For two decades, Manipur has been the land of boxing legends. It started in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games when Dingko Singh made history by winning the gold medal in the 54 kg Bantamweight category.
Dingko, a last minute inclusion in the Indian squad ousted the world No. 3 Wong Prages Sontaya of Thailand in a memorable all action semifinal bout. With his lightning hand speed and deft footwork, Dingko won the gold forcing Timur Tulyakov of Uzbekistan to retire after the 4th round of the final.
The Mary Kom effect
Dingko sparked off a boxing revolution in Manipur. The legendary Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangte, popularly known as Mary Kom (of the Kom tribe) switched from athletics to boxing after the success of Dingko. In 2000 she joined the Sports Academy at Khuman Lampak in Imphal. Her sincerity and determination enabled her to become a boxing legend, a five-time World Amateur Boxing champion and a bronze medalist in the 2012 London Olympics.
On April 26, 2016, she was nominated by the President of India as a member of the Rajya Sabha. Mary Kom’s success, ability to maintain her feminity and lead a normal family life has inspired girls all over India to defy patriarchy and take to boxing.
The rapid growth of women’s boxing in India culminated in massive success at the AIBA Women’s World Youth boxing championships held in Guwahati in November 2017. India won gold medals in five of the ten weight categories, a unique feat.
Other renowned boxers from Manipur are Suranjoy Singh (Manipur), the 2009 Asian champion, and L. Devendro Singh, a 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medalist, former World champion and multiple Asian champion L. Sarita Devi and Sarjubala Devi - gold medalist at the 2011 World Youth Boxing Championships in Turkey.
A new star on the horizon
The latest sensation from Manipur is the 19-year-old precocious Muhmmed Etash Khan, from the Thoubal district near Imphal. In season eight of the World Series Boxing (WSB) championships, Etash Khan impressed in his home debut against three-time champion Arlans Astana of Kazakhstan.
At the National Boxing Academy in Rohtak, venue of the Indian Tigers first home match in group C of the WSB, Etash caused a major upset. He resolutely defended against his seasoned opponent Nursultan Kochshegulov and despite being cut on his right cheek, his concentration did not waver. A southpaw, he piled up points with quick left jabs and then retreated to avoid punishment.
The 27-year-old Nursultan, coached by Kazakhstan’s legend Bakhtyar Artayev, a 2004 Athens Olympic gold medalist, could not cope with Etash’s speed and ring-craft. The three judges from France, Philippines and Sri Lanka gave a unanimous points decision in favour of Etash in the bantamweight, 56 kilograms category.
A gold medalist at the Youth National Championships last year, Etash’s forte is his counter-attacking style and phlegmatic temperament. His background is similar to that of Mary Kom. He is the son of a farmer from the Thoubal district in Manipur.
His interest in the sport developed because he watched bouts of Mary Kom and heard about the legend of Dingko Singh. His determination was evident from the start of his career. Etash used to take an early morning bus at 4 am to reach Imphal after a journey of 30 minutes where he trained under Kishan Singh. After his sparring sessions got over, he would head back to school, about a kilometre from his home.
In the evenings, he helped his father on their farm. Academics was not his forte and passion for boxing was supreme. His talent was spotted and he was taken to the Army Institute of Sports, Pune where he is training now.
What is WSB?
The WSB was conceived in 2008 but took off in 2010. It is a franchise based tournament for professional boxers and teams from different countries participate. Teams are divided into groups and best of five matches are held on a home and away basis. Each bout is of five rounds. The top eight teams, based on points accumulated and bouts won, progress to the final knock-out rounds.
In the first season, a total of 12 teams competed across Asia, Europe and the Americas. Astana Arlans and Paris United met in the finals at Guiyang, China. The French team emerged champion. In the third season of the WSB, there was a switch from city-based to national franchises and teams from Africa and the powerful Cubans also started participating.
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So far Arlans Astana is the most successful having won the WSB thrice, followed by Cuba Domadores, twice champion. Indian Tigers made its debut in the 8th season of WSB in 2018. It is placed in group C along with the holder Astana Arlans, Patriots team (Russia) and China Dragons.
All the other teams are privately owned clubs. However, Indian Tigers is being sponsored by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI). Ajay Singh, the president of BFI, explained that they took this decision after the change of rules by the sport’s governing body AIBA in early 2016.
To improve the quality of boxing on view, AIBA decided that both professional and amateur boxers will be under one banner in the future. Hence professional boxers were allotted a quota to compete in the Olympics. It was felt that professional boxers have greater tenacity as their contests are for five rounds, as compared to three rounds for amateurs.
The move was justified as WSB boxers bagged 23 medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The BFI decided to capitalize on this opportunity and provide international exposure to a greater number of Indian boxers by competing in the WSB. Otherwise, Indian boxers get exposure only in international tournaments or multi-disciplinary events like the Commonwealth or Asian Games.
The front line Indian boxers like Gaurav Solanki, Vikas Krishnan, Manoj Kumar and Naman Tanwar are in the Gold Coast preparing for the 21st Commonwealth Games. In normal circumstances, those boxers on the fringe of the national team would be inactive just now. But by competing in WSB, the second string of Indian boxers are fighting five rounds against top professionals from other countries.
So there will be greater competition for places in the national squad. Also, India’s Olympic quota can also increase in case some boxers make it through the professional ranks. As they could not find a private franchise willing to bear the costs, the BFI decided to sponsor Indian Tigers in the WSB.
The newly formed Indian Tigers has lost its first three matches. In its debut match it was overwhelmed 1-4 by Astana Arlans on 10 February and in early March it again lost 1-4 to Patriot Boxing team at the Basket Hall, Kazan.
In its first home match at Rohtak, the margin of defeat against holder Astana Arlans (Kazakhstan) was narrow, 2-3. However, coach Jaidev Bisht felt the maturity displayed by Etash and the other winner, the 21-year-old army man Sanjeet Sigroha(Heavyweight, 91 Kgs category) against seasoned opponents were major gains.
Sigroha (Heavyweight, 91 Kgs category) was also impressive. Over 6 feet tall, the burly Sanjeet rattled up points with his quick and powerful counters and jabs and displayed good agility and defensive skills to foil his opponent Abilkhair Turlanbekov. He won a split points decision. Sanjeet has a bright future. His first ever international medal was at the India Open in February where he upset fancied compatriot, Naman Tanwar who is in Indian’s squad for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Even though he lost on a split points decision, K Shyam Kumar (46-49 kgs, Flyweight category) from Hyderabad also impressed with his jabs and footwork. Just 21 years old, he has already won gold medals in international tournaments in Indonesia and Kazakhstan last year.
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