IMPHAL: Strangers turning up at Sports Authority of India's North East Regional Centre are first ushered into the dominating presence of L Ibomcha Singh, the man who heads it. He is the man behind Manipur's boxing revolution, bringing forth the likes of Suranjoy Singh, Mary Kom, Sarita Devi, Devendro Singh. His demeanour is initially somber, intimidating even, but he breaks into a smile when asked about his first illustrious disciple. "Dingko? He is inside, with the students," Ibomcha says. "He is much better now."
There was a time when any mention of Dingko Singh brought a particular picture to mind, of a smiling teenager, hair parted stylishly down the middle, in a white tracksuit with a gold medal around his neck. That was from 1998, when a 19-year-old Dingko won the 54kg title at the Bangkok Asian Games.
Then in February 2017, another picture emerged. It was a frail Dingko, bedridden, looking away from the camera, almost as if he resented being photographed in that state. He had been diagnosed with bile duct cancer. Doctors had to remove most of his liver and the boxer had to dig deep to pay for the treatment, having to even sell his house in Imphal, a reward from the Manipur government for his Bangkok gold.
But on a typically chilly September morning, Dingko presents another picture, observing his students as they recite morning prayers. Tracksuited, bespectacled and with a cap covering his short-cropped hair. Most accounts of Dingko's plight earlier this year spoke of a boxer who had 'faded away'. This was what he had faded away into — a coach who dreamt of conquering the world with his wards — before cancer made him a story again. This was what he was going back to once again.
"I went to the hospital in Delhi last week for a check-up. Mera body mein jo cheez tha, woh clear ho gaya (whatever was in my body, it's gone now)." It was the toughest bout of his life, but Dingko had beat cancer. "Over 12 rounds," he smiles. "Of chemo."
"I had my first chemotherapy session on February 7. The last was on July 1. But I am still weak from all the sessions. I re-joined the centre here last month. I am still too weak to get into the ring with the students or hold the punching pads for them. But I come here every morning and evening."
But the 38-year-old already looks worlds away from the frail man in an oversized sweater from February. "I had dropped down to 55-56kg then," he says. "But now I am 70 kg. Hopefully in a few months, I'll be able to get back to full time coaching. And maybe in an year, get in the ring with them."
The house he had to sell was only 4-5 kms away from the NERC. Where he lives now is 15 kms and Dingko traverses that path four times a day, driven by his brother. But all that is a minor inconvenience compared to what he has been through. "Nobody told me I had cancer. My family knew, but I only found out on the day I went into surgery. I told my doctor, all I can do is entrust you my body. It's all up to you now."
Then, his eyes swell up. "I have two young kids, you know. I was most scared about them."
There are a thousand stories that Dingko can tell, of his impoverished childhood, how he drank himself to sleep after initially being dropped from the Asian Games squad, only to be reinstated at the last minute and of how he kept a promise to his future wife despite returning from Bangkok as the most eligible bachelor in town. There is one though, that he likes talking about — his semifinal bout against Thailand's Sontaya Wongprates.
"I had no idea who he was, no clue that he was World No 3," Dingko says. "Maybe if I knew, the outcome would have been different. But there was so much going against me that day. The crowd was hostile. There were people in AIBA who did not want India to win a medal back then. Three judges from my bout were suspended soon after. The AIBA president was Anwar Chowdhry from Pakistan. But after that bout, the final was easy. There was no pressure. I knew I had passed my biggest test."
But tragedy struck just an year later as Dingko fractured his hand during the National Games. It would never completely heal. He did make it to the Sydney Olympics but crashed out in the very first round.
After spending many years with Navy, Dingko turned to coaching in 2013, when he took up an offer from SAI. "This was where it all started for me. So I wanted to give back. I had a plan, to produce at least two Olympians by 2020. Then I got sick. Now I have to shift my targets slightly, maybe at the 2024 Olympics."
As he walks into the gym to pose for a picture, Dingko heads to the corner where the boxing ring is. That very ring knows him better than anyone else. It has seen the impoverished kid who rose above limitations with sheer grit and ferocity, the teenager who was taking the country's boxing scene by storm, the desperate pugilist with a broken arm and dreams and the worldly-wise coach who had begun to dream anew.
Then he turns around, looks straight at the camera. His head tilts down ever so slightly, his hands curl into fists, the left, as always, marginally under the right. His fists may not be clenched as tightly as it was two decades ago, when he posed with gold around his neck, but the resolve in his eyes is the same. Dingko Singh only knows one way to pose. Once a fighter, always a fighter.