Like peas in a pod

Controlled aggression… Diwakar Prasad of Venky's Mumbai Fighters squares up against Juan Javier Carrasco Herrera of Milano Thunder. It was a dream debut for the Indian lightweight boxer who outpointed his opponent.-Pics. TRANSSTADIA BOXING INDIA

Diwakar Prasad and Siddharth Varma are of the same ilk. Though both have taken different routes to World Series Boxing, they are single-minded in their focus to make a living out of what they know to do best. By Nandakumar Marar.

Lightweight boxers Diwakar Prasad and Siddharth Varma compete for the same slot in Venky's Mumbai Fighters team. The Olympian from Jamshedpur, all stealth and style, is also like a mentor to the Pune rookie, Siddharth, helping him iron out the rough edges in his technique. Though both have taken different routes to World Series Boxing, they are single-minded in their focus to make a living out of what they know to do best.

Diwakar and Siddharth have shown the way to youngsters across the nation that there is skill and beauty in professional boxing, and money to be had too.

Diwakar, 27, signed up to fight in WSB as he wanted to escape from the monotony of amateur boxing. He was excited by the prospect of testing himself against professionals like Valentino Domenico of Italy, who is ranked No. 3 in WSB and represents Milano Thunder. The Italian, incidentally, has been Diwakar's rival from his amateur days.

Diwakar, who saw WSB as an opportunity to stretch his boxing career and secure his future, won his debut bout against the Italian franchise, Milano Thunder. He beat Juan Javier Carrasco Herrera of Argentina. With two more WSB appearances, he is a valued asset for Venky's Mumbai Fighters.

According to Diwakar, WSB has left him in a relaxed frame of mind. “Apart from the money, WSB offered me a new platform to display what I learnt. The tension in my head is gone. I can even think about marriage, since I don't need to approach anyone with folded hands anymore,” he said, recalling the tough times he had to go through while growing up in a large family of five siblings and parents in one room.

“My father was a driver and bringing us up with his limited salary was a struggle. Then boxing got me a job, my brother began earning and we were able to support our family,” he added.

With the Venky's Mumbai Fighters setting up base in VITS, a business-class hotel located in one corner of the Balewadi Sports Complex, Diwakar managed to have a comfortable stay in a bustling city like Pune.

The boxers have professional support staff to take care of everything. “Facilities like these were not available before for boxers. I have not seen anything like this at the Nationals,” he said.

For the Olympian, clocking flying miles and overcoming jetlag are now as normal as training and sparring under the supervision of American Joe Clough, Mumbai Fighters Technical Director, and head coach S. K. Pal at Balewadi.

“Without boxing I am nobody. I want to remain close to the sport as long as possible. Maybe I would take up coaching after my fighting days are over. I had a tough time with my studies, passed Standard XII with great difficulty. Who will offer a job to one who has passed only Standard XII? Boxing got me into Tata Steel at 16. Two years later, I accepted the offer to join Eastern Railway,” Diwakar said.

For Diwakar, representing India at the 2004 Athens Olympics in bantamweight is only a highlight on his CV. “Olympics happened so long ago that I have forgotten about it. At one stage in my career, I kept away from boxing due to personal problems and politics. Since training continued at home, I was ready to fight when Mumbai Fighters joined WSB and announced trials in Mumbai,” he said.

Calling the shots… Siddharth Varma of Venky's Mumbai Fighters lands one on Eric Fowler of Los Angeles Matadors. The Indian boxer showed a lot of aggression and delivered enough punches to emerge a clear winner on points.-

Reputation didn't bother him during his debut WSB bout against Carrasco Herrera (Milano Thunder). Diwakar won on points in a show of controlled aggression over five rounds. “When I was told about the chance to make my pro debut, I didn't think too much about it.

I just went into the ring with a free mind focussed on giving my 100 percent. It was only when I lined up with my team-mates, with the boxers of the Italian team opposite us, and the National Anthems of both nations were played that the feeling of something big happening struck me,” he said.

Milano Thunder won the contest 3-2 and ESPN beamed all the five bouts live, including the lightweight fight. “The best part about WSB is the exposure. Television air our fights live and they are seen by boxing fans around the world,” Diwakar said.

“My family watched the bouts, but not my mother who wants me to quit boxing fearing I will get hurt. I got into pro boxing aware of the risks. I know if there is no pain, there is no gain,” he explained.

Diwakar lost his second bout, a technical knockout at the hands of Astana Arlans' Yerzhan Mussafirov (WSB rank: 11; 8-3 WSB record), but did not waste time brooding over the defeat. In between home bouts against Milano Thunder and Astana Arlans, the Venky's Mumbai Fighters boxer competed for Railways Sports Promotion Board at the 2011 National Championship in Karaikudi. As expected, Diwakar won a gold medal.

“Boxers I met there (at the Nationals) are just waiting to enter pro boxing. They were curious about how we train to build stamina for five rounds. Amateurs fight three rounds, their punching is faster and boxing is within rules. Many of them were not aware when the trials were first held and missed the opportunity to join Mumbai Fighters. The next time when selection trials are announced, the competition will be fierce and the team will be stronger,” observed Diwakar.

The thrill of fighting without headgear and in front of international audiences in faraway lands prompted Siddharth to jump into the WSB ring even though he did not have a fantastic record as an amateur to back him. The 27-year-old boxer knew instinctively that WSB was his calling.

Siddharth has already proved to be a showman after just two bouts — against Dynamo Moscow and Los Angeles Matadors. Watching his antics, female fans at the Sukharev Sports Complex in Perm, Russia, were floored while the crowds in Mumbai roared in approval.

As a junior, the boxer from the MIGS Club, Pune, dreamt of a professional career. “I watched a lot of videos of famous pro boxers and tried to imitate their mannerisms. People called me mad then. But now, after seeing me in WSB, youngsters in Maharashtra want to follow me. They see me on television, read about me in newspapers; they realise that a career in pro boxing is not as far-fetched as they thought,” said Siddharth, whose idol is Evander Holyfield.

By pitting an amateur against hardcore pros, Venky's Mumbai Fighters was taking a huge risk, but it paid off very well. Soaking up punches like an experienced pro, Siddharth kept on coming at Eduard Husainov, ranked 18th in WSB. The rookie lightweight floored the Russian fans in the audience with his courageous performance.

Siddharth enjoys the attention he gets, right from the ceremonial weighing-in when boxers from both teams step on the scales and show off their six-packs before the media.

In the fight against the high-profile Los Angeles Matadors at T-Box mobile stadium at the Inorbit Mall in Mumbai, Siddharth was seen talking down his opponent Eric Fowler. Inside the ring he showed a lot of aggression and delivered enough punches to emerge clear winner on points.

“I am confident of my ability, but never over-confident. I want to be aggressive because my rivals should feel the pressure. Aggression is okay as long as I am in the ring, once the bout is over I try to find out from my coaches how to correct my mistakes,” he said.

Diwakar is of great help to Siddharth. “He guides me even during sparring sessions. He is an Olympian, what more do I need?,” Siddharth quipped.

Diwakar's favourite Indian boxer is Akhil Kumar, who has also been signed up by Venky's Mumbai Fighters in the lightweight category (Filipino Charly Suarez is the fourth member of the Indian team). Akhil is yet to make his WSB debut. The 2008 World Cup bronze medallist is recovering from an injury, so he is busy promoting the Indian franchise.

* * * 'Boxing is here to stay'

Udit Sheth-

Following an invitation from the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the team principal of Venky's Mumbai Fighters, Udit Sheth, joined the World Series Boxing Commission as a member. Dr. Humbert Furgoni of France is the Chairman of the commission, while Kishen Narsi of India is the Vice-Chairman. Hernan Salvo of Argentina is the Secretary.

Sheth is of the view that World Series Boxing is a good opportunity to create a boxing economy in India. “The most important thing is for our boxers to win. Once they start winning consistently, the sky is the limit for them. They can become massive successes commercially,” he says.

Question: As a member of the AIBA-WSB Commission, what are you expected to do?

Answer: With Indian sport and sportsmen making their mark on the global scene, I believe AIBA would want a balanced perspective on how best it can leverage this market to promote the sport. We all are proud of our boxers and the federation which has done a sterling job over the past few years in particular. Combine all this and I truly feel that I represent Indian boxing in the commission, especially from a commercial perspective. Further, the AIBA also recognises TransStadia as a sports company and not just a franchise owner. Thus, this is a good combination for them to further boxing.

The WSB is AIBA's effort to retain amateur talent and convince the Olympic stars to remain on this side of the fence. As for the Indian boxers, have they realised that the boom time is round the corner?

I believe this is a good opportunity to create a boxing economy and boxers have realised this. However, some national team boxers decided to focus on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. We support their decision and look forward to their participation after the Olympic Games.

Live television coverage of Mumbai Fighters bouts on ESPN makes business sense for a promoter like TransStadia. Do you think the leading Indian boxers have the ability or the appeal to cash in on this opportunity?

The most important thing is for our boxers to win. Once they start winning consistently, the sky is the limit for them. They can become massive successes commercially. We have got some very encouraging response from viewers. While we have taken the stadia to the people, courtesy the T-Box technology for mobile stadiums, we also see this as an exciting TV event. This exposure on television coupled with sponsor support has shown marketability of WSB and the talent within. Now we need to educate people more technically on the sport.

As the team principal of Venky's Mumbai Fighters, do you see India waking up to the reach and reality of WSB? Apart from the Balewadi indoor stadium in Pune and the Inorbit Mall car park in Mumbai, will this boxing carnival be staged in any other arena?

There is no limit to where we can host bouts. The opportunity is there everywhere — from stadia to parking lots. We hope to get continued support from the government. We also hope to make each bout an experience to cherish for the live audience. Wherever we see demand, we will take WSB there. Once boxing and fitness are established as symbiotic, the sport will flourish. Boxing is here to stay, and make an impact.