Vijender Singh hits the punching bag at the gym in Gurgaon where he is training for his upcoming title defence on Saturday. The bag, not really meant for professional boxers, comes down with a thud and a clang.
Singh reacts like any finely honed boxer would to an unexpected situation—he puts his guard up and hops back, light on his feet.
Then he smiles and raises both his arms up, claiming victory over the vanquished bag.
Singh has never looked fitter and happier since he turned pro about 18 months ago after an accomplished 15-year-long career as an amateur boxer.
“I am happier, more confident about my fights,” Singh says, two days before he puts his WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight belt on the line in New Delhi against Tanzania’s Francis Cheka, the IBF Africa Super Middleweight champion.
“Mentally it is easier for me. When I started (as a pro, shifting to Manchester to train under renowned coach Lee Beard), I just did not know the meaning of so many words that are used in pro boxing and in training,” Singh says. “Everything was new, and I had to learn and absorb everything. Now I know all these things, I have got used to it. Lee says something and I can do it. I feel much more settled, and I am more confident and my body can take the training better.”
These are words that will make any coach happy. A calm, confident fighter is a good fighter.
Singh has been on a steep learning curve since his switch to the pro ranks, having to unlearn and forget the hard-wired muscle memory of 15 years worth of amateur training. Both physically and mentally, he has had to push himself to transition from a three-round fighter to someone capable of withstanding 10 rounds in the ring—“that’s 30 minutes of fighting, and you really have to be ready for it,” Singh says.
So far, he has made each lesson count, with seven victories in seven fights. After a series of six well-calibrated bouts against other newcomers to the pro scene as an undercard in England, Singh took it up a notch to challenge the vacant WBO Asia Pacific title in July this year against Australian Kerry Hope, an experienced boxer who was looking to boost his floundering career.
Singh won, but a far more important takeaway from the fight for his coach and him was the proof that he could last 10 rounds.
“He’s been busy,” Beard says. “He did have a lot of fights in year one, now he has a title too, and we are still moving towards world titles. Kerry Hope was a big step-up, and now this is another big step-up, and he’s raising his game all the time. We have to now control who he fights and how many very carefully, very strategically.”
Despite the gains, there is an ever greater sense of urgency in Singh’s pro trajectory. He was almost 30 when he turned pro, a very late start, and with only four or five more years left in him in the sport, Beard and Singh have their task cut out if they want to leap into the world of the really heavy-hitters, instead of taking on fading boxers and journeymen.
“He’s learning all the time, he’s got to develop and progress all the time, there is no time to stop and and take a break,” says Beard. “So we do our training with the next fight in mind, but at the same time it’s also to keep developing him as a fighter. So last time around with Kerry Hope we were teaching him how to take on a southpaw, and that’s a learning curve for him, this time around it’s a different bunch of things, but we can’t talk about gameplan…
“I don’t think this fight will last long,” Beard adds. V (Singh) is very smart. In the ring he is an animal, he’s a dangerous puncher, a very accurate puncher. He knows how to control the space between him and his opponent and control the pace of the fights. He’s just got a much better boxing brain than Cheka.”
Cheka has 40 fights under his belt, with 30 wins (16 by KO), eight losses and two draws. Tellingly, he has lost all six fights he has fought outside of Tanzania.
What does Singh think of the time he has left on his career and the quality of his opponents?
“What makes me happy is winning. I love winning. So I am happy to fight anybody,” he says. “And age? See my work is to do boxing. I don’t think of age. Floyd Mayweather was fighting at 39. See, I wanted to start pro boxing in India, and it has already started. Young boxers will come up and join the pros, that was my dream, and it’s already happened. Tomorrow I might lose, tomorrow I might want to stay home, it’s not a problem for me. Maybe next year I will not fight anymore, maybe I will fight for 4-5 more years, but I am happy.”
Singh is man who feels he has nothing to lose. It makes him a more dangerous boxer than ever. And the fighting gloves fit him now like a second skin.