Vijender Singh will tell you he is living his best life these days. A regular weekday sees him sleep in at his home in New Delhi. “ Ekdam aaram se uthna hai. (I get up after being completely rested). I’ll have a relaxed breakfast. Then I’ll drive my elder son, Abir, to school. Sometimes my wife will do it, but I’ll usually come along. When I get back home I’ll play with my younger son Amrik who is only three. We play all sorts of games,” he says.
It’s only after he’s had his morning fill of fatherly bliss that the 36-year-old walks up to the gym he’s built on the terrace of his home. There Vijender — the first Indian boxing Olympic medallist and the country’s most successful professional fighter – hits the heavy bag, lifts weights and runs on a treadmill. When he’s done with that, he meets friends at a nearby mall or they come over.
“After that I’ll help Abir with his homework, have some more family time and I’ll go to sleep around 10.30pm. Its a very simple family life but it’s the life I want,” he says.
His professional career is not doing too badly either. On August 17, Vijender knocked out the previously unbeaten Eliasu Sulley of Ghana in the second round of their professional fight at Raipur’s Balbir Singh Stadium. That win was the 13th of the super middleweight (72.57 - 76.20 kg) fighters’ career – the most by an Indian professional. He holds an overall record of 13-1-0.
Things weren’t quite on track, a year ago, when Vijender picked up the ‘1’ on his record – his first career loss to an unheralded opponent. The loss derailed his predicted trajectory that had begun with so much hope and expectations six years ago.
Starting from scratch
It was widely acknowledged that Vijender was taking a risk when he gave up a highly successful amateur career to join the pro ranks in late 2014. In the amateurs he had been one of India’s greatest of all time. He had travelled to the Olympics thrice, winning a historic bronze in 2008. In addition, he had won a bronze at the 2009 Worlds – the first by an Indian men’s boxer, three medals at the Commonwealth Games, and a gold at the 2010 Asian Games. That body of success was compounded by undeniable good looks, which he maintained through impeccable defensive skills – and which in turn was parlayed for multiple endorsements, film deals and contracts.
As a professional, Vijender had to start from scratch – in a form of boxing that might well be its own sport. He had to retool his touch and move style, so perfect for the amateurs, into one where he stayed on his heels and punched with more intent. Far more of a challenge was that as a professional, he was on his own, without the benefit of training with a strong team as he was used to at the national camp in Patiala.
For the most part, he managed pretty well. He found a training base in Manchester, working with experienced trainer Lee Beard – a no-nonsense Mancunian who had trained multiple professional world champions, including Ricky Hatton and Dominican IBF Super featherweight, Argenis Mendez.
Vijender adapted well, building a record of 12-0 (eight wins came by knockout). He received a ranking in the WBO organisation, beat former EBU European champion Kerry Hope and picked up two minor title belts – the WBO Asia Pacific and the WBO Oriental Super Middleweight. In 2019, he signed a multiple year deal with the U.S.-based Top Rank Promotions, one of the most prestigious boxing promoters in the world.
“When we were 12-0, things were going in the right directions. We were in Top Rank and all of us were looking forward to a big fight, maybe even a world title fight, in June 2022,” says Vijender’s promoter Neerav Tomar.
Then it all came crashing down. The COVID lockdown in 2020 caused the international fight calendar to dry up. Vijender had no fights lined up. Travel restrictions meant he wasn’t able to go to the U.K. to train with Beard.
He wasn’t worried at first. “I was enjoying spending time with my wife and kids. When you are a sportsperson, you miss so much of your family and your children’s growing years. I liked that I was getting to see all of that,” he says.
But the fact that he wasn’t fighting slowly began to prick him. Simply to get Vijender a fight under his belt, his promoter set up a fight with an unheralded Russian Artysh Lopsan. The 26-year-old from the Central Asian province of Tuva was a rookie with a mediocre record of 4-1-0. “There’s no way I should have lost to him, if I had trained the right way. But I hadn’t,” Vijender admits.
Indeed, Vijender had prepared for the fight – held on a river Casino boat in Goa – not in a dedicated training camp but on the roof of his house. Instead of Beard, he brought together a few friends he knew from his days as an amateur.
The result was for all to see. “It was frustrating to see him in that fight,” says Beard, who watched the fight on video. “If Vijender was fully in shape he would have knocked him out. But I saw him in a few clips prior to the weigh in and he wasn’t himself physically or mentally. He didn’t seem to control the fight. He just looked like a bit of a mess,” he says.
Vijender says he knew this as well. “After the first round, when I walked back to my corner, I realised I didn’t see my trainers there but my buddies. They are fine to chill with but not when you are in trouble in the ring. After the first round, I knew I was not ready for the fight,” he says.
After scoring a knockdown in the second round, Vijender punched himself out. He was caught multiple times by Lopsan. He was knocked down four times over the next three rounds. None of the punches were heavy but it was clear Vijender didn’t want to be in that ring. After being knocked down for the fourth time towards the end of the fifth, Vijender walked back to his corner even as the referee made his count, forcing the fight to be stopped.
At this point, Tomar says he thought Vijender’s career might well have been circling down the drain. At 29, he had already had a very late start as a professional boxer — most start at least half a decade before. Unlike others, therefore, his progression had to be sped up with fewer tune-up bouts that top prospects usually fight to build them up before the high-profile ones.
Now at 35, he had just been knocked out by a rookie after a year and a half of being inactive. With Top Rank having dropped Vijender – as it did with most of their international signings owing to the pandemic – there were few prospects on the horizon.
Vijender, though, refused to call it quits. “It was the worst I’d been hurt physically in my career – my ribs were sore and I had to get surgery because my nose was broken for the first time in my career. But it was a hit to my ego as well. My son Abir was crying and asking ‘papa what happened to your face?’. I couldn’t tell him I lost because I had prepared badly. I felt I can’t leave like that. I didn’t want people to think ‘ yeh haar ke chala gaya. (He lost and went away). Aise thodi na hai kihaar se bhag gaya. Haar ka matlab yeh nahi ki game khatam ho gaya. Haar to sikhati hai. (A defeat doesn’t mean that the fight is over. You have to learn from a defeat.)
What Vijender learned was that he couldn’t take any fight easily. He also learnt that he had no choice but to train in Manchester if he had to be in any shape to compete. “There was a purpose to me losing. It taught me that I had to be focussed... But it also let people know that this was a very real sport. Earlier, people thought I’m the main attraction in a fight, so of course I would win, or the judges would make sure I win. But once you lose, especially with a knockout, they know this is very serious,” he says.
Vijender says he was clear he had to fight again. So the moment he got the opportunity, he headed to Manchester for a two-month camp earlier this year.
“I went there and coach Lee asked how my last fight went. I knew he was joking but I told him I needed him in my corner again,” Vijender says.
For coach Beard, the first step was to shake off the rust Vijender had built over the last couple of years. “We had to get him back to scratch. We had to get the cobwebs and ring rust off. He found it a little difficult. We had to reshape him in the style that suits him the most — a stylistic counterpuncher. We got him to understand how to hold the middle of the ring, how to pace the rounds, how to dictate things. But he was able to adjust to it quickly. We had to work with the physical and technical sides but also with the mental sides because he had to get the confidence back. It’s not easy to do that once you have been knocked out,” Beard says.
What Beard liked the most was that Vijender still had the heart to be a fighter.
“Sometimes, once you are hurt badly for the first time, that desire goes away. But Vijender hadn’t lost it. After two weeks, I had him spar with some young light heavyweight and cruiserweight fighters in the gym. They were not holding back and letting shots go. Vijender was able to impress the lads which surprised me because he had only been back a short while. He still had a lot of drive and hunger. He was never questioning how many rounds he had left in the session. He was just going for it,” he says.
Back to winning ways
It was an old-look Vijender who took to the ring in Raipur on August 17. Against a previously undefeated fighter, he took his time. Instead of swinging wildly like he had against Lopsan, he methodically used his jab to find his range. The power of his straight right hand was never in any doubt and he got back to winning ways a round later.
“It’s the result we wanted but we have to move on,” says Beard. Vijender, he says, can’t have any more extended breaks like he had for the last couple of years. “He is a very strong boxer. He’s an extremely strong puncher. He has a lot of good attributes but inactivity is not good for any boxer. He needs to be active. Every week he has got stronger and quicker. The busier he is, the easier it is to get back,” he says.
The reason why inactivity is particularly bad for Vijender is simply his age. “He’s 36. He doesn’t have a lot of fight years under his belt but he isn’t getting any younger,” Beard puts it bluntly.
Vijender knows this too. “It’s a lot more difficult to recover from injuries at 36 than it was when I was in my early 20s. A small knee issue that I pick up while running takes a week to get better. When I was an amateur I would be back training in a couple of days. Once you cross 30, you get tired a lot faster. That’s why you have to take the risks you have to push yourself before it gets too late,” he says.
Beard says he wants Vijender to be fighting once more by the end of the year and more frequently in 2023. The quality of opponents, too, will have to get better. With the exception of Lopsan and Eliasu, every one of Vijender’s opponents have either retired from the sport or become journeyman fighters – boxing anyone for a payday.
Vijender’s own promoters agree with that. According to Neerav Tomar, Vijender might have another three-four years left in his international career. As a promoter he has to plan accordingly.
“Vijender isn’t a young 26-year-old. Every fight is important now. When he started the journey of becoming a professional fighter, Vijender did so because he wanted to fight in the biggest venues and top opponents. The next 24 months is very important for him. We have a year to get him ready for the best fights. We probably have one or two fights as a tune up and then we will be in a position to get him the best possible opponents in the end of 2023 and 2024,” says Tomar.
“If he can get two or three fights at the highest level, then after 22 or 23 total profession fights, I think Vijender would have a good career after which he could think of retiring,” says Tomar.
What this also means is that Vijender will have to box overseas more often. Tomar’s original goal had been to use Vijender to drive professional boxing in India. That has become increasingly harder to do. Tomar put shows featuring six of Vijender’s bouts in India — begining with Kerry Hope in New Delhi in 2016 and concluding with Eliasu in Raipur — but he’s not sure of that any more.
“It’s become really hard to put on shows in India. We are a cricket-centric sports market. Professional boxing is a promoter-driven sport and right now there’s not a lot of support that we get in India. The pro-boxing market is in USA. We want to go there. We will build him for another couple of fights and then shift base there,” he says.
‘Just a boxer’
While his promoters try to plot the best way to get him the big prize fights for which he turned professional, Vijender isn’t particularly worried. “People ask me do I want to fight for this title or that. I honestly don’t have any set goals. If people want to see me boxing, that’s great. If you don’t want, that’s also fine by me. In 1998, when I started, I had no clue about any of this. I was just happy boxing. I didn’t know anything about being a professional boxer or an amateur boxer. It’s still just about boxing for me. I’m still just a boxer,” he says.
“I’m a simple Jat guy. Boxing is something that makes sense to me. It’s not complicated like mathematics. You go in the ring and you fight. If you are good you win. Even if I’m a 100-years-old, I’ll find a way to be connected to boxing,” he says.
And while it might be tempting ever so often, especially when he’s dropping Abir to school or helping him with his school projects or playing with Amrik, Vijender knows he has to box. “Boxing gives me a boost that nothing else can. Before the fight, you get goosebumps. You feel those emotions where you don’t know what’s going to happen. That is very addictive. I’ve done everything there is to do in life. I’ve done Bollywood, movies, politics (he’s stood for two elections on Congress ticket) but nothing compares to that rush you get before a bout. When you have to show what you are capable of. But you don’t know what kind of fight you will get. That’s something money can’t buy,” he says.