Packing a mean punch runs in the family. When 20-year-old Nupur will step into the ring at the Asian Boxing Championships in Bangkok, she will revisit a glorious chapter in the Indian and her family’s sporting history.
It was in Bangkok in 1966 that her grandfather, Hawa Singh, won India its first Asian Games gold in boxing. So complete was his domination, at home and in Asia, that the six feet tall army man from Haryana would repeat the feat four years later, in Bangkok. At home, the 1961-72 period were the Hawa Singh years — India had no other heavyweight champion but him.
Now 49 years later, Nupur, who stands an inch above Hawa Singh, is representing India in the middleweight (75 kg) category at the Asian championships that began April 19 in the city her grandfather once lorded over.
“I was two when he passed away in the year 2000. But I’ve heard a lot of stories about him. His friends would tell me how, despite his heavyset physique, he would float like a butterfly in the ring. He was quite quick on his feet for someone his size,” Nupur told Firstpost.
She grew up on a staple diet of boxing —the legend of her grandfather and children learning to box from her father, Sanjay. In fact, several of his father’s wards even lived in their house in Bhiwani.
The 44-year-old Sanjay has had a good training.
He was among the first batch of boxers Hawa Singh trained at the Sport Authority of India’s Bhiwani centre that he set up in late 1980s. That is how Bhiwani caught the boxing bug and India found a new sport it could take pride in. The now-famous Bhiwani Boxing Club’s illustrious wards include Olympic bronze medallist Vijender Singh and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Akhil Kumar.
A contact sport, boxing can be brutal. In India, and particularly in Haryana, where a patriarchal mindset often dictates parents thinking about sports like boxing and wrestling, it can be more difficult for girls to take up the sport. Not for Nupur.
“Boxing is in her blood. In fact, when she was born her grandfather had said she would be a boxer,” says Nupur’s mother Mukesh Rani. She says Sanjay was determined that their child, irrespective of the gender, would be an athlete. “So when Nupur said she wanted to be a boxer, there was absolutely no objection,” says Rani, who represented India in basketball at the Junior Asian School Games.
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Both Nupur and Hawa Singh owe their boxing careers to a generous slice of luck.
When Nupur was in Class 9, Sanjay, who is also her coach, asked her if she would like to participate in a local competition that would win her a certificate that could help with her education and perhaps even a job.
In her first bout, Nupur outpunched her opponent, who stopped the fight midway and walked out, says Sanjay. “Nupur still tells me that had that girl defeated her, she would have quit the same day,” he says.
Hawa Singh was also nudged into the ring.
“When my father was in the army, one of the boxers fell sick. So, an officer ordered my father to get into the ring. My father got into the ring despite never having had boxed before. He won the bout,” Sanjay told Firstpost.
Hawa Singh liked boxing so much that he took up the sport. When it earned him a promotion, it only made his resolve to be a boxer stronger.
In his days, his opponents would buckle as his swift punches and quick movements would buffet their bodies like gale-force winds, befitting his name —Hawa Singh.
“The other thing people always said about him was that while you would assume a boxer to be hot-headed, he was the calmest person you could know. ” says Nupur.
As a coach, Hawa Singh was a strict disciplinarian. “Those who saw him coach boxers would always talk about his gruelling sessions. Coach would whip you if you were not serious about training,” says Nupur. “Men would train without T-shirts and my grandfather would stand with ropes in his hands. If you would fool around, fataak, fataak,” she says, mimicking the lashing noise.
The two have a similar style of boxing, says Sanjay. “Just like my father, Nupur also boxes with an open guard but she still needs two more years to be perfect,” he says.
Sanjay thinks she has the right skills — she is technically sound, and is tall, so she has a great reach but her punches lack a bit of power. “That’s what she needs to work on. If she can eliminate this, she can be unbeatable. She can be India’s golden girl!” says Sanjay.
Nupur has made her presence felt. She got a gold at the women’s state championships and the youth nationals in 2015 but it was her win at the All Inter-University Boxing Tournament in 2018 that propelled her into the reckoning for a spot in the Indian squad for the Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament. This year has not been that great, so far. In her first international tournament — the Strandja memorial in Bulgaria — she was defeated by Italy’s Jessica Galizia in the first round.
With the Tokyo Olympics barely a year away, a good showing at the Asian championships would go a long way in establishing her as a prospect for India in the 75kg category.
Nupur though is carrying no baggage — of history or expectations — to Bangkok. “I box without pressure. That’s how I’ve learnt to do things,” she says.
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