at giving a last shot at the 2016 Olympics. So, it is unlikely that the Indian boxing fraternity is going to create a ripple this Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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