Towards the end of June 2015, the news was official: Vijender Singh, then 30, chucked his amateur boxer career and turned pro.
Though many boxers have gone that way before, it was Vijender who brought Indians face to face with professional boxing. The kind of boxing Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson excelled in — bare torso and no face guards. Ali and Tyson were heavyweights, but Vijender is not. But you get the picture.
The past couple of years have seen a mini explosion of non-amateur boxing. Vijender’s bouts — at least the ones in Delhi — were fought to packed stands, and the TV numbers were appreciably good. It helped that Vijender had run up an all-win record.
Elsewhere, Brig (Retd.) P.K.M. Raja, a former secretary of the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF), launched the Indian Boxing Council, and more and more top boxers were turning pro.
There was a buzz all around, but was it real? Or manufactured?
The Vijender effect
In private, Vijender had often expressed a desire to go to ‘higher’ boxing. Perhaps even as early as 2010, when he was in his mid-20s and had won bronze medals in both the Olympic Games (2008, Beijing) and the World Championships (2009). Professional boxing was more glamorous, and better financially — if he could make it work. But Vijender wanted to try his luck in the Olympics again: this time win a silver medal or gold. Perhaps it was the gold medal he won in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games that persuaded him to stay amateur until the 2012 Olympics. (Back then, pro boxers were disqualified from participating.) But in the London Olympics, the quarterfinal round was as far as he could go.
Meanwhile in 2005, Neerav Tomar of Infinity Optimal Solutions (IOS) had signed up Vijender. The idea, even then, was to get him to professional boxing. By 2015, Vijender was ready; so were Tomar, and the people at Frank Warren & Queensberry Promotions in London, the grand daddies of boxing promotion in that part of the world.
Pro boxing and the Indian predicament
Prominent Indian boxers turning professional was not a new thing, of course. In the 1990s, Rajkumar Sangwan and Venkatesan Devarajan tried their luck. Then, after the 2000 Olympics, Gurcharan Singh went off to the USA to give pro boxing a shot. There were others too, but boxing got little attention then, and not many noticed. To be fair, none of them were Olympic medallists.
Why did Devarajan, a World Cup bronze medallist, turn professional? “I was getting paid 10 times what I was making as an amateur boxer.”
In the mid-2000, there had been an attempt to make professional boxing a weekend show in New Delhi, with a news channel broadcasting fights that would take place in the open-air auditorium in Ansal Plaza. Some years later, the World Series Boxing got a team from India in the form of Mumbai Fighters. It was all before the Vijender-induced buzz.
And Gurcharan? “I took the decision, and it was about money. I have earned a lot of money here, so I have no regrets.” There was also a sense of frustration for Gurcharan, who thought he was unfairly declared the loser in a split decision in a quarterfinal bout in the 2000 Olympics.
What about Vijender? “I did what I could as an amateur, but I wanted to do new things, explore pro boxing. It’s not about the money, but about real boxing.”
In fact, although professional boxers can now take part in the Olympics, Vijender says he doesn’t want to go there again.
In the mid-2000, there had been an attempt to make professional boxing a weekend show in New Delhi, with a news channel broadcasting fights that would take place in the open-air auditorium in Ansal Plaza. Some years later, the World Series Boxing got a team from India in the form of Mumbai Fighters. It was all before the Vijender-induced buzz. And with the amateur versus professional issues, top Indian fighters remained wary.
“The federation, the people there, they didn’t get involved. We were all a bit wary, because we thought IBF would ban us. I went anyway, because I wanted to try it. The money was good. Udit Seth, who owned the team, had vision, he wanted to promote boxing. But it didn’t last too long,” says Akhil Kumar, a gold medallist in the 2006 Commonwealth Games who signed up with the Fighters.
Is India ready for pro boxing?
Akhil stresses that it was the lack of administrative vision that prevented Indians from taking up professional boxing in a big way. “Why would the boxers not want to fight,” he asks. “Because the world body didn’t recognise professional fighters, in India we didn’t either. Our entire focus was on representing India, fighting for the Tricolour.”
Indeed, the IBF was earlier called the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, and the world body might be called International Boxing Association but its initials — AIBA — when expanded is Federation Internationale de Boxe Amateur . Pro boxing was never regarded as anything more than prize-fighting. The best boxers in the world were professionals, sure, but a set-up in which decisions are taken by managers and agents, where there is no properly established bureaucratic structure, where money is a big part of the deal was just not kosher enough.
That’s changed, thankfully. And it’s changing in India.
Let’s return to the buzz then. Is it about professional boxing or is it about Vijender? Answer: It is about Vijender. And therein lies the rub.
Wherever boxing — professional or amateur — has taken root in a big way, there has been a culture of boxing. S.L. Price writes about it in great detail in the Cuban context in his masterful Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports . So does David Remnick, among others, in the context of lower middle-class Black America in his fascinating discussion of the Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston-Muhammad Ali years of the late 1950s and early 1960s ( King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero ).
Anyone tracking the development of amateur boxing in India, Haryana in the main, in the late 1990s and 2000s would have seen a similar saga: youngsters taking up the sport in a big way, at clubs, with coaches, and the promise of a bright future despite the blood and broken bones. In a word — ‘culture’. The second thing would be ‘role models’. When your daily lives are a struggle, whether in Havana or Harlem or Hisar, you need role models to believe. Professional boxing in India, though, hasn’t followed that trajectory. It’s all around one man: Vijender.
Building a sport around one hero
The folks at IOS are sure that with Vijender — who has also recently launched his own company — they will be able to get things moving in the right direction.
“We are now waiting for the right time,” says Rahul Trehan, a senior functionary of the group. “We have started our own fight club in Gurgaon … We have had some good boxers signing up for us, mainly in the 20-24 age group. We have the IOS Fight Nights as part of our plan. Fingers crossed.”
An interesting story here is that of R.S. Dalal, the working president of the IBF in the early 2000s, who went around Haryana and Punjab, mainly, with portable boxing rings to organise meets. Think a wrestling dangal . Set up camp, or ring, in a village somewhere and get local boxers to come and fight. Pay the winners Rs. 1000 or Rs. 2000; pay the losers something too. And you have a buzz. Not the sort of buzz TRP-happy TV channels and TV-hungry organisers are looking at. But enough to get an entire village — several hundreds of people — to show up and watch. That is professional boxing, isn’t it?
It didn’t last. “It was mainly to popularise the sport,” says Dalal, well over a decade-and-a-half since his last dangal . “The pool of boxers is small. That’s why we struggle. If you have a bigger pool, things improve automatically.”
‘ There is a bit of potential here’
What we have with pro boxing now, to quote Dalal, is a square peg in a round hole.
“It’s in its infancy, professional boxing,” offers Raja. “I was ending up spending more money to keep the IBC going, because the sponsors want big names, TV channels … most people want instant results. Something new, it has to be given time to succeed. Returns will come after two-three-five years.”
Raja also stresses on organisation — “Everything has to come under one umbrella, then you know what’s happening, what the rankings are, who is fighting who, who the boxers are.” It isn’t the Harlem or Havana model, which was club-based, but probably makes sense in the Indian context. A body that runs the show might have a better chance of being able to attract strong boxers from around the world to compete with Indians. Anyone who has been to a Vijender fight recently likely fell asleep — or not, because of the loud Bhangra music — because of the quality of the under-cards. Almost all Indian, mostly below par.
“Vijender has provided the spark,” says Akhil, who was also signed up by IOS but after not getting to fight often enough, has turned freelancer. He recently fought a fight for a company called Hope & Glory, the sort of organisation Raja says is in it for the money, a quick buck.
But at 36, Akhil is “ready to fight for anyone who pays me — that’s what a professional means.” And who can counter that?
There is “a bit of potential here, that’s quite evident,” Francis Warren of Queensberry says. The way to better tidings is probably to take a step back, train and get together a pool of enough good boxers — around four to six in each weight category — and then press on the accelerator. Cricket, badminton and kabaddi work in their glammed-up, Premier League avatars in India because India is strong in these sports. If boxing needs to get up there, the standard of the sport in the country must be good enough. Until that happens, it will always be a case of Vijender and then zilch.