The final of the Big Bout Indian Boxing League between Punjab Panthers and Gujarat Giants, at the Indira Gandhi International Stadium in Delhi, was an enticing affair.
Six bouts down, both teams were tied 3-3. The final bout between Gujarat’s Ashish Kumar and Punjab’s Yashpal in the 75kg division was to be the decider.
As Ashish Kumar trumped his opponent on all counts and won the final for his team, the Gujarat camp went into a frenzy, teammates huddling around their hero and breaking into some dance-moves!
Watching from the sidelines was India's High-Performance Director Santiago Nieva, who was present at the venue for a meeting.
By the end of it all, he was in a jovial mood, seeing the league’s inaugural edition wrap up with plenty of positives to take home. “This was the first season so obviously, lots of things to improve on," said Santiago, who hails from Sweden.
"Nevertheless, I think this was a great start. If we continue with this momentum, it could become a big thing on the international boxing calendar.”
Earlier in the tie, Punjab Panthers had laid down the gauntlet by winning the first two bouts and taking a healthy 2-0 lead.
It made for a compelling watch, owing particularly to Youth Olympic Games gold medallist Abdulmalik Khalakov, who fought for the Punjab Panthers in the 57kg category.
His was the second bout of the day, and the crowd was left in awe of the Uzbek boy wonder’s effortless craft.
Speedy one-two punches were combined with a thundering uppercut from the 19-year-old Uzbek, which left his opponent Chirag staggering back. Khalakov won his bout 5-0 and went about celebrating with a couple of back-flips.
This wasn’t the first time Indians were seeing the might of Uzbek boxers.
Amit Panghal, who recently became the first Indian male boxer to win a silver medal at the World Championships, had lost in the final of that tournament to Shakhobidin Zoirov, a flyweight (52kg) pugilist from Uzbekistan.
As the Indian high-performance director, Santiago was aware of the gap that remains between his wards and the best boxers in the world, from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. “It’s a little bit of everything. Our boxers need to maintain their sharpness and balance even when they are tired," he said.
“Many times, our boxers tend to engage in a lot of clinching and wrestling as a safety measure. That needs to stop! We need to be consistently landing clean blows.”
“Tactical awareness, ring craft and positioning are a work in progress and they will go a long way in improving performances.”
After his 5-0 loss in the finals of the 52kg division at the Worlds, Amit Panghal spoke at length about the need to increase the power in his punches, and work on his reach, to challenge taller opponents.
When asked about the same, Santiago shed some light on Amit’s weak spots. “He (Amit) is very good when fighting from the outside and then gradually slipping in when the opportunity comes.”
“In that match (final) he couldn’t do that as his opponent (Shakhobidin Zoirov) was taller than him and had the advantage of reach. I think he did a fair job of closing the gap to land his blows since he’s very instinctive. We do need to work on that still to help him win from those tough situations.”
This year, India returned from the men's World Boxing Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia with its best-ever tally of two medals — Manish Kaushik won bronze in the 63 kg category, to go with Amit Panghal's historic silver.
A lot has been said since about Indian boxers' improved stature internationally. However, Santiago, who's been with the Indian team since 2017, believes that there is still a lot that needs to be done to ensure sustained success for the country's pugilists.
"We've received a lot of support from the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) and Sports Authority of India (SAI). However, little things remain. We are waiting on a strength and conditioning coach since November," he said.
"The BFI needs to have more tournaments at the zonal, junior, sub-junior levels to ensure that there is a regular stream of talent coming up for Indian boxing. Right now, there aren't many such tournaments happening all year."
In line with the need to increase Indian boxers' endurance, the other steps which the Swede had in mind were more radical.
"If I had my way, our boxers would be simultaneously competing in the professional boxing circuit. You see the boxers from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They are also fighting on the professional circuit and have the experience of fighting bouts lasting eight-10 rounds. So, three rounds in amateur boxing aren't too difficult for them."
"Moreover, you only compete four times in a year as a professional boxer so it won't be difficult in terms of workload. Hopefully, next year, even before the Olympics come around, we will see Indian boxers competing in the amateur and professional circuit simultaneously."
With the entire Indian sporting contingent readying for the Tokyo Olympics next year, the conversation inevitably veered off to the mega-event.
When asked about his goal for Indian boxers at the Olympics, Santiago chose to tread carefully. "It's hard to say right now. We are all preparing for the qualifiers which will be very tough," he said.
"The men won two medals at the World Championships and the women also won two in the Olympic categories so we should be aiming for four. But can't say really. It's that kind of competition. Anything can happen."
"This year has been good for Indian boxing. We need to make sure that this doesn't amount to a flash in the pan. A good performance at the Olympics will ensure that and put us on par with some of the heavyweights of international boxing such as China, USA, Japan and of course, the Uzbeks and Kazakhs," he signed off.
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Updated Date: Dec 22, 2019 19:29:10 IST