As he stepped into the ring for his bout against Cuba’s Jorge Cuellar in the quarterfinal of the IBA Boxing World Championships, India’s Nishant Dev mouthed a mantra.
“I am the best,” he told himself.
The 22-year-old doesn’t remember exactly where he picked it up, although his father, Pawan Dev, says it probably came from when he saw a boxing video of Muhammad Ali a few years back.
Ali, one of the all-time greats of the sport, would say ‘I am the greatest’ and that’s where Pawan feels Nishant got it from.
Nishant surrounds himself with that affirmation. His WhatsApp status reads ‘I am the best’. On Wednesday he posted the same message on his family Whatsapp group.
“Before a bout, I think we are far more nervous than Nishant is,” says his father, “When he posted that message, it was as if he is trying to tell us to calm down.”
Nishant’s family had reason to be nervous. Standing between the 22-year-old and a place in the semifinals, and with it an assured world championship medal, was Cuba’s Cuellar.
Although he was making his debut at the World Championships, death, taxes and a Cuban guy getting his hand raised is a frequently cited twist in boxing circles on the familiar quote on the certainties in life.
Cuba is synonymous with boxing excellence.
The nation won 4 gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics and three at the last World Championships – more than any other nation.
It’s a common tale in boxing circles how Indian coaches and fighters would scan boxing brackets hoping they weren’t drawn with a Cuban early in tournaments and almost appearing resigned to an early exit if they were.
There was a reason for this dread.
“I don’t recall the last time an Indian boxer beat a Cuban or if it ever happened. I’m not sure it ever happened and, definitely, not at a World Championship.
I made my debut more than 20 years ago and it didn’t happen in our time. I am sure none of my seniors would have beaten them,” recalls the now long-retired Commonwealth Games Champion Akhil Kumar.
Even though he is still early in his career and had two hard-fought wins at the World Championships ahead of the quarter-finals against Nishant, the Cuban had the weight of history behind him.
He was representing his nation in a weight that until recently had been the domain of two-time Olympic champion Roniel Iglesias (he won his gold at welterweight which is the closest to the 71kg category).
It did not matter.
On Wednesday, Nishant buried that Cuban bogey beating Cuellar by a 5-0 unanimous decision. He didn’t just pick and poke his way to a win, Nishant got shots off earlier and overwhelmed the Cuban with his flurries.
He even went toe to toe when Cuellar desperately went for a knockout in the last round – winning that exchange too.
“My willpower is very strong. I never thought about stepping back,” he says.
Nishant wasn’t unaware of what Cuellar was representing.
“It’s not that Cuba doesn’t have a strong boxing team. But every Cuban boxer isn’t the same and everyone is beatable,” he tells Sportstar.
It helped that he’s been in a somewhat similar situation before – at least on paper an underdog against a boxer from a stronger team.
Originally from Karnal in Haryana, Nishant, started boxing in 2010, inspired by an uncle who had been a professional boxer in Germany. He moved to the Inspire Institute of Sport in 2016 after being scouted at a sub-junior tournament that year.
He’s represented Karnataka, in national competitions ever since.
“It was always a challenge because Karnataka is one of the weaker teams in India especially if you compare it to Services, Railways or Haryana. We would always find ourselves competing against the top teams. There was no way to avoid them on the draw,” he says.
This was especially true in Nishant’s senior debut at the 2021 National Championships.
“I was representing Karnataka and I had to fight against an opponent from the Services team, then the Railways team and then Haryana. I beat them all. At that time people couldn’t believe it,” says Nishant who won the best boxer award at that tournament.
“That’s when I realised it doesn’t matter who the guy in front of you is – whether he is from a big team or not. The only thing that matters is your skills, self-belief and preparation. I started following my mantra around that time. I’ve kept my mindset that way. There’s no one better than me,” he adds.
“I have a killer-type mindset. It doesn’t matter who is in front of me. I can’t let anyone feel they are better than me.”Nishant Dev
Nishant had a similar outlook towards his contest with Cuellar. Instead of seeing him as an insurmountable challenge, he saw him as an annoyance who was preventing him from getting something he wanted.
“I didn’t feel any pressure that I could not handle ahead of the contest. Worlds ke medal ka ek bhuk tha. (I had a hunger for the medal) I had to win a medal. It didn’t matter to me who was in front of me.
People are telling me what a big thing it is that I’ve beaten a boxer from Cuba. But it didn’t matter if my opponent was from Cuba or USA or any other country. Woh mere medal ke saamne aa raha tha (He was coming in the way of my medal),” he says.
That medal is very important for Nishant.
He feels he should have won it on his World Championships debut in 2021. Indeed although he boxed impressively he lost a narrow 4-1 decision against eventual silver medallist Vadim Musaev of Russia.
“At that time I was really sad. I felt I have lost my chance to win a medal. The worlds were my first international tournament. I’d never represented India at any level before that,” he says.
The defeat was compounded by injury – he suffered a nose fracture which was followed by a serious injury to his right arm.
“I had to get surgery for that. I was out of boxing for 10 months. I missed the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Championships. I only had two months to prepare for the National Championships (where he would win gold once again). When I came back I was really determined that I had to make my time count,” he says.
When Nishant speaks about winning a medal, he isn’t specifying a colour. This is not because he would be happy with a silver or a bronze.
“In my mind, the only medal that counts is a gold medal. My mindset isn’t to settle for bronze or silver. You get that after you lose to someone,” he says.
As someone who idolises professional legend Floyd Mayweather and watches his bouts in order to relax before his own contests, Nishant says the only thing that matters is gold.
“Floyd Mayweather is one of my idols in boxing. He never lost a match once he turned professional. That’s what I want for myself too. I don’t care about being the first Indian to beat a Cuban. I won’t be satisfied until I become the first Indian to win gold,” he says.
There are still two bouts for Nishant to win if he has to make that happen. He will have to first beat Asian Champion Aslanbek Shymbergenov of Kazakhstan.
“ Mere andar ka mindset killer mindset type ka hai. It doesn’t matter koi sa bhi ho. Mai apne uper kisi ko haavi nahi hone deta. (I have a killer-type mindset. It doesn’t matter who is in front of me. I can’t let anyone feel they are better than me.
“I am the best. I know this,” he says.
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