Akhil Kumar is hurting. He’s got fever, and a boil on his butt that makes it difficult for him to sit. He calls it his “big pimple”, and laughs weakly. He’s physically exhausted, and the fact that there’s just two weeks left for the trials for the Commonwealth Games means he’s got no peace of mind. Inside the empty boxing gymnasium at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, he looks around wistfully and half-heartedly smacks a punching bag.
“I was just hitting my peak in training,” Kumar told us when we met him in the second week of August, “and now this. I’ve been in bed for almost a week. I really don’t know what’s going wrong.”
Too many things have gone wrong for the 29-year-old boxer since he crashed out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the quarter-final. First, he missed the 2009 Asian Championship because of a wrist hairline fracture. During the 2009 World Championship in Milan, he injured his wrist again in the first round, and could hardly throw a punch in his second bout. Then in Cuba, where the national boxing squad had gone for an invitational tournament, he fell and injured his knee.
“But I’m still standing. I haven’t given up, have I? I’m raring to go,” he says.
And he needs to. Because the Commonwealth Games give him a shot at redemption, and the man who led India’s boxing revolution, along with Olympic medallist and world No. 1 middleweight fighter Vijender Singh, is desperate to grab that chance.
Back in the game: Kumar is happy to be back and in shape for the ring. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
It was in the last edition of the Commonwealth Games, in Melbourne in 2006, that Kumar burst into the limelight. He pummelled Mauritian southpaw Bruno Julie in the final to win India’s only gold medal in boxing and his grinning, cocky television interviews sparked interest in the sport across the country. At the Olympics in 2008, he defeated the then World No. 1 Sergey Vodopyanov in a televised fight that catapulted him to stardom. Kumar was trailing 2-6 in the second round when he switched tactics and went on the offensive, tricking Vodopyanov with lightning-quick counter-attacks, ducking and swaying out of the way of his opponent. At the end of the fourth round, Kumar was tied 9-9 with Vodopyanov, and the judges ruled in Kumar’s favour because of the greater number of punches he had landed. To add to the drama, all this happened on 15 August, Independence Day.
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But in the quarter-final, Kumar’s tactics backfired. The “open guard” (he doesn’t protect his body or face with his hands) he employs to lure opponents into his counter-attacks was exploited by Moldova’s Veaceslav Gojan. Since then, it’s been a steady downhill roll for Kumar, and his fighting method itself has come under scrutiny.
“It’s risky fighting with an open guard,” says Gurbax Singh Sandhu, the Indian national boxing squad coach. “You need to have faster reflexes, more endurance and confidence than your opponent. Even then, an open guard makes you vulnerable—if your opponent gets in a couple of punches, he can spend the rest of the fight just defending.”
Kumar concedes that these are all crucial factors, and he is candid enough to admit that age is catching up with him and slowing him down.
“But it’s impossible to change your style completely,” he says. “I feel more confident and more aggressive with an open guard, and the people love it. But I’ve become much more careful, I try to keep my guard up when I’m defending or moving away.”
He also works harder than most of the other boxers in the national squad, says Blas Iglesias Fernandez, the team’s Cuban coach.
“For his age, his reflexes are still fantastic,” says Fernandez. “Not many can match him during our endurance training sessions. Akhil goes on and on. I have to beg him to stop.”
As the interview goes on, Kumar begins to lose some of that fever-induced sluggishness, and starts behaving more like the man his fellow boxers know—irreverent, funny, spouting poetry, singing random snatches of the latest Bollywood hits, and fortifying his answers with kitschy sayings (the “where there is a will there is a way” kind).
“Boxing is the only thing I know, and when that’s gone, I’m lost. I’m addicted to the pain. I need to believe that I’ll win gold at the Commonwealth Games, because that’s the only way I can make things work for me,” he says.
Two weeks after we met Kumar, he took the first step towards that goal when he qualified for the Commonwealth Games in the 56kg category on 28 August, beating his young protégé and 2009 Asian Championship bronze medallist Jitender Kumar, and South Asian and national champion, 21-year-old Chhote Lal Yadav at the trials. While this was unexpected for many, fellow boxers feel he was bound to make the cut.
“The way he works, the amount of thought he puts into his training, and his passion for the sport is just an inspiration,” says Jitender Kumar. “Though it happened at my expense, I knew his run of bad luck was going to end sooner or later.”
Akhil Kumar is just relieved when we speak to him after the trials. He’s happy to be back in training, back in shape for the ring—the “big pimple” is gone; his week-long fever, a thing of the past. But is he scared of these fitness problems? Of his recurring wrist injury?
“I still have to be careful of my wrists, and that’s really not easy if your main occupation is throwing punches,” he says, grinning. “Have you heard this poem by Harivansh Rai Bachchan? Listen carefully—“‘Lehron se darkar nauka paar nahin hoti/Koshish karne walon ki haar nahin hoti. Nanhi cheenti jab daana lekar chalti hai/Chadhti deewaron par, sau bar phisalti hai (You can’t cross the sea if you let the waves deter you/Those who try never lose. When the tiny ant, carrying grain, climbs walls, it too slips and falls a hundred times).’ Now that’s how I feel.”