Posters reading “Girl Power At Its Best” and “Ever Heard of the Power-Tuff Girls?” at a women’s sports event seem just a bit too forced, if not tasteless. But the boxers don’t mind; and it draws a crowd too. And anyway, the 1st Elite (Senior) Women’s National Boxing Championships have never seen any promotional posters before. Nor has it seen two proper boxing rings for the competition, there’s always been just one. Inside the very neat Roshnabad indoor stadium at Police Line in Haridwar, where the tournament was held from 19-24 November, the sponsor boards (surprise, surprise!) and close to 250 girls inside the boxing hall made for a sight that Indian boxing has not seen in four dismal years.
This was the first event of the newly-formed Indian Boxing Federation (IBF), headed by SpiceJet Airlines’ chairman Ajay Singh. It was far more organized and sleeker than national-level tournaments are in any sport. But this tournament was different from the rest. After an administrative logjam of four years during which India’s boxing federation got banned twice by AIBA (Amateur International Boxing Association), the world governing body for the sport, and India went from a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics (courtesy M.C. Mary Kom) to not even a single qualifier at the Rio Olympics, things finally look like they are getting back on track.
There were a lot of champions at Haridwar. Sarjubala Devi from Manipur, who won the gold in 48kg, won back-to-back gold at the national championships in 2010 and 2011 and also won the AIBA World Youth Boxing Championship before being derailed by the federation mess (she won gold here). There was Simranjit Kaur from Punjab, who won a bronze at the 2013 AIBA World Youth Boxing Championships, and almost gave up on the sport after spending close to three years without a competition.
Nikhat Zareen, 20, who won gold at the 2011 World Junior Boxing Championship, finished with a bronze medal at the competition in the 51kg event in what was her first major senior tournament. But the Hyderabadi, a former junior world champion, wasn’t entirely satisfied. “I had come here to win gold, and the Best Boxer title,” she says.
But all is not lost. Zareen, Devi, Kaur, and the rest of the medallists from the other weight categories, 40 in all, will be a part of the senior women’s national camp in December. Thirty more boxers will be a part of the camp too, as will 15 coaches, who will be assisted by physios, masseurs, and psychologists. That would easily make it one of the largest ever camps organized by the country’s boxing federation.
Given that the boxers themselves were rusty due to lack of competition, a lot of the preliminary rounds ended in TKOs (technical knock out). “The quantity is there, no doubt, and that’s great” says coach D. Chandralal, who was with the Kerala team, “But you can’t say the same about the quality.” You would have to take Chandralal’s words seriously. He’s been associated with women’s boxing in India ever since its inception in 1999-2000. “The talent has dried up, and that is the bare truth,” he says. “It’s not the fault of the girls. They didn’t know when they would get to compete next, so they slacked. And that’s showing here.”
The number of trainees in the Sports Authority of India centre in Kollam, Kerala, has thinned, Chandralal admits, as does Jagdish Singh, another old hand in Indian boxing, having produced the likes of Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and Vikas Krishan from his academy in Bhiwani, Haryana. “Earlier parents used to call us to sign up for the academy,” says Jagdish Singh. “And we welcomed them with open arms.” But with no future in sight, the numbers have dwindled. Having seen Indian boxing’s highs and lows from very close quarters over the years, Chandralal and Singh are pleased with the positive start made by the new federation, but are also cautious. “When people try to be over ambitious, and do too many things in very quick time, something’s got to go wrong. That’s my fear,” Singh says. By the end of the tournament he was a happy camper though. His girls from Haryana had made it to the finals of eight of the 10 weight categories.
“Things are rusty, no doubt,” says Jay Kowli, joint secretary of the new federation. “It’s like a wagon that has come to a halt, and we need to get it back chugging. But not only are we getting this wagon moving, we are also having to lay the tracks. You could say we have started from scratch.”
With no major international competitions in 2017, what happens now?
“We need more domestic competitions, and exposure trips,” says Sagar Dhayal, who has trained and coached the national boxers for many years. “These are the young boxers of India, and we need to train them. We need fresh blood. And we need enough time to train them.” 2018 will see the women participate in the World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. “Before that we need to get a solid batch of girls ready.”
While it’s too early to assess the new federation, at least things are on track after a four-year downward slide. The newly-formed body senses the urgency of the situation, and will also be conducting the men’s national championships in Guwahati from 8-13 December.