Commonwealth Games 2022: For India, boxing a mixed bag

India’s performance in Birmingham was a bit underwhelming as some of the reputed pugilists failed to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, new talents stole the limelight and the future does look bright for Indian boxing.

A hard blow: Lovlina Borgohain receives a punch during her round-of-16 bout against New Zealand’s Ariane Nicholson. The Tokyo Olympics medallist was expected to win a medal in Birmingham but she bowed out in the quarterfinals of the women’s light middleweight category, losing to Wales’ Rosie Eccles.

A hard blow: Lovlina Borgohain receives a punch during her round-of-16 bout against New Zealand’s Ariane Nicholson. The Tokyo Olympics medallist was expected to win a medal in Birmingham but she bowed out in the quarterfinals of the women’s light middleweight category, losing to Wales’ Rosie Eccles. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

India’s performance in Birmingham was a bit underwhelming as some of the reputed pugilists failed to live up to expectations. Nonetheless, new talents stole the limelight and the future does look bright for Indian boxing.

The emergence of new talents, the revival of experienced hands, and the below-par finish of a few big names sum up the showing of Indian boxers in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

India fielded 12 boxers — eight men and four women — and collected seven medals (including three gold) to retain its second place. The women won more gold medals for the first time. Northern Ireland, which also won seven medals (including five gold) took the top spot. Since the 2002 Manchester Games, when Mohammad Ali Qamar won the first-ever gold medal for the country, India has been performing well in boxing at the Commonwealth Games.

India was third with five medals in Melbourne 2006, second with seven medals in Delhi 2010 behind Northern Ireland (both had three gold apiece but Northern Ireland was ahead on silver medals), and seventh in Glasgow 2014 after winning five medals — albeit without a gold — when women’s boxing was introduced.

India improved to second behind England in Gold Coast 2018. Both countries had nine medals apiece, but England had six gold against India’s three.

Underwhelming

The performance in Birmingham was a bit underwhelming. Coaches felt India may have missed out on a few podium finishes. Olympic bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain (70kg), Worlds bronze medallist Shiva Thapa (63.5kg) and Asian champion Sanjeet Kumar (92kg) were strong medal contenders in the run-up to the event but none of them won a medal. Among women, two-time World youth champion Nitu Ghanghas (48kg) gave a good account of her fine boxing skills to secure her first major title.

Nikhat Zareen, the world champion in 52kg, boxed with more confidence to win her maiden Commonwealth Games gold in 50kg. While the promising Jaismine Lamboria (60kg) gathered a bronze, Lovlina exited in the quarterfinals to everyone’s shock. “Nitu and Nikhat’s performances against quality opponents were laudable. Nitu boxed with a lot of control in the ring and will get polished with the increase in her experience. Nikhat performed like a world champion, with a lot of confidence,” said national women’s team head coach Bhaskar Bhatt.

The emergence of Nitu and Nikhat means there is now a mouthwatering prospect of the two champion boxers clashing with each other in the selection trials to claim the 50kg slot for the 2024 Paris Olympics. “Jaismine’s showing was satisfactory. She has got a long reach and good movement. But she needs to get inside the ring with more confidence in order to realise her potential. Lovlina was a gold-medal contender, and her returning without a medal was disheartening,” said Bhatt..

Back to basics

The revival of two male boxers — Worlds silver medallist Amit Panghal (51kg) and Mohammad Hussamuddin (57kg) — was heart-warming. Amit, who went through a difficult phase after his ignominious defeat in the Tokyo Olympics, fought back with renewed determination and gave a series of clinical performances to claim his first gold after his silver at Gold Coast four years ago. “We went back to the basics of training and motivated Amit,” said Amit’s personal coach Anil Dhankar.

Making waves: Twenty-one-year-old Nitu Ghanghas won the gold medal in the women’s minimumweight category. Nikhat Zareen now has a tough competitor in the 50kg weight category for a place in the Indian squad for the Paris Olympics.

Making waves: Twenty-one-year-old Nitu Ghanghas won the gold medal in the women’s minimumweight category. Nikhat Zareen now has a tough competitor in the 50kg weight category for a place in the Indian squad for the Paris Olympics. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

“Amit is a world-class boxer with a lot of experience. He worked hard to rectify his mistakes and re-focused on his game,” said coach Lalit Prasad.

Hussamuddin bravely overcame a loss in the National Championships final and made light of a left thumb injury to take his second consecutive bronze at the Games.

Surprise package

Super heavyweight boxer Sagar Ahlawat, who landed a silver on his international debut, was the surprise package of the event. Gifted with explosive power and good hand speed, Sagar tormented his opponents with his booming punches. “Sagar was short on experience. Still, he could have won the gold had he not picked up an injury. The silver should make him hungry for bigger success,” said Hitesh Deswal, Ahlawat’s early coach.

While underachiever Rohit Tokas (67kg) got a bronze medal to boost his confidence, Worlds and Asian medallist Shiva Thapa (63.5kg) lost in the pre-quarterfinals to the disappointment of several fans. Coach Prasad said Shiva and Sanjeet were unlucky to lose their bouts by narrow margins prior to the medal rounds.

Overall, the Games provided a good level of competition. African countries raised the bar and the nations with proven track records — in particular, constituents of the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada — fielded some talented boxers.

Bruised and bloodied: Sagar Ahlawat fights England’s Delicious Orie during the men’s super heavyweight final. Ahlawat was the surprise package of the event, landing a silver in his Games debut.

Bruised and bloodied: Sagar Ahlawat fights England’s Delicious Orie during the men’s super heavyweight final. Ahlawat was the surprise package of the event, landing a silver in his Games debut. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Indians benefitted from the 15-day-long camp they had in Belfast. Their familiarity with different boxers during the training and sparring sessions there helped them gather good ideas about their prospective opponents.

Bright future

The Indians have been getting enough exposure and doing well in big events such as the Cologne World Cup, the Bosphorus tournament, and the Strandja Memorial tournament. Now, they need to take confidence from their Commonwealth Games showing and translate their performance into better results in bigger events such as the World Championships next year and the Olympics in 2024.

The fact that nine boxers qualified for the Tokyo Olympics was a good indication of India’s potential in the sport. In order to make a stronger presence in the Olympics, they have to secure multiple medals consistently.

The Tokyo Olympics, where the Indian boxing contingent got only one medal, should serve as a wake-up call for the boxers who need to stick to a sound game plan and perform without any pressure on the biggest stage. With up-and-coming boxers from the country securing medals in various top age-group events, the future looks bright for Indian boxing. At a broader level, the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) needs to implement its plans of holding more events in order to break the age-old ‘one competition in a year’ trend.

This will not only polish the pugilists but also increase the competition level and provide the selectors a lot of options as far as talents are concerned. A comprehensive and planned approach will help India realise its potential.

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