World Championships: No time for Indian boxers to rest on their laurels

Despite their stellar performance at the World Championships, Indian boxers know the job isn’t done yet.

Published : May 24, 2023 14:28 IST - 13 MINS READ

Evasive tactics: Deepak Bhoria’s (L) defence was on target during his quarter-final bout.
Evasive tactics: Deepak Bhoria’s (L) defence was on target during his quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

Evasive tactics: Deepak Bhoria’s (L) defence was on target during his quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

Once he landed in New Delhi, back from the IBA men’s boxing World Championships in Uzbekistan, Indian boxer Deepak Bhoria was counting down the hours to when he could make the journey back home to Hisar, Haryana. He had been away from home for nearly four months — first for the national men’s boxing camp in Patiala and subsequently the World Championships in Tashkent.

In that time Deepak, who boxes in the men’s 51kg category, had to keep a close watch on his weight. “You always have to control what you eat. And during a competition, you have to be really strict. Sometimes you have to skip a meal so that you make your weight and are allowed to compete. Because of that, you develop really intense cravings,” he says.

For Deepak this means Indian sweets. “I really want to eat garam gulab jamuns. There is a shop near my house that I always buy them from,” he says.

He’s not going to eat too many though. “Just a couple. Just so that I get a taste,” he says.

You might think Deepak has earned the right to indulge himself a bit. After all, he had an excellent World Championship — beating reigning champion and Olympic bronze medallist Saken Bibossinov of Kazakhstan en route to a bronze medal of his own. But even that isn’t something that merits a celebration for Deepak.

But it’s not just him who feels this way.

India had one of its best-ever performances at the Boxing World Championships. Only seven Indian men had won medals at the World Championships and the team that went to Uzbekistan minted another three in Deepak Bhoria (51kg), Mohammad Hussamuddin (57kg) and Nishant Dev (71kg). The three bronze medals, which were all won in weight categories that will be part of the 2024 Paris Olympics, were India’s best-ever result at the Boxing World Championships in terms of medal count and placed India 5th in the medal tally. While Bhoria beat world champion Bibossinov, Nishant Dev became the first Indian to beat a boxer from Cuba when he beat Jorge in the quarterfinals of the men’s 71kg category.

Despite that, both coaches and players know the job is only partly done. “When the team came back, I wanted everyone to know that we can’t celebrate our results. I specifically told the three boxers who had won bronze to not make a big fuss about their medals when they went home,” says CA Kuttappa, head coach of the men’s team. That advice was largely adhered to. “Deepak and Hussamuddin both kept things simple at home. Nishant’s family had already arranged a big function, but he told me he didn’t have an idea until he reached home,” says Kuttappa.

Team work: The Indian boxing contingent at the World Championships.
Team work: The Indian boxing contingent at the World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Team work: The Indian boxing contingent at the World Championships. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It says something about how highly Kuttappa and the Indian team rates itself. They no longer consider a record medal haul worthy of celebration. “I don’t see the medals as something special. What was much more satisfying for me was to see their performance. There were boxers who didn’t win a medal but boxed at a much higher level than I have ever seen before. Shiva Thapa (63.5kg category) lost in the first round but he discovered a new level to his game. Sachin Siwach (54kg category) was boxing in his first competition as a senior and he proved he belonged at this level. Ashish Kumar (men’s 80kg category) was probably 30 seconds away from beating a two-time Olympic gold medallist. As a coach this was very satisfying,” says Kuttappa.

Most of all, it gives Kuttappa and the coaching staff the self-belief that they are on the right track. There was no guarantee that this Indian team would perform the way it did when the boxers first arrived at the camp at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala in January. There were plenty of doubts raised over the team that did travel to Uzbekistan, which notably didn’t include Amit Panghal who had won a silver medal at the 2019 World Championships as well as a gold medal at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

This was a new look setup — with Kuttappa returning to head the coaching staff alongside Dmitry Dmitruk and high-performance director Bernard Dunne, both of whom had previously worked with Ireland.

“We tried to rethink how we were working with the team,” says Kuttappa.

The team brought in nutritionists and psychologists to work with players and gave more emphasis to strength and conditioning than ever before. Perhaps the biggest change was the decision to pick the team not on the basis of selection trials but on the basis of a continuous assessment over the course of the national camp.

Not everyone was on board with the new policy. “We were asking guys to go out of their comfort zone. If you were a boxer who had done well previously you would of course think why things should be any different. There were a few boxers who wouldn’t want to listen to the nutritionist. Or they wouldn’t want to hear what the psychologist was saying. They felt that boxing was just — ja ke ladna (go and fight). Boxing is still that but there is no reason you can’t be prepared better,” says Kuttappa. The biggest obejction was with the new selection policy. “You had some boxers who came and said, ‘Aap trial karwao (conduct trials). I am better in competition. I have medalled in these big tournaments. I have a good record.’ But they didn’t realise that the gold medals they were talking about were not the ones we were targeting. We are looking at big medals at the Olympics. Those will not come if we keep going on like normal,” he says.

But there was no going back. “The old system of picking players had a lot of problems. The boxers weren’t focusing on training but just on trials. Training se koi matlab nahin hai (They were not focused on training). There were boxers who would say, ‘I don’t feel like doing weight training. It makes my body tight, and they would go for a run instead. Or, if they were sparring, they would be talking to each other in the middle of the round. Once the new policy came in, there was no easy day. They were doing their best at every session. We tried to work a lot on bringing in new techniques and tactics, but the main change was in the boxers’ mentality. They were hungry to achieve because they knew they had to be consistent. This is the big change,” Kuttappa says.

Close shave: Mohammad Hussamuddin in action during his victorious quarter-final bout.
Close shave: Mohammad Hussamuddin in action during his victorious quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

Close shave: Mohammad Hussamuddin in action during his victorious quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

Old results no longer carried as much weight as the exclusion of Amit Panghal —who was replaced by Deepak suggested. While the pick eventually proved correct, Kuttappa admits he was nervous before the team travelled to Uzbekistan.

“There was of course pressure on the boxers, but I felt there was a lot of pressure on the coaches and the support staff as well because our policy was going to be put to the test at this competition. If we didn’t perform well, how would we be able to justify it?” he says.

However, those nerves would settle. Not at the competition itself but in the training sessions before the event. “We had a few training days before the competition started. On our first training day we had some sparring sessions with Uzbekistan. They were the hosts and also one of the strongest teams in the tournament (Uzbekistan would top the medal tally with 9 medals including 5 gold). Before we came in, they had stopped two boxers sparring. But when we sparred with them, we realised we aren’t just boxing at their level, we are actually beating them. Deepak was looking really good against (eventual champion at 51kg) Hassanboy Dusmatov. Sachin (Siwach) almost stopped (the silver medallist at 54kg Oybek) Juraev. Even at superheavyweight Narender (Berwal) boxed really competitively with (Olympic champion Bakhodir) Jalolov. That’s where we got the self-belief that our guys can do really well. I was thinking that we might not just get medals we could actually go into the final and win gold too,” says Kuttappa.

Indeed, it looked that way as the Indians began their tournament. While Deepak had already proved his worth in the past beating former Olympic champion Shakobdin Zoirov a couple of years ago, and Hussamuddin already had two Commonwealth Games bronze medals on his wall, perhaps the breakout performance Indian boxer at the World Championships was 22-year-old Nishant Dev who was competing in his second World Championships after an long break following a surgery early last year.

Nishant had competed at the World Championships in 2021 too where he lost in the quarterfinals. John Warburton, his coach at the Inspire institute of Sport in Vijayanagar where he has been training for the past six years, felt there was a significant improvement in the fighter who went a step further in Tashkent.

“I think the major difference in how Nishant is boxing is how much more active he is. You need to engage more at the elite level,” coach Warburton says. By activity, he isn’t referring to the volume of punches thrown but in how quickly boxers get into good positions to defend or throw punches. “Activity is about moving the feet and preparing to engage. It’s not just about throwing a lot of punches. When a boxer isn’t active, he is standing still and becoming vulnerable. Being active is about how you are able to engage the opponent; your activity after you punch and whether you have an opportunity to punch once more. There were times in the past where his activity wasn’t up to the level it needed to be. But I think as the competition progressed, his activity level increased,” says Warburton.

Indeed, as the tournament progressed and as he racked up the big wins including the first by an Indian over a Cuban boxer, Warburton noticed how Nishant’s self-belief also seemed to grow. “His coaches of course believe in him, but you could see that he is starting to believe in his ability as well. His demeanour at the start was that of a young person who was a bit tentative. As he went on, you could see the growth in his self-belief as well. I think that will continue to grow towards the Asian Games as well,” says Warburton.

Deepak started believing in himself a lot more too. Perhaps more significant than his medal is the fact that he got rid of a bogey of sorts beating World Champion Bibossinov after suffering two straight losses to him previously. “When you beat the world champion, you get that confidence, no matter who is the world champion or who is in front of me. I can beat him. If I am in a difficult situation, I know what to do to get out of it,” he says.

But while Deepak finally got the win against Bibossinov in Tashkent, he admits the actual self-belief to pull off the victory had come in a lot earlier. “Confidence is a big thing in boxing. If you do anything with confidence you have a much better chance of being successful. Before I went to the Worlds, I already had a level of belief because of how well we had prepared in training. You get confidence from wins, but I think the confidence that comes from good training is even better because you know that you can do it again.”

Standing tall: Nishant Dev after winning his quarter-final bout.
Standing tall: Nishant Dev after winning his quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

Standing tall: Nishant Dev after winning his quarter-final bout. | Photo Credit: IBA

While the boxers deserve credit for getting the job done in the ring, Kuttappa and other coaches say the support staff deserve plenty of credit as well. “Everyone contributed. Our psychologists talked to the boxers every day. As coaches, we understood which boxer needs to be pushed more and where we need to back off. Our video analysis team worked really hard every day of the camp and even at the World Championships. Before the bout against Bibossinov, they analysed how Deepak had boxed against him earlier and how others had done against the Kazakh. They found Deepak was mostly using straight shot combinations against Bibossinov. We found that other opponents were scoring more with hooks. We asked Deepak to try that, and, in the bout, he landed each one that he threw. Later, a lot of coaches came and told us that Deepak had won because of his right hook. But the credit has to go to the video team as well,” says Kuttappa.

While there were plenty of factors Kuttappa is pleased with, he admits the fact that they were not able to place a boxer in the final was a disappointment. There is also the fact that the World Championships were a bit depleted with the absence of boxers from Great Britain, USA and Ireland who were boycotting the tournament.

Coach Warburton feels that while the absence of these strong teams did make a difference it doesn’t take away from the overall performance. “Would Great Britain, USA, Ireland and maybe Canada have won a few medals from the Worlds? Of course, they would have. But I think the level of Indian boxers was quite high. I think they would have beaten a few of them as well. I had a number of coaches who told me how highly they rated Nishant and other boxers,” says Warburton.

Despite the disappointment of a boxer not reaching the finals, coach Kuttappa sees a silver lining. “Our selection policy is such that should a boxer win a silver or gold at the world championships, they would automatically make the team for the Asian Games. But because no one has that medal, there are no places guaranteed in the team. Everyone will be preparing as hard as before,” he says.

Warburton agrees with that assessment too. “I think for a young boxer like Nishant, perhaps it’s not a terrible thing that he didn’t get a silver or gold. It isn’t as if he is the finished item just yet. There are still some areas to work on. There were moments where he could have controlled the centre of the ring better, rather than go to the ropes. If he had won gold, would he have achieved too much too early? His main competition of the year is, after all, yet to come,” says Warburton.

That would be the Asian Games, which will also serve as the qualification event for the Olympics next year.

“It’s strange to say this about the World Championships but they are almost like the semifinal event for this year. The main event is the Asian Games. It’s going to be as hard as the World Championships because both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (the two countries won 9 of the 13 gold medals at the World Championships) will be taking part. Right now, only the gold and silver medallists at the Asian Games will get the quota so we will have to reach the final to have a chance,” says Kuttappa.

So, the boxers will be back preparing once again at the national camp. Any celebrations, as coach Kuttappa says, will have to wait. “Even after the Worlds, I told our boxers — there’s no reason to celebrate just yet. Our job isn’t done. They can have their sweets and celebrations later,” he says.

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