Analyse this. BBC’s man of the year is Vijender Singh. No credit to the British Broadcasting Corporation that he is a household name in India today. The plaudits are deservedly reserved for the Bhiwani Boxing Club — the ‘Little Cuba’ in Haryana. This is where the boxer son of a Haryana Roadways employee honed his skills for eight years before truly announcing himself to the world — on the biggest stage of them all, the Olympics. Vijender refuses to get on the high horse, or for that matter, horses lined up for him to ride king-style at felicitation functions. He doesn't need them. Between working the moves in the ring at the Workers’ Gymnasium in Beijing in August and now, the middleweight boxer has walked into Indian hearts. He insists that though the plethora of much-publicised sightings we have of him nowadays generates the impression that his head is in the clouds, his feet are firmly on terra firma. Who else but an Olympic bronze medallist should know the importance of firmly planted feet. After all, the feet are the first to give way when a mistake is punished in the unforgiving ring.
Evening the odds
The banal truth that India loves sports stars and not sport is not lost on Vijender in the hype and hoopla he finds himself surrounded by, post-Beijing. He turned 23 on October 29, loved and sought. However, he knows that the years spent in obscurity — the kind heaped on those who don’t play cricket for Team India — cannot be swept away in the Beijing euphoria. He has too much class to voice the pain. A hint of a smile and raised eyebrows are all he offers when asked about the days and nights spent in broken-down dormitories while preparing for and participating in different tournaments across the nation.
Vijender has fought in the ring and off it too to grow in his chosen sport. To be the best in the ring, he has had to make do with meagre financial resources. If this has a familiar ring to it, kudos to the lad from Kaluwas village, about 5 km from Bhiwani, for beating the overwhelming odds. “Boxing is not about fun. I have faced moments of extreme disappointment. Though I wouldn’t say I ever slipped into depression, there have been times when I have thought of giving it all up. My family and friends stood by me during these tough periods, encouraging me to carry on,” says Vijender.
The sheen of glory hides the inner demons athletes grapple with. Vijender has lived and countered confidence-shattering jabs — some born out of frustrations that creep in when one knows he/she is underachieving, and others that outsiders thrust on sportspersons. “Unfair criticism hurts,” he says. “When you are low, instead of words of encouragement, barbs come your way. People I am close to tell me to ignore these caustic remarks,” he adds. Vijender, obviously, pays attention to the right kind of people. He does not generate any negative vibes.
It is not that Vijender was a non-entity before Beijing. In fact, he was a standout boxer who caught talent spotters’ eyes early. At 18, he had made it to the Indian team for the Athens Olympics in 2004. Competing as a light welterweight (64 kg), he lost to Mustafa Karagollu of Turkey (20-25) in the first round.
He learnt his lessons well and went on to grab a silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. He went up a division and won a bronze medal at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha. He lost the semifinal to Kazakhstan’s Bakhtiyar Artayev (24-29). The Kazakh had won the gold medal in the welterweight division (69 kg) at the Athens Olympics and bagged the Val Barker Trophy for the outstanding and most stylistic boxer of the 2004 Games.
Vijender ran into the feared Kazakh again at an important juncture in his career. He stunned Artayev in the quarterfinals of the AIBA President’s Cup boxing tournament in Taipei in May in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Vijender won the bout 12-7, forcing the world to sit up and take notice. This was a tournament where only Beijing-bound boxers were eligible to participate. Vijender had struggled to make the cut. However, he won the second Asian Qualifiers to book his Beijing ticket.
In Beijing, Artayev failed to make it beyond the quarterfinals. But Vijender, during his dream run, also avenged an earlier loss to Thailand’s Angkhan Chomphuphuang. The Kazakh and the Thai had probably rested on their laurels. But Vijender was hungrier. The good news is the hunger is growing.
Vijender knows no power on earth can take away his Beijing medal, but he prefers not to live in the past. He has moved on since August 20, that Wednesday of all Wednesdays, when he outclassed Carlos Gongora of Ecuador 9-4 in the quarterfinals of the 75-kg category to ensure India’s first Olympic medal in boxing.
He was one win away from a shot at gold. Two days later, he ran into pedigreed Cuban Emilio Correa Bayeaux in the semifinals and lost 5-8. The Cuban was the “better boxer on the day”. Beyond this, Vijender doesn't go too deep into his analysis of the loss, preferring to keep the fire raging within. “I gained a lot of confidence at the Olympics and learnt a lot,” says the strapping Jat.
Punching above his weight
Right now, Vijender is no longer a middleweight. “I have put on 4 kg since Beijing,” he says. He tips the scales at 78 kg. He is 22 and growing and has spoken of the possibility of moving up a category — light heavyweight (81 kg). However, isn’t he packing it on too fast?
“I have started my conditioning programme,” he says. “The preliminary routine now comprises doing the hard yards and working on fitness,” he says. Vijender will be at it for two weeks. Slowly, he will slip into a phase where world-beating boxers develop monkish devotion; sublimating the mind to push the body to levels it is unaccustomed to. He has to put his body on the line if the colour of his medal is to change. “That takes heart,” he says.
Evidently, that's not in short supply. He doesn’t rely on clichés when asked if he fears getting hit or hurt in the ring. “If I were scared, I would have quit years ago,” he responds. Vijender is also working on packing more into his punch. “Training with weights is a favourite,” he says.
Vijender is eyeing the London Olympics 2012, for a shot at gold. He is humble enough to admit before wide-eyed children at a function that he “will try”. No bravado from him. So all the horses — big, rich or high — can wait. India would rather have him atop the podium in London.