With the Indian male boxers returning empty-handed from the Tokyo Olympics, the National boxing championships held at the Inspire Institute of Sports in Vijaynagar assumed significance as it provided the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) a platform to spot young talent.
The BFI had made a prior announcement that the winners of the National championships would take part in the World championships to be held in Belgrade, Serbia, from October 24 to November 6. Apart from the chance to make one’s mark on the global stage, the lucrative prize money offered for the first time in the World championships is a big motivation. The gold medallists will get $100,000, while the silver medallists will receive $50,000. The bronze medallists will get $25,000 each.
The greenhorns rose to the challenge as six of them emerged as the National champions and 16 of them featured in the 13 finals. The BFI introduced three new categories to match with the rearrangement of weight classes done by the International Boxing Association (AIBA).
No one can take the credit away from the youngsters just because the Tokyo Games participants did not compete in the National championships. The field was not weak, as medallists in World championships and Asian championships and Olympians took part in the event. The podium spots were crowded with youngsters between 18 and 20 years old.
World youth champion Sachin (who ousted Worlds bronze medallist Gaurav Bidhuri and took a bronze medal in 57kg), Khelo India champion Rohit Mor (who shocked Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Mohammad Hussamuddin to win the 57kg title), Lakshya (who upset Olympian Sumit Sangwan and went on to win the 86kg gold), 71kg champion and ‘Best promising boxer’ Nishant Dev (who shocked Strandja memorial bronze medallist Naveen Boora), 75kg champion Sumit, World youth bronze medallist Ankit Narwal (who lost to eventual 63.5kg champion Shiva Thapa) and 54kg champion Akash were some of the youngsters who caught the eye with their confident and fearless approach.
The young brigade will not only carry a lot of confidence to the World championships but also play an important role in the country’s build-up for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games next year, and the Paris Olympics in 2024.
The fresh approach of the Army Sports Institute (ASI), Pune, in making the most of the lockdown time in identifying talent and grooming them played a crucial role in pushing them to the National stage. Obviously, the Services team, which was studded with six new faces, took a big risk in changing almost half of its side. But it was worth a try, keeping the future in mind.
“When all the job opportunities dried up during the lockdown, we recruited some young talented boxers and groomed them. We kept all the boxers together during the lockdown and worked on areas like strength and conditioning, injury management, rehab, speed and endurance, which otherwise would not have got as much attention due to various engagements,” ASI’s Officer-in-charge of boxing, Lt. Col. Daljeet Singh, said.
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“The basic idea was to create a good bench strength. We are producing this kind of result even without including our Olympians.”
Narendra Rana, the Services chief coach, agrees. “Our strength is our good back-up. We have several equally good boxers in each category,” said Rana, expressing happiness over Services retaining the team championships by claiming eight gold medals.
A major contributor to the promising talent pool is the Sports Authority of India-run National Boxing Academy (NBA) in Rohtak. Many of its trainees represented different teams in the National championships and performed creditably.
“Nearly 14 of our trainees are competing for different sides such as Haryana, Railways, Madhya Pradesh, Chandigarh, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Boxers like Ashish Kulheria (71kg), Ankit Narwal (63.5kg), Sachin (57kg), Vinit (80kg), Rohit Mor (57kg) and Abhishek Yadav (63.5kg) have impressed all,” said NBA coach Anil Malik.
Among the experienced hands, Worlds medallist and five-time Asian medallist Shiva Thapa won his fifth National crown, while ‘Best Boxer’ and Asian medallist Deepak Kumar (51kg) got his second. Defending champion and Asian medallist Varinder Singh (60kg) showed his class while establishing himself as the number one boxer in the lightweight division. Reigning Asian champion Sanjeet (92kg) claimed the National crown to maintain supremacy.
The federation is keen on improving the standard of officiating at the domestic level and most of the decisions at the National championships remaining controversy-free can be seen as an encouraging sign.
The return of the head guard for men at the domestic level was another positive development. The sport has seen several cases of boxers suffering cuts in the past. The cuts were considerably less this time due to the use of head guards and it turned out to be a right step towards the boxers’ safety.
From a performance point of view, the BFI is banking on the boxers with promise and potential for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics.
The federation is eager to make changes in the coaching staff, bring in structural changes, resume events like India Open and the boxing league and begin Fight Nights with the sole aim of enabling the boxers to win medals at the Olympics.