India’s women boxers packing a punch
Two 17-year-old girls found their faces on either side of a steely looking MC Mary Kom, with hands on her hips. It may have been a poster, but Ankushita Boro and Sakshi Choudhary were sufficiently overwhelmed to be the chosen ones to promote the Aiba Youth Women’s World Boxing Championship in Guwahati, Assam, last month, alongside the five-time world champion. “At least now people won’t say they put some random boxer’s face beside Mary Kom!” says Choudhary. She won the 54kg gold at the event, while Boro won gold in the 64kg category.
And while this wasn’t Choudhary’s first brush with gold (she had won gold at the Junior World Championships in 2015), for Boro, it was a new experience. She had barely recovered from a bout of chicken pox a couple of weeks before what would be her first tournament in front of the home crowd and had no idea how to deal with all the love and adulation that followed her performance.
“People are chanting my name, taking selfies with me,” Boro says in a voice choked with emotion. “So many people came to watch me and cheered for me... I have never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Choudhary and Boro were among the five Indians who won gold at the tournament. Nitu (48kg), Jyoti Gulia (51kg), and Shashi Chopra (57kg) completed India’s gold rush in Guwahati. And the medals are significant considering that the last Indian to win gold at the event was Sarjubala Devi in 2011.
Back to the basics
“Indian boxers are perhaps among the hardest workers in the world. But most of them lack technique,” says Raffaele Bergamasco, the high-performance director of the Indian youth women’s boxing team. “Things like balancing your punches, coordinating your body movement—these are quite basic in boxing—but are big areas Indians need to work on. And, as a coach, I am working with the girls to improve these things.”
The son of Ernesto Bergamasco, the boxer who represented Italy at the 1972 Olympics, Bergamasco junior has coached Italian boxers, men and women, to six Olympic medals, including one gold, three silver and two bronze medals, at the Beijing (2008) and London (2012) Olympics. He stepped down after his team returned empty-handed from Rio last year. It was only after much cajoling from the Boxing Federation of India’s technical director, Santiago Nieva, that Bergamasco returned to coaching, signing up with the team in July.
It took a while to build a rapport with the girls. “The first day he came to the camp, he asked me why there is no music here. From that day, music became a must,” says the team’s Indian coach, Bhaskar Bhatt. Not just that, many of the girls, especially those from Haryana, who had been vegetarians all their lives, had to start eating chicken. But they’re not complaining. “I have heard that (Pullela) Gopi Chand also makes his vegetarian students eat chicken because protein is important for athletes. If they can make these changes in order to be better and stronger athletes, then why not us?” asks Choudhary.
Jyoti Gulia, who also qualified for next year’s Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires after her gold in Guwahati, and who perhaps has the most powerful of punches, says Bergamasco has helped her better her technique.
“My punches are my strength, but Raffaele has worked on my technique,” says the teenager from Rohtak. “He has made all of us think even between the bouts. He communicates with us through the match, which helps you stay focused and even fight back after you have received a couple of blows at the start of the bout.”
Gulia, like her peers, had trouble following their new coach’s language. “My English…ah, not very good,” says Bergamasco. “In the beginning, (when) I used to say something to Jyoti, and ask her if she understood what I said, she would nod her head and say, ‘Yes, sir’; I would ask her again, and her answer would be the same. Then, when I would ask her what she had understood, she would admit that she understood nothing!” Luckily for both parties, Google Translate ended up being a saviour.
A little malice goes a long way
Bergamasco says Indian boxers have got their basics right; what’s lacking is the technique, simple coordination between the punches and jabs and movements on court. “These girls are very simple,” he says. “That’s a good thing, but for the boxing ring you need a little malice at times, you have to be foxy. That’s what I try to make them understand. I put a lot of stress on tactics and techniques—like body balance, coordination, foot movement, reflexes. But they’re all very young, and definitely improving. They have a big heart,” he says. “I know that girls their age in Italy would start crying if they had to stay away from home for so many months.”
It is surprising, at least for an outsider, to learn that a country of 1.3 billion people, which loves sports, has only produced two Olympic medallists in boxing.
“It can’t stay that way,” Bergamasco says. “Listen, you have a big country full of talented people, and only two boxers have won medals for you at the Olympics?”
In the recent past, Indian boxing has been marred by administrative logjams and bickering among officials. The Indian Amateur Boxing Federation was suspended twice in four years by the International Olympic Committee for corruption and discrepancy in their election procedure. Boxers couldn’t participate in international events under the Indian flag, they missed out on exposure trips, and for four years there were no tournaments at home. But things look much better after the team’s performance at the youth championships.
And while many fans at home may already be talking about the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Bergamasco wants to take it one step at a time. His focus is on next year’s senior world championships for women, which will also be held in India. Some of the current juniors should be part of the senior team—their current performance, then, seems to be a step in the right direction.