Rivers of sweat pour down Manoj Kumar’s face as he winds up his training. To cool down after the intense session, he shadow-boxes in the ring. He side-steps, ducks, throws a combination of punches, steps back, ducks again, and throws another punch—following the pull of a silent, internal rhythm.
The boxing training centre at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports (NSNIS) in Patiala, Punjab, is barely lit. Most of the core group of boxers training for the 2012 London Olympics have left after their evening session. Only the corner ring, one of five inside the spacious hall, is lit by overhead lights, and under this halo, Kumar is working out a set of moves he’s trying to perfect. Every single day of training now is crucial for Kumar, 25, who needs to be in peak physical and mental condition for the Olympics in July. Every training day brings him closer to a dream that has been many years in the making.
Nothing to lose: Kumar has an aggressive all-or-nothing approach to boxing. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
“It’s this shadow-boxing that got me into the sport,” Kumar says with a laugh after the session.
Growing up in Rajound, a small village in Haryana, Kumar was 11 when he decided to ride pillion on his brother Rajesh’s bicycle to the nearby small town of Kaithal. Rajesh, only four years older than Kumar, was already training children in a gym in town to supplement the meagre pension their father got as a former soldier. “It became a regular thing,” Kumar says. “I’d come back home from school and immediately leave with my brother for the gym.
At the gym, Kumar would get immersed in the sights and sounds of the ring—the ripple of muscles, the hard thwack-thwack of fists hitting the punching bag, the syncopated rhythm of shuffling feet—“it got drilled into my head, I felt at home.” Back in his house, Kumar would be lost inside his head pretending to fight an imaginary opponent.
“In a couple of months, I was showing off my shadow-boxing skills to everyone. You didn’t have to ask me—I’d say hello to you and start showing you how to shadow-box. My brother’s friends were entertained by this play-acting, they thought I did a decent imitation. So one day at the gym, they convinced my brother to let me get in the ring against a junior boxer who was a state-level champion.”
Kumar held his own, and that night, when they came back home, Rajesh began teaching Kumar the basics of the game. He also got a second-hand punching bag, and hung it outside the house. Kumar’s training had begun.
“That bag was hanging outside my house till just a few months back—then some children accidentally tore it down,” Kumar says.
In a few years, the home-tutored Kumar was entering national competitions.
“One day, my brother told me something so seriously that it got stuck in my head. He said, ‘Look, we have many things that we can gain, but we have nothing to lose. You may think you are poor, but that is the perfect situation, because you have nothing to fear or fall back on.’
“I still go into the ring with this thought playing in my head,” Kumar says.
You could see that in Kumar’s fights at the 2011 International Boxing Association, or Aiba, World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he reached the quarter-finals in the 64kg category to become one of four boxers from India to grab early qualification spots for the 2012 Olympics. In the pre-quarter final, Kumar was up against local favourite Hu Qing from China, Asian Games gold medallist, 2008 Olympic veteran, and almost half-a-foot taller than Kumar. “I was fighting with an injured hand, so no one gave me much chance,” says Kumar.
As soon as the fight started, Kumar charged Hu in a blur of punches. The Chinese fighter tried to circle away from the bull-rush, using straight jabs to maximize his height advantage. But Kumar was relentless, sometimes connecting, sometimes just throwing wild, loopy punches—his all-or-nothing approach. Hu led the first round 6-3, but by the second round, he was getting increasingly frustrated by Kumar’s ceaseless attacks, and his ability to get inside Hu’s reach. The round ended 7-7. In the third round, Kumar came in even harder, and faster. Hu could no longer use the long jab because Kumar was always too close, so he resorts to holding Kumar in a cinch repeatedly. The referee had no option but to penalize Hu, and Kumar walked away with a 17-15 win, and a place in the Olympics.
“But my family was not entirely pleased that I lost in the next bout,” Kumar says. “They told me, ‘Please, at the Olympics, win a medal.’”
Kumar’s progress as a boxer has been a slow and steady climb, unlike his long-time room-mate at NSNIS, Vikas Krishan, who won a gold at the 2010 Asian Games, his first senior-level international tournament. Kumar’s first international medal was a bronze at the Asian Boxing Championships in 2007, and he had to wait three years before another medal of note. “The 2008 Olympics was a turning point for me,” Kumar says. “I watched Akhil (Kumar) beat the then world champion, saw Vijender (Singh) win a medal. It changed my perspective of what we can achieve as boxers. My ambitions had something to focus on.”
In 2010, Kumar, for the first time in his boxing career, got a taste of fame and recognition, winning a gold at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi.
Before the CWG, Rajesh, who was coaching India’s junior boxers in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, called up Kumar and told him that he would be ringside in Delhi only when Kumar made it to the final. “There was no middle-path,” Kumar says. “I said, OK, I’ll talk to you later…”
But every day, Rajesh would follow Kumar’s bouts on TV, and at night the two would discuss every aspect of the bout. “He’s been teaching me since I was a child, so no one knows me better!”
On the day of the final, Rajesh was ringside.
Soon after his win, Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a private organization that provides funds and expertise to selected Olympic athletes, signed him up. Backed by OGQ’s attention (personal physios, a crucial hand surgery), Kumar’s performance graph spiked quickly, culminating in the stellar performance at the 2011 World Championship.
“After the Commonwealth medal, I felt that all the hard work, all the money that my parents and my brother spent on my training instead of saving it or buying land or a house, was vindicated,” Kumar says. “It sent a message to others like us—that it pays to spend money and effort in putting your children through sports; it gives people confidence to take that leap.”
Kumar is taking a leap of his own. For Indian boxers, it’s not enough any more to be a part of the Olympics—every fighter on the squad is seen as a potential medallist.
“It’s only once you are dropped in the ocean that you get an idea of its depth,” Manoj says (he has a penchant for spinning poetic sentences). “But I’ve got a foot in the door, and we are now a boxing nation, we can hold our own against anybody, so I’m absolutely confident that I’ll be giving it everything I’ve got.”
Also Read | Earlier stories in the Dream Catchers series