Nikhil Dubey didn’t smile as the referee raised his arm aloft following his bout at the National Games on Tuesday. He had just beaten the highly rated nation champion and favourite Sumit Kundu via a hard fought a 4-1 decision in the semifinal of the men’s 75kg division. By eliminating Kundu, the 22-year-old boxer from Kandivili in Mumbai would put himself in prime position to take gold on the final day of competition on Wednesday. While he might have pulled off the biggest upset of the day, there was no sign of celebration from either Dubey or his corner men.
Dubey’s face was grim even as he explained why. He had learned just a few hours ago that his coach Dhananjay Tiwary who had been one of his biggest supporters over the years had died. Tiwary, 32, had been killed in a road accident on his journey from Mumbai to Ahmedabad to watch Dubey fight the biggest fight of his career.
“It was his dream that somehow I win my bout today and go on to fight for the gold medal. I spoke to him yesterday. I told him I have a bout with Sumit Kundu. He wasn’t part of the Maharashtra boxing team but he told me he would be coming. He said he knew I had the ability to beat him and win the gold. He wanted to be with me for that. He promised me that he would be watching when I fought that bout,” he says.
Tiwary had been by Dubey’s side from the start of his boxing career. The latter had first picked up a pair of boxing gloves as part of a program at his school in Mumbai. Tiwary was at that time an established member in the Mumbai boxing circuit. “I was just learning how to box and he was already an established boxer. He had come from training. He asked if I will be able to be a boxer. I said, ‘Sure, I will.’ He asked, ‘What will you achieve as a boxer?’ I said, ‘I’ll beat anyone in front of me.’ He asked, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I would. I’ll even beat you if I have to,’” Dubey recalls.
Tiwary, nearly ten years Dubey’s senior, had liked the youngster’s confidence and taken him under his wing. Dubey says Tiwary was like a mentor for about 7 years before becoming his full time coach. But Tiwary’s support extended more than just coaching.
“My family’s never been well to do. Things are better for us now because my brothers (Dubey is the second youngest of five brothers) are working but at the start of my career things were difficult. At that time Dhananjay sir was always a big support. He helped me a lot financially in my early days as well. In the start, my family couldn’t support me that much. When I was playing sports, there is always some need or the other you need to fulfil. When I started, going to the state championships was a challenge. Jeb me kuch nahi hota tha (there was no money in my pocket ). There wasn’t money to eat or drink or even to travel for competition. Dhananjay sir would always help,” he says.
Tiwary would continue to support Dubey through dark days in recent times. In 2019, the youngster suffered an ACL tear that needed surgery which kept him out of action for two years and in early 2020 his father passed away in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India.
Through it all, Tiwary would always back Dubey’s talent. At the 2021 National Championships, Dubey lost to Kundu in the semifinal, overwhelmed by the Haryana boxer’s relentless come forward aggression. Kundu, himself a huge prospect for Indian boxing had subsequently racked up a number of good results. He had reached the pre quarters of the world championships, beaten World silver medallist Dzhambulat Bizhamov at the Strandja Memorial series earlier this year and represented India at the Commonwealth Games.
This time, Dubey had come in with a strategy. “We had spoken just one day before once I knew I was boxing Kundu. I had lost to him at the national championships (in the semifinals). This time bhaiyya told me that woh nahi chaiyona. Tu hi gold chaiyona. Tu hi deserve karta hai (That can’t happen again. You have to get gold. You only deserve the gold ). Bhaiyya said when he comes forward, Right se chin par marke, hook marke side ghumna (Hit him with a straight right when he comes forward, follow that up with a hook and then slip to the side). He said keep your feet moving and don’t stand in one place. Don’t stop. I did that. That helped me to win,” says Dubey.
That win almost seems a bit empty in the absence of Tiwary. Indeed until just a few hours before the bout, Dubey wasn’t even sure he would compete. “My bout was at 5pm. I had come in to the venue to show my weight (boxers have to make weight on the morning of each of their bouts) when I learned what had happened,” he says. “Dhananjay sir loved driving. He had an Enfield and he routinely travelled long distances on it. He was a very safe driver and from what I learned, had been in the third lane when suddenly a tractor crossed over from the first lane to the third lane,” he says.
Shocked at the incident, Dubey says he had thought of forfeiting his bout. “I was very upset. I was thinking how can I fight. But I spoke to sir’s wife. She told me that sir was coming to see my bout. So, I had to fight the bout for him. That’s what he wanted and he hoped for from me,” he recalls.
That’s what Dubey will do for one more day. He’s kept a stoic face but he admits there is a wave of emotion inside him. “I have to stay focussed until the tournament ends. Then I will return to Mumbai for my coach’s funeral. I’m really devastated. Right now I’m in control of my emotions so you can’t see it. But that’s because the main aim for my coach and me is still unaccomplished. Only when that is done will I be able to let go of my emotions,” he says.