Amit Panghal, packing a punch in different weight categories

Adding a few extra kilos is the easiest thing in the world. But not for Amit Panghal. “...as a sportsman, it takes so much load on the body to increase a single kilogramme and more so when you have to gain three,” says the boxer.

Amit Panghal has his eyes glued on the ultimate prize — a gold medal at the Olympics.   -  AP

Concussions, broken noses, cut eyebrows, fractured hands, dislocated shoulders — boxing is one of the most brutal sports. Two athletes engage in a fistfight with the ultimate aim of knocking the other down or winning on technical superiority.

Boxing is a sport that favours physically stronger and taller athletes. The stronger you are, the more power you pack in your punches. And the taller you are, the longer are your arms and the greater is your reach. It’s almost as simple as one of those health drinks that suggest it’s the “taller, sharper and stronger” ones who do better.

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But what if you stand 5’2” off the ground? How do you prepare to take on someone who has at least four inches on you?

“Practice,” says Amit Panghal. “I usually train so much before an event that there is no fear of getting punched. The confidence comes from practice — I go in with a mindset that no matter how hard my opponent punches me, I will be able to defend myself and counter-attack.”

The world’s top-ranked boxer in the 52kg category might be one of the shortest in the ring, but he uses his lightning-quick reflexes and nimble footwork to outpunch larger opponents.

Punching up

Panghal moved up last year from 49kg to the 52kg category as the former is no longer part of the Olympics. While the switch may not seem all that arduous to the common man, it was indeed that for the boxer from Rohtak.

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“I had asked the federation (Boxing Federation of India) to give me two months to make the switch. The federation actually gave me three months’ time, so I went back to my coach Anil Dhankhar’s academy. He knows me the best and had the right idea of how much load my body can take and how to switch to a higher weight category. After that we had the trials for the Asian Championships,” says the 25-year-old.

“I soon became India’s top boxer in the 52kg category and went for the Asian Championships. It was my first competition in the category and I won gold. I then qualified for the World Championships, where I won silver. It has been a successful switch so far, but I did face a lot of difficulties initially,” he adds.

Panghal’s gold medal at the 2019 Asian Championships in Bangkok is testament to his perseverance and fighting spirit. Acknowledging that his height was a weakness even in the 49kg category, he moulded his training so he would be able to take on even bigger opponents.

Panghal lands a punch on 2016 Olympic champion Hasanboy Dusmatov on the way to victory in the final at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.   -  PTI

 

“I needed a lot more power and reach in the 52kg category and that was a challenge. And my biggest concern was how I would go against the tall boxers. There were boxers taller than me in the 49kg category itself, and the 52kg category had even taller boxers and they would have more power as well. I used to spar with the heavier and taller boxers in the camp and that proved to be a big advantage and helped in a considerably smooth shift to the higher weight category,” he says.

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Panghal made changes to his training methods and diet to maximise his power. “I focused more on strength training to improve my power as my body weight would increase if my muscles got stronger. I changed my diet as well and began to drink more milk — 1 litre in the morning and another in the evening,” he says.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Do-teen kilo mein kya hai?’ (What difference will 2-3kg make?) But as a sportsman, it takes so much load on the body to increase a single kilogram and more so when you have to gain three. And I also had to increase my power accordingly to face the heavier boxers. Even when I was fighting in the World Championships final, I felt that I needed to further work on my power. I fought well all throughout to win the silver, but there were times when I felt I needed more power in my game. And that is my main focus now,” he says.

The switch bore fruit as Pangal went on to become the world No. 1 in his category. But does the tag add weight to his muscular shoulders? “There is pressure... (But) it makes a difference to the opponent as well — he will think this is the world No. 1 and there must be something special about him, and I can take advantage of this. I would have trained enough by the time I go to the Olympics. The pressure will be on my opponent,” he says.

Panghal has prepared a roster of possible opponents at the forthcoming 2021 Tokyo Olympics, detailing each of their strengths and weaknesses. “Since I have time right now, I am dedicating a week to each of the main opponents and I’m studying their game and making notes on their games and training accordingly to beat them. By the Olympics, I will have studied all their games. I have collected data on all the boxers who have qualified so far and have made a dossier on their style of play and videos of their bouts. I also look at how I fought him last time and how I must if we meet at the Olympics,” Panghal adds.

A simple man

Panghal is a man of many accomplishments. He won gold at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, beating 2016 Olympic champion Hasanboy Dusmatov in the final. At the 2019 World Championships, he took home the silver after losing to another Olympic champion, Uzbekistan’s Shakhobidin Zoirov. But despite the success, the Haryana boxer yearns to remain himself — he wants no stardom, no fuss to be made over him.

“A few people recognise me when I go out, but I am not like those who want to be treated specially. I am just the way I was before and like to live normally. I casually head out with my friends and eat anywhere when we’re out. It’s not like I demand something special because I am a sportsperson. Sometimes I go to the training centre on my cycle; I don’t necessarily need a vehicle,” he says.

“When I had come here (Patiala) for the camp and we were undergoing quarantine, we were put up at the SAI (Sports Authority of India) hostel. I was told that Vikas (Krishan, who has qualified for the Olympics in the 69kg category) and I would be given rooms in a nearby hotel. I refused and said I don’t want special accommodation and that I would stay here in the hostel with everyone else. I don’t need any extra privacy. I chose to stay where everyone else is and be with them. I had a lot of fun staying in the hostel,” he adds, laughing.

Panghal has prepared a roster of possible opponents at the forthcoming 2021 Tokyo Olympics, detailing each of their strengths and weaknesses.   -  Special Arrangement

 

With that humility comes a desire to give back. “My uncle had come with me to the Asian Games and he told me two things — that my father and my coach wanted to meet Bollywood actor Dharmendra, and to buy my father a Toyota Fortuner,” says Panghal, who fulfilled the second after returning home from Indonesia and then set about to achieve the second.

“I sent him (Dharmendra) an email telling him that I wanted to meet him and that my father and coach were big fans. He replied the same day saying, ‘If you are in Mumbai, do come over,’ and also, ‘Bina bataye aa sakte ho’ (Drop by at any time). And we made the trip last year! He spoke to us for over two hours and treated us so well. At no point, not even for a minute, did we feel that he was such a big celebrity; he was so warm and welcoming. He spoke to us so casually and told us about his career and also gave me a few lessons for the future. It was the kind of advice that I would receive from the elders in my village – it was that homely,” Panghal recalls.

Looking to be the first

Fear has been an old friend in Panghal’s career, one who visits when he’s forced to stay away from the ring. Having spent the majority of the last decade within the squared circle, his life has now taken a 180-degree turn. The coronavirus pandemic had restricted him from training with a partner and sparring has been limited to punching bags, and the fear of getting punched has slowly crept in.

“There will be a bit of fear to get back in the ring since I have not trained with a partner in a long time. The fear of getting punched will be in the back of my mind in the initial two weeks. It will take time for me to regain my confidence in the ring,” he admits candidly. However, Pangal showed no signs of fear as he made a rousing return to competitive boxing by bagging the gold medal at the Alexis Vastine International Boxing Tournament in Nantes, France, on October 31, and he is part of the elite 28-member Indian contingent that will train in France and Italy until December.

Looking ahead, Panghal has his eyes glued on the ultimate prize — a gold medal at the Olympics.

“I have a few invitations to join pro boxing, but right now I have my eyes set on the Olympics. I want to achieve what has not been done at the Olympics so far for India – I want to show that Indians are not inferior to anyone and that I can do anything for my nation,” he says. “Now I have time on my hands to prepare. I want to win a gold medal in boxing for India.”