New Year Double Issue

Vijender Singh: A Boxer’s Life

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The idea of Vijender Singh

FOR SOMEONE WHO has spent nearly his entire life trying to evade punches, Vijender Singh has a remarkably beautiful face. Boxing fans seek, and often find, beauty in the repulsive. The dislocated jaw beauty. The snapped bridge of nose beauty. The sealed eyelid beauty. The shivering unconscious on the floor beauty. Vijender is not that, that medallion of morbid beauty. He is cover of Vogue, marriage proposal inked in blood beauty. Paired opposite Bipasha Basu in a reality dance show (Nach Baliye, or was it the other one?) beauty.

Vijender, one would assume, is aware of this. Not just because of his lifestyle beyond the ring, but also because he has, for so many years now, been the face of Indian boxing. The undisputed face. A face that drew scores of sponsors to the sport. Not just because of an Olympic medal, the first by an Indian boxer, but also because of the face itself. A billboard face. Those who know him well say he reeks of narcissism. Well, halts by mirrors beauty too, then. Vijender has always—always—taken care of his golden egg and to a large extent (I realise how insane this is going to sound) his career of choice assisted him with additional insurance.

Until October last year, Vijender was an amateur boxer, an Olympic-style boxer. Until fourteen months ago, this is who he aspired to be as a child and this is who he became as a man. In amateur boxing, spine-rattling punches, the slugging kind, are very rare. Knockouts even rarer. The sport is technical, almost like a non-contact sport, and tactical, almost like chess. Amateur boxers hold a high guard—thickly padded gloves covering face—for this is where even a nudge can earn the opponent big points. And amateur boxers, for the length of Vijender’s amateur career anyway, had their skulls cushioned in foam.

Success in amateur boxing is credited as much to the fighter as it is to the country. So when Vijender wins an Olympic medal, India wins an Olympic medal. And when Vijender protects his face, India, by extension, protects its too.

Then, just last weekend, Vijender exposed that face worth a country, tilting a Gandhian cheek at danger.

Not just that, he did this with no cushion about his head and no hands guarding his face. No hands! Those gloves were tied neatly behind his back. And then, to really top it off, he grinned. All this, unfolding in the middle of a live round. A foot from a prancing boxer of pedigree no less, one who promised to end Vijender’s career that night. Yet, despite this utter lack of respect and resistance, the rival could do no harm. Such was the audacity, defiance and obscenity of Vijender’s expression that in one swift moment of calculated recklessness, the true essence of prizefighting was ushered into India.

Let’s rewind a couple of seconds, for it is almost as exciting and equally reckless as the moment itself. Vijender had advanced forward, eating up room in the ring, herding Francis Cheka of Tanzania towards the ropes. To put this in perspective, one must understand that Cheka has witnessed more professional fights (43) than Vijender has professional rounds (30). He is decorated enough to have gone the distance against world title contenders (Matthew Macklin and Paul Smith) and a man who has fought and honourably lost to world champions (Fedor Chudinov and Robert Steiglitz). Now he was cornered by Vijender, whose most decorated opponent to date was Cheka himself.

Cheka swung a left to break out of trouble and Vijender calmly swayed. Whilst his ear might’ve still been recording the swoosh of air shifted by the stray glove, Vijender landed his ram-rodding straight right plush against Cheka’s chin. Even amid the din, the thwuuup of his menace could be heard around Thyagaraj Stadium in the heart of Delhi. Just then, as Cheka’s chin, then neck, then spine jellied to first absorb and later earth the shock through his legs, Vijender— a handshaking length away—stomped his leg like a proud Sambar deer, clasped his gloves behind his back and grinned. Norman Mailer, were he alive, would’ve grinned back.

‘No physical activity is so vain as boxing,’ Mailer wrote in The Fight, perhaps the best literature on the Ali-Foreman classic. ‘A man gets into the ring to attract admiration. In no sport, therefore, can you be more humiliated.’

Vijender understands and embraces that concept better than most. Not just in the ring, but off it too. When he took the decision to turn pro last year, the move was widely panned by the media. Turning pro meant he wouldn’t represent India in the upcoming Olympics. In fact, only one company, IOS Sports & Entertainment, could represent him. So he was ridiculed for not being a patriot, patronised for not being eligible to grants from the Sports Ministry—the lifeline of athletes who aren’t cricketers—and mocked for not instantly having the fitness to compete at the pro level.

But that’s the thing with vanity. Just eight pro fights into his second career—two of them in India—the naysayers are eating out of his glove.

IN THE UNIQUE world of pro boxing, promoting a good fight is almost as essential as the good fight itself. Certainly more valuable. For this is the period when an experienced promoter ensures ticket sales and puts bums on seats by drumming up the excitement around his prizefighters. In the unique world of pro boxing, the week has a name. In Delhi, Fight Week kicked off five days before the fight.

Proceedings began in the bowels of Le Meridien on a lethargic afternoon. The boxers, Vijender and Cheka, looking sharp in their respective tuxedos, were ushered on to stage to the soundtrack of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. In a country with no pedigree in pro boxing, the promoters leaned—heavily and without pretence—on boxing clichés. So once Bill Conti’s heart-thumping music died down, Muhammad Ali came alive on the TV monitors stationed on either side of the stage. “Float like a butterfly,” he said, half bored. “Sting like a bee.”

“This is the first face-off for ‘Night of the Champions’,” Neerav Tomar, MD of IOS and promoter of this fight, seated on a barstool between the two fighters and their respective entourages, said, before handing the microphone over to the Tanzanian. The oldest cliché in pro boxing is the foul-mouthed, trash-talking heel. And Cheka immersed himself into the role with comic poise.

“This man Vijender, he is nothing. Come Saturday, your country is going to be ashamed of him. I am a lion from Africa and I have come here to slay him in his backyard,” Cheka, spitting his words into the mic like an angry hip-hop singer, said with the help of an interpreter. Vijender and his trainer, Lee Beard, slapped their thighs and laughed. But sections of the press weren’t as amused. One journalist pleaded with Vijender to settle the score on the stage itself. Another wanted Vijender to abuse the Tanzanian in Haryanvi. A third turned defensive, informing Cheka of Vijender’s Beijing bronze.

“An Olympic bronze is nothing. Nothing. Amateur boxing is nothing,” said Cheka, unwavering in pitch, soprano. “I am a former world champion at the professional level. I have even won the intercontinental title. I have fought great fighters and have plenty of experience, which Vijender doesn’t have. He knows it. You can see the worry lines on his forehead. The Indian is just seven matches old. And he has fought only nobodies so far. I will put him in place.”

When Vijender took the decision to turn pro last year, the move was widely panned by the media. Just eight fights later, the naysayers are now eating out of his glove

If you can shut out the noise and look past the slur, there is some uneasy truth to Cheka’s claims, especially when he highlights the difference in their experience. Yes, Vijender, 31, has been boxing competitively for two-thirds of his life. But amateur boxing and its professional version have as much in common as Carnatic music has with thrash metal. To put it simply, the focus of amateur boxing is to score more points than the opponent. The focus of professional boxing is to be the last man standing—obliterate your opponent before he obliterates you. The headspace, hence, cannot be more stark. One relies on technique. The other on your instinct to survive. Vijender was an amateur boxer for 17 years. Vijender turned pro just 14 months ago.

“It’s like learning a new language. I knew boxing, but everything [about the pro game] felt new to me. I didn’t understand everything that Lee would tell me,” Vijender had confessed to Jonathan Selvaraj, the finest boxing correspondent in this country. In the course of that interview, Vijender was also pretty candid about his pro-game acumen. “I didn’t get the difference between a block and shield (you shield with your shoulder, block with your gloves). In India I thought a shield was the shell guard. But now I get the boxing code. When Lee says stiff arm, I know what he is referring to (he meant the defensive technique when taller boxers stick their hand out in an opponents’ face to keep distance). I’m learning a lot faster now.”

Beard, a man who has trained a few world champions in the past, including Ricky Hatton, found Vijender’s honesty appealing. His willingness to unlearn and start from scratch too. While pushing thirty, no less. In an interview with Selvaraj, Beard said: “Some think they know it all and refuse to learn. Just because you won an Olympic medal doesn’t mean you will be a good professional. You might be a great boxer at range but what do you do when your opponent walks inside and starts to trade head to head. There were things Vijender wasn’t good at but he accepted them and was willing to learn.”

So a month before his thirtieth birthday, Vijender moved to Manchester and began rewiring his brain. Someone once said boxing is all about eyes and legs; the hands are incidental. The legs help you throw punches, the eyes help you avoid them. Vijender was now seeing, and moving towards, his opponents in sparring sessions differently. Consequently, his punching style changed. Gone were the days of high guards, glancing blows and cheeky hits—strategies tailored to earn quick points in amateur boxing (three rounds of three minutes each). Vijender was now punching with power. And punching economically, for it is catastrophic to punch yourself out too early in a long, pro bout. In short, throw just the right amount of punches with power. And most importantly, land what you throw.

Just six weeks into this hitherto routine and an alien way of life, Vijender was ready for his second debut. Professional boxing is as much about skill as about the person you employ that skill against. Vijender’s team chose his opponents with cunning to make his foray into the unknown as comfortable as possible. His first fight was against Sonny Whiting, a scaffolder from London. Fighting as an undercard (opening act to the main event), the Indian made his first big move in the second round by stunning Whiting’s chin back with a terrific right. As soon as he landed the punch, though, Vijender raised his glove—an old habit from his amateur days where boxers gesture to judges to collect points. He eventually ended the contest in the next round—a ferocious left hook sandwiched between two straight rights thumped enough dents in Whiting for the referee to call off the bout.

A month later, the second fight. Against Dean Gillen, a firefighter from Nottingham. No raised paws searching for points in this one. And the pundits will tell you that Vijender shed a few more old amateur habits in the ring. Now when Beard would ask him to lead with his left, Vijender would jab, jab, jab. “I was surprised at the power he had in both his arms. He didn’t use his jab simply to maintain distance. He used it as a weapon,” said Beard. At the national stadium in Dublin, Ireland, the weapon annihilated the fireman in three.

After four fights and four knockouts (Samet Hyuseinov and Alexander Horvath were his next roadkills), Vijender was yet to be pushed past three rounds—a limit he was well versed with in amateur boxing. Matiouze Royer, a French boxer with a lust for body art, was the first to drag him into uncharted territory. The six-round bout was now deep into the fifth round, and Royer, in deep trouble. Protecting a bleeding gash over his left eye, Royer stumbled about with a high guard. ‘Amateur’, pro Vijender must’ve thought, as he went to town with bludgeoning body hooks, big lefts and bigger rights, on Royer’s ribs, kidneys, liver, ribs, liver. Black tattoos were now stained purple. Knockout number five.

Vijender’s team—manager, trainer, promoter— believed their man was now ready for an eight-round bout. Andrzej Soldra wasn’t. Just 19 km north of Manchester in Bolton, Vijender knocked him out in three. To last the entirety of a bout, Vijender would have to travel 6,700 km—back to India. But this bout was special for reasons apart from roots and rounds. This was his first title fight—the vacant WBO Asia Pacific belt was on the line. And in front of a delirious assortment of celebrities, sportspersons, politicians and fans at the Thyagaraj, Vijender went toe-to-toe with Australia’s Kerry Hope for 10 rounds (twice as long as he’d ever been in a contest) and won by unanimous decision. Belt around waist and tricolour draped over his shoulders, Vijender wept. “It’s not about me or my effort, it’s about my country,” he said, a jibe at the press between copious tears. “Thank you India for making this happen.”

When he was asked if this moment was greater than his Olympic medal, Vijender shrugged. Then he shrugged again, five days before his title defence against Cheka. The Tanzanian had just finished speaking.

“Vijender, aap Cheka ko kuchh kehna chaahte ho?”

Shrug.

“Please? Vijender?”

Jo baadal garajtaa hai, woh barasta nahin.

Fight Night.

Cheka, the African challenger to an Asia-Pacific title (welcome to the frivolous world of pro boxing) romped into the ring to an entry song called Shellshocked. If his choice was bizarre, Vijender’s was obvious. Singh is King, what else? On his way to the blue corner, he passed a throng of ruling party politicians seated ringside. The fight’s celebrity quotient was all of one man. Baba Ramdev. The referee held Vijender’s WBO title aloft, the ring card girl walked her diamond path, and the bout began.

Cheka, eager to prove his worth, darted inside Vijender’s line early in the round and checked him with three jabs which the Indian absorbed with open palms. Hardly impressed, Cheka swung for a right hook and missed. ‘No punch disturbs the shoulder more than the one that does not connect,’ writes Mailer. ‘Professionals can be separated from amateurs by the speed with which their torso absorbs that instant’s loss of balance.’ Cheka knows his way around a pro ring. He was back to his nifty dance—feinting and swaying, jabbing and clinching.

Vijender is three centimetres taller than Cheka, and close to a kilo-and-a-half heavier than him. Not a good thing for Cheka, especially in a sport where equilibrium is disturbed by fractions. By the end of the round, with Vijender having got a feel for his man, he used his superior reach and crossed his right over Cheka’s nervous jab and buckled his neck back. Round 1, Vijender.

In Round 2, Vijender delivered that moment, showboating after a cracking right— minus hands and with a smile. That made Cheka angry. He dipped into Vijender for body hooks, missed, clinched his shoulder and sunk his teeth in. “He trying to bite me two or three time, on my neck and shoulder,” Vijender would say after the bout. “I complained to the referee, but Lee, he tell me go on, keep fighting.”

Beard, tough as nails, was happy. “He was getting very desperate. That fantastic right and the showboating had rattled him,” he said. “I simply told V to finish the job.”

So ‘V’ did. In the third round of a 10-round fight. Who was the rookie and who was the veteran professional in this ring, again? It was the manner in which he did it that was impressive. An overhead right hook followed by a left upper cut saw Cheka wobble into Vijender’s arms. When he rose, his blue gumshield, the very device he bit Vijender with, was sticking out of his mouth. Three more smacks on the loose gumshield saw Cheka stumble to his corner and into his trainer’s shoulder. He would not return to the canvas again. The fight was over.

First title defence complete, Vijender was asked by the crooning press about the great Indian pro boxing moment. “He got the right punch on his chin and he forget about everything. Then his body language said, ‘Ek aur maar, ek aur maar, jaldi se, isko khatam karo’,” Vijender said. “But I didn’t want to finish him. I want to make fun of him, so I hold my hand behind and tease him.”

“Actually na, iski mazey leke pitaayee karr raha thha main.”

That’s what it eventually took. Three intense rounds of prizefighting and the face had grown a mouth suitable for this profession.

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