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Vikas Krishan Yadav, in blue, at the 2014 Asian Games. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP
Vikas Krishan Yadav, in blue, at the 2014 Asian Games. Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP

Boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav’s second shot at history

London 2012 was disappointing for boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav, but he is confident of a bronze medal at the forthcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro

Old bruises have turned a dark colour along Vikas Krishan Yadav’s nose. There are marks of cuts on his temple that you can see are relatively fresh. A tiny bit of thread, possibly used to stitch the split skin above his right eyebrow, sticks out.

The boxer’s face can be described best as patchwork. But mention the word Olympics, and he breaks into the most sparkling smile. The Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 5-21 August will be his second Olympic stint.

“I will win a bronze," he says with a deadpan expression when you ask him if he is a medal prospect in his new weight category, the 75kg middleweight event.

“But why bronze? Athletes speak of winning gold at the Olympics," this reporter asks. “Look at all the great athletes of our country," he says. “Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Gagan Narang, Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt—they’ve all won bronze. I think I will win one too."

His logic may seem flawed, perhaps even funny, but his chances of winning a medal at Rio are realistic—he is ranked sixth in the world in his weight category.

In the last four years, Yadav has changed too. Before the 2012 Olympics in London, UK, he was overconfident, he says. And perhaps complacent too, given that his qualification had happened a good eight months before the Olympics.

“I went around telling everyone confidently that I would return to India with a gold medal," he recalls. Part of India’s largest-ever Olympic boxing contingent (eight members), Yadav had almost elevated himself as India’s next boxing star, after his idol Vijender Singh.

After all, like Singh, Yadav too hailed from Bhiwani in Haryana, had won gold at the 2010 Asian Games and bronze at the 2011 World Championships. All that was left was for Yadav to win an Olympic medal, like Singh did in Beijing in 2008.

But one bout in London’s ExCel Arena was all it took for the then 20-year-old’s bubble to burst. Yadav won his preliminary bout against the US’ Errol Spence in the 69kg welterweight category on points, 13:11. Five hours later, the result was overturned.

Boxing’s world governing body, Aiba, reviewed the video footage of the bout and handed Spence four additional points for fouls committed by the Indian. Yadav still believes he was the rightful winner of that bout. “It had never happened in history," he says. “Suddenly, the officials decided to change their mind?"

Not everyone thought so, though. Back home, Beijing Olympics quarter-finalist Akhil Kumar thought Yadav was “lucky" to have been declared the winner of the bout in the first place.

With his teammates yet to fight their first-round bouts in the competition, the youngster struggled to find a shoulder to lean on. “I was in shock, but I didn’t know who to share it with," he says. “The other boxers had their fights, and I didn’t want to distract them."

Yadav made a phone call to Bhiwani, to his coach Jagdish Singh, and cried.

“Something very wrong had happened with me, and I was clueless about what to do." As he accompanied the remaining boxers to the venue, he got used to being a cheerleader for the rest of the competition. But depression sunk in soon enough.

“India’s athletes started winning medals, six of them won medals, and I thought I could have easily been the seventh one," he says. “I had gone to London to return with a medal, not a bunch of Games souvenirs or a bag full of duty-free shopping."

The loss was such a bitter pill to swallow that Yadav decided to pack his gloves away for good. “It was great in the beginning," he says. “I didn’t have to wake up early and go for training twice a day." A job with the Haryana police also kept the young pugilist busy. “They taught us how to tackle different crime scenes and situations. I was learning something new, and it was exciting. I had also started a family by then."

But a year into his “happy and settled life", Yadav started missing the boxing ring. “Nobody had to tell me," he says. “I just realized one day that boxing was what I knew and did best. What the hell was I doing wasting my life like this? I had been a boxer for 10 years, and that’s what I was always going to be."

The return to the ring wasn’t the smoothest. The venue for the national camp, the coaches and core group of boxers may have been the same, but now the scoring rules had changed, the headgear had gone, and the boxing federation in India was in a complete mess. After a bronze at the 2014 Asian Games, Yadav realized that his game needed a makeover. “I felt like I had lost my speed," he says. “And if my opponent was a heavy puncher, I had no answers. In London, I learnt that I couldn’t ignore anything. I had to prepare for every situation."

And thus began his training in the US, with professional boxers who are heavy punchers. As he learnt how to keep fighting even after taking blows, Yadav says he started enjoying pro boxing.

Strength training at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Strength training at the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, Punjab. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

It’s not difficult to sense that like Singh, Yadav is also keen to take the plunge into professional boxing full-time. “Yes, professional boxers can now take part in the Olympics too," he says. “But who knows how things will be four years from now. I am in a state at the moment where the combination of youth and experience is at its best. So at the moment, my target is just Rio."

Such was Yadav’s desperation to amend his mistakes from four years ago that he wanted to keep all the doors open for the forthcoming Olympic qualification. “Getting qualified late (Yadav booked his Rio berth by reaching the semi-final in the last Olympic qualifier event in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June) is an advantage for me, unlike last time. I am more alert and ready to hit the ring, and not with a casual attitude thinking theek hai, abhi waqt hai (it’s okay, I still have time)."

Which is why, despite having booked his Olympic ticket, Yadav is also fighting in the ongoing Olympic qualifier event reserved for pro boxers in Venezuela because “the competition will be tougher and better".

Doesn’t he miss his family with these frequent visits abroad? Yadav has two young sons and is soon going to be a father for the third time. “I have my entire life to spend with my family," says the 24-year-old. “Now is my time to do what I can for the country. This country has done enough for me, spending a lot of funds on my training. I owe this country an Olympic medal. Nothing less will suffice."

Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV.

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