Pitching for pro boxing

“Although India has the capability to produce world champion pro boxers among men and women, mere day-dreaming or wishing will not produce the desired result. A simple, practical and foolproof system needs to be established, wherein everyone (all stakeholders) has to join hands and stop looking for personal glory or short-term gains and work together to make the project successful,” says Brig P. K. Muralidharan Raja, the president of the Indian Boxing Council.

Brig. P. K. Muralidharan Raja... “In India, pro boxing is treated as a poor country cousin of amateur boxing, with little or no support from any quarter.”   -  Prashant Nakwe

With World and Olympic medallist Vijender Singh’s plunge into professional boxing, the sport has picked up some momentum in the country in the last couple of years. However, one does not see any significant change in the status of pro boxing in India.

Since professional boxing has a big fan following in several countries, one wonders what prevents the sport from flourishing in India. To have a better understanding of the situation, Sportstar caught up with Brig. (Retd.) P. K. Muralidharan Raja, who has the rare experience of serving as an administrator in both amateur and professional boxing.

A qualified referee-judge, Brig. Raja, who served as the Secretary General of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) and is the president of the Indian Boxing Council (IBC), sheds light on various aspects of professional boxing in India and suggests remedies to make it a healthier sport.

Question: The results of recent professional bouts of Vijender Singh and Neeraj Goyat came in for criticism. Since you have been associated with pro boxing, what do you think is the reason?

Answer: The criticisms over the results are unfair, as the decisions were generally correct. Now let’s first take the case of Vijender’s bout. The officials for the bout (the supervisor, referee and three judges) were appointed by the WBO and all of them were neutral, implying they were from nations other than those of the two contestants, that is India and China. Having watched the bout carefully, I am of the opinion that the decision given by the judges was fair. Vijender was the better boxer, landing clear, crisp, power punches during the initial rounds and up to the three-quarter mark. It was only towards the ninth and 10th rounds that he became tired and was lagging behind. So, the scores given by the WBO- appointed judges were also very close in favour of Vijender and acceptable from the Pro Boxing Scoring point of view. Moreover, the Chinese boxer had, in fact, delivered three clear, hard, low blows and the referee had warned him the first time and deducted one point for the warning. The next two times also the blows were clear foul and could have received further warnings from the referee, which would have given Vijender a bigger margin of victory.

As for Neeraj Goyat’s bout, the decision making him the winner is correct, although the margin of the victory can be questioned. It certainly was not a one-sided bout, as the scores of the three judges suggest. In my view, the controversy has arisen due to the fact that there was no WBC-appointed supervisor or neutral referees and judges for this bout, which was supposed to be a challenge fight for retaining the WBC Asian title that Neeraj had won earlier. WBC should have appointed neutral officials, which was not the case. There was a hue and cry from the media as well as a few boxing fans and experts — who were not in Neeraj’s camp — after the decision was announced, because all the officials in that bout were from India. And questions were being asked whether they had the requisite qualification to officiate in a WBC Asian title fight.

What is preventing professional boxing from prospering in India?

The reasons are manifold. Presuming that pro boxing will be a big success in India, we had started the IBC in 2015 to provide a platform for all those budding pugilists who wanted to make a career in the sport. However, the emergence of different bodies wanting to control the sport in India was responsible for pro boxing not being able to take off as it should have. I would also say that amateur boxing plays a major role in India as it is in existence for the past six decades, and the government support in toto is for them (amateur boxers), whether it is in terms of support for jobs, training and coaching camps, international exposure, infrastructure and equipment, cash incentives, honours and awards etc. In India, pro boxing is treated as a poor country cousin of amateur boxing, with little or no support from any quarter, be it the media or the government or sponsors.

However, what nobody understands is that pro boxing is the most viewed, multi-billion-dollar sport in the world. It is all about glamour, knock-outs, money, controversies etc. We have the right ingredients to make it a successful model. 

But unfortunately, the right team has not been able to get together in India so far. It is unfortunate that the IBC could not attract or bring on board the groups with financial strength, which is a prerequisite for the success of the sport in the country. We have the know-how and the wherewithal to make pro boxing successful in India but lack the financial support.

I put in my personal savings and retirement benefits to kick start the IBC fightcards, but unfortunately could not attract the right financiers or promoters to partner us in this venture.

What is the model on which pro boxing functions all over the world?

All over the world, pro boxing functions with a sanctioning and governing body at the centre. It coordinates all activities of the sport in that country with promoters, pro boxing clubs etc. affiliated to it. The sanctioning and governing body gives licences to the boxers, coaches, technical officials (supervisors, referees, judges, doctors, announcers, seconds, stewards etc.) and ensures the successful and impartial conduct of events in a country. The body also maintains the ranking and rating systems of boxers and sanctions title bouts.

The promoters are the kingpins in this system. They are the ones that sign up boxers for their stables, conduct and organise fightcards after getting the venues and dates sanctioned by the governing body. They bring reputed foreign boxers as well as Indian boxers and arrange good fights, which spectators enjoy watching and are willing to pay for.

In India, actually only the IBC can be termed as a pure sanctioning and governing body since it is affiliated to all the world sanctioning bodies such as the WBA, WBO, WBC, IBF, Commonwealth Boxing Council etc. All the other pro bodies in India, such as the IOS, PBOI, NIBA, Royal Promotions and IPBA are actually promoters, as they sign up boxers, conduct events and make profit from such events. The IBC is the only ‘Not for Profit’ organisation registered as a Section 8 Company with the Ministry Of Corporate Affairs, Government of India. It has commissioners, supervisors, referees, judges, doctors etc. in its fold and can assist all the promoters to successfully conduct pro boxing events in India.

Neerav Tomar (left) and Muralidharan Raja at the launch of the Indian Boxing Council in New Delhi in July, 2015. Tomar became the chairman of the commercial wing of the IBC, while Raja its president.   -  Prashant Nakwe

 

What about the neutrality and professionalism of Indian officials in conducting the bouts?

The neutrality and professionalism of Indian officials conducting the bouts will only be accepted by the rest of the world if there is a neutral sanctioning and governing body for professional boxing in the country. The sanctioning and governing body needs to conduct workshops regularly for its technical officials and monitor and review their performances so that right decisions are made during the bouts.

How can professional boxing be popularised in the country so that people don’t have questions about the fairness of the bouts, and how can it attract more spectators?

In my opinion, the only way professional boxing can be successfully established in the country is by bringing all the existing pro boxing bodies under a single umbrella. That would ensure fairness of bouts, and can also attract more sports lovers and fans.

In the changed scenario, where the AIBA has allowed participation of pro boxers in the Olympics, can the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) play a complementary role?

Yes, I certainly feel that since the AIBA has allowed the entry of pro boxers in the Olympics, the BFI can play a complementary role. But all that would only become a reality if all the pro boxing bodies come under one sanctioning and governing body for pro boxing in India. Then, the BFI and the pro boxing sanctioning body can mutually discuss and work out ways and means to ensure cooperation between the two as well as make sure that the best talent represents the country at the Olympics, Asian Games, Asian Championships, Commonwealth Games, World Championships etc. under the BFI umbrella.

How does the cooperation between the BFI and the pro boxing sanctioning body help boxers in general?

The AIBA has permitted professional boxers to take part in the Olympic Games as well as other events approved by it, such as the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, World Championships etc., provided the national federations affiliated to the AIBA are willing to accommodate these boxers in their teams. Therefore, if there is cooperation between the AIBA-approved national federation and the pro sanctioning body in a country, the nation as a whole and the boxers in particular would stand to gain, as a seamless movement of top boxers can be planned and executed between these two bodies with binding agreements and clauses that protect both. This would ensure healthy competition between boxers and both organisations can thrive rather than being at loggerheads and scuttling each other’s plans.

What does the future hold for the current crop of Indian boxers who are into professional boxing? Do you think boxers like Vijender, Akhil and Jitender can benefit from AIBA’s relaxation of rules with regard to participation in the Olympics?

The current crop of Indian professional boxers fall into two categories. The first category consists of the already established stars such as Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar, Jitender Kumar etc. The second category comprises the freshers who are young, have the potential and grit in them to do well, and therefore are keen to join the pro ranks. 

As far as the established stars are concerned, they may win some fights and earn a name for themselves with a few titles, at best. However, as they are already well past their prime, because of age, it would not be fair to expect them to contest for a slot at representing India in the 2020 Olympics. Hence, the AIBA’s relaxation of rules with regard to the Olympics can only benefit the young, energetic and dynamic new entrants to pro boxing. However, they need to have the expertise to sustain the gruelling 10- and 12- round contests to emerge winners in pro boxing and at the same time be able to adapt to the AIBA’s Olympic style of boxing.

Although India has the capability to produce world champion pro boxers among men and women, mere day-dreaming or wishing will not produce the desired result. As I said earlier, a simple, practical and foolproof system needs to be established, wherein everyone (all stakeholders) has to join hands and stop looking for personal glory or short-term gains and work together to make the project successful.