Soon after the 2008 Beijing Olympics thrust Akhil Kumar into the limelight (he beat the reigning world champion Sergey Vodopyanov before losing in the quarter-final), the diminutive boxer used all his savings and prize money to buy a plot of land in Gurgaon. The plot lay vacant for almost two years because Kumar, who also won a gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, couldn’t afford to build a house.
Now, Kumar says, construction will begin any day—and he won’t have to depend on his sporadic prize money to build his dream home. Kumar is one of five Indian boxers who have been signed up by the Delhi franchise of the World Series of Boxing, and his lucrative three-year contract will be more than enough.
“The contracts for Indian boxers in the World Series range from $30,000 (around Rs13.8 lakh) to $100,000 annually,” says P.K.M. Raja, secretary general of the Indian Boxing Federation (IBF). These contracts can go up to $300,000 by next year depending on player performance.
The World Series of Boxing is the International Boxing Association’s (Aiba’s) lifeline for amateur boxers who can now step up a level without having to turn professional. There will be four franchises each from the Americas, Europe and Asia, with the Videocon group having bagged the Delhi franchise. Bouts will be fought on a home and away format, with each franchise taking on each of the other three in the continent twice on home soil. The other three franchises in Asia are Astana, Baku and Beijing.
A boxer will get $5,000 for every bout won and $1,000 if he loses, over and above the contract amount. Further bonuses may be paid if a team reaches the semi-finals.
Sure-footed: Vijender Singh believes the World Series could have a positive impact on other sports as well.
For India’s strong contingent of boxers, who have been making waves in the international circuit since Kumar’s 2006 Commonwealth gold, this will be a big boost, both professionally and financially.
“Till now, a boxer had nothing to fall back on except his government or public sector job after retirement,” says Gurbux Singh Sandhu, India’s national boxing coach. “With the World Series, he has a chance to keep going on as it will serve as a motivating factor.”
Almost all the national-level boxers in the country come from poor or lower middle-class backgrounds, and despite committing all their time to the sport, most have to survive on meagre government salaries. Their only other source of income is the prize money if they win medals at government-recognized events.
“I started out as a class IV employee in the Indian Railways in 2001 for a monthly salary of Rs6,000,” says Kumar. “I was officially a diesel cleaner. I left that job after the Olympics because I was offered the post of DSP (deputy superintendent of police) by the Haryana police.”
Haryana police also signed up Jitender Kumar, who made it to the quarter-finals of the 2008 Olympics. The 2008 Olympic bronze medallist and 2009 World Championship bronze medallist, Vijender Singh, whose father was a driver for Haryana Roadways, has also joined them. All three are part of the World Series now, and at least for the next three years, when their current contracts end, financial worries will be a thing of the past.
“The lack of money is a problem in almost all Indian sports,” says Vijender Singh, “and this tournament can have a domino effect on other sports as well. It could change the way Indian sports stands right now if more such tournaments follow.”
The 2009 Asian Championships silver medallist, Jai Bhagwan, and bronze medallist, Dinesh Kumar, complete the list of Indian boxers after the first World Series draft.
Raja says boxers’ earnings could go up further as Aiba and its partner International Management Group (IMG) are determined to make a splash with this league, which will be telecast to a worldwide audience.
“We have won medals in international competitions before. But today Vijender is an icon because he is on TV also,” says Sandhu. “Once you get more exposure, the financial benefits will increase.”
The World Series will give Indian boxing a much needed professional boost, besides making the boxers self-reliant. At the moment, many of them are dependent on training programmes run by private organizations such as the Mittal Champions Trust and Olympic Gold Quest to supplement their training at national camps. The World Series of Boxing has promised boxers the best international trainers and support staff all through the year, and will set up a training base for Indian boxers near Delhi.
The league, says Sandhu, will open up the option of boxing as a career for an entire generation.
Akhil Kumar agrees: “Today, every parent wants his child to be a cricketer because even if you play Ranji Trophy, your life is made. Once this league takes off, more parents will begin to see boxing as a career and encourage their children to take up boxing. Where there is quantity, quality too will come forward.”
There is, however, a flip side. Signing up for the World Series, a semi-professional league, will mean the boxers cannot represent India at most amateur tournaments, such as the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games—the Indian contingent has been allowed to take part in the Games this year, and will start competing in the World Series after them.
But, as Kumar says, they will be able to participate in all the Olympic qualifying events. The individual winner in the World Series league will get direct entry into the 2012 London Olympics.
The bigger worry is that with everyone aiming for lucrative professional contracts, not too many boxers may want to go through the grind of dingy national camps to represent their country in events such as the Commonwealth Games.
The IBF has tried to pre-empt this with safeguards, and boxers can only sign up for the World Series after IBF clearance. The IBF feels only boxers who have already performed well for the country should move on to the World Series.
“When I started boxing, there was nothing,” says Kumar. “But after Beijing, we all came into the limelight and the sport started to make headlines. No Indian has ever done well in professional boxing. This is our chance.”
Indian boxers for the world series
Bronze medallist, 2009 Asian Championships, in Bantamweight (54kg)
Gold medallist, 2006 Commonwealth Games, in Bantamweight (54kg)
Silver medallist, 2009 Asian Championships, in Lightweight (61kg)
Bronze medallist, 2009 World Championships, and 2008 Olympics, in Light heavyweight (85kg)
Bronze medallist, 2009 Asian Championships, in Light heavyweight (85kg)
Digvijay Singh Deo is associate editor, sports, CNN-IBN.
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