Fifteen years ago, Gurcharan Singh came within a whisker of becoming the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal. But he lost the quarterfinal of the light heavyweight event at Sydney Olympics, thanks to a points decision in favour of his Ukrainian opponent. Heartbroken, Singh, a naib subedar in the Army, disappeared. A few months later, however, he surfaced as a professional boxer, who went by the sobriquet ‘Guru’.
Ten years ago, Pradeep Singh Sihag, a middle weight boxer from Hisar in Haryana, was banned by the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation while he was participating in a national camp. The reason: a national coach had complained against him. Disillusioned, Sihag, then 17, bought a one-way ticket to Australia with the money his father, a former boxer, had given him. A resident of Boronia in Melbourne, he now has 23 pro boxing bouts to his credit, including 18 wins (nine of them by knockout), four losses and one draw.
Vijender Singh, the 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medallist, is the latest, and the most famous, Indian boxer to join the professional boxing bandwagon. In June this year, he announced his decision to turn pro in the UK, where he had gone for training. Till then, he was trying to qualify for the Rio Olympics, which would have been his fourth. But, a ten-day stint with pro boxing trainer Lee Beard in Manchester, organised by his manager Neerav Tomar of Infinity Optimal Solutions Sports, led to a change of plan. Vijender signed up with promoter Francis Warren of Queensberry Promotions, signalling the end of the road for his Rio dreams.
With Vijender as its poster boy, professional boxing is making a grand entry to India. Pro trainers, promoters, prize fights, championship titles and the works are making their way to prime time on satellite television. Laying the groundwork for it is a group of veteran administrators, led by former Indian Amateur Boxing Federation secretary-general P.K.M. Raja, a retired brigadier. The group has formed the Indian Boxing Council (IBC), which will be the licensing and governing body for pro boxing in India.
Boxer Akhil Kumar, the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, gave the thumbs up to pro boxing, saying the aspirations of sportspersons in India were changing. “There is no right or wrong time for this [turning pro],” he said. “Every sportsperson wants a better lifestyle. These days, training, supplements and shoes cost a huge amount.”
The Indian boxing scene is in its bleakest phase. There is no boxing federation that runs smoothly, and an ad hoc body is now in charge of running the sport in the country. National championships are no longer held regularly, and there is no foreign exposure for Indian boxers.
In the absence of a strong domestic sporting structure, IBC is primed for success. “We have started this not because we are disgruntled with amateur boxing,” said Raja. “We just want to put a system in place to provide opportunity to boxers.”
Pro boxing, however, is totally different from amateur boxing, for which most boxers in India train. For instance, the maximum number of rounds in amateur bouts is four; in pro boxing, it is 12.
Vijender, 29, would be the change agent for pro boxing in India. Said Lee Beard, who will train Vijender: “I don’t know what system of training in India he is used to. The circuit training we do is very difficult. We do a lot of sparring. I am going to get him used to doing seven to eight hours of sparring from day one, to teach him the pro game.”
Beard said he was surprised by Vijender's mental and physical strength. “Some of the circuit tests, I didn't think he would do it like he did,” he said. “I was quite surprised.”
Vijender said he was initially unsure whether he was ready to turn pro. “I had a lot of things on my mind. The decision was not made in a day. I trained there [Manchester] for ten days before I decided that I must do it,” he said.
Warren, the promoter, is bullish about Vijender’s future. “We have not signed him because he is a popular face, but because he is talented. I came to Chandigarh for a national camp before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. I liked the way he moved his feet, his head nicely placed. I keep an eye on amateur fighters all over the world; so I kept a watch on him. That he is very popular does make our job easier, in terms of selling tickets and TV rights. With the presence of Indians throughout the world, he can become a crossover star.”
IBC has announced three layers of competitions to create a domestic circuit. It will hold bouts for the national title, the winners of which will progress to world rounds. “I am sure corporates and other big names will support us, as there is a very high return on investment. We are looking to have workshops by professional trainers for Indian ones. We are getting inquiries from excited promoters,” said Raja.
The World Boxing Council and the World Boxing Association have offered their help to set up pro boxing in India. Boxers will get 70 per cent of the earnings from a bout, while their trainers will get 30 per cent. The IBC plans to source coaches from Australia and the UK, as training systems in those countries are easier for Indian pugilists to adapt to.
Raja and his team are travelling all over India to sign up talent and trainers. But the qualification standards they have set are tough. Sources told THE WEEK that boxers Paramjeet Samota, Dinesh Kumar and Dilbagh Singh could be roped in. Sihag, too, is set to make his pro debut in India.
Still, it is a rocky road ahead for pro boxing. Amateur boxers employed by government departments will need permission to turn pro. The Haryana Police had earlier objected to Vijender turning pro. Also, Raja's previous attempt to start a pro boxing league, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, had come a cropper, thanks to the International Boxing Association (AIBA) launching its own World Series Boxing.
This time, however, Raja may well succeed. Said Akhil Kumar: “If IBC succeeds, everyone, including you and me, will say great things. If it is a flop, we all would find reasons to declare it a wrong decision. But, we must give it a chance.”
So, is he planning to turn pro? “Right now, I am not in a mood to join pro boxing. I am just trying my best to earn a berth for Rio 2016, and win that medal I missed at Beijing 2008.”