Vijender's UK promoter has worked with some of the biggest names in boxing history, including Mike Tyson, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton
The apartment in cold, wet England is far removed from the family home in sunny Bhiwani, Haryana. Olympic bronze-medallist Vijender Singh now lives in an upmarket apartment block in Manchester, in a house that has an infinity pool on the roof. It is a different life, a different time.
The man has seen both sides of boxing. As an amateur, he boxed his way to fame, winning several medals for India at the international level. But, in June 2015, Vijender turned to professional boxing, where marketing and money call the shots. Now he has to contend with the massive hype and hoopla, flashing cameras, television crews and nose-to-nose face-offs with opponents. And then, of course, the fight night, slotted between 6.00pm and 6.30pm (UK time) on pay-per-view television. It's not prime time, but then Vijender is only six bouts old.
Fairly young in pro boxing, he has been fast and furious, hungry for greater challenges. His biggest bout to date will be the fight for the World Boxing Organization's Asia Pacific super middleweight title at the Thyagaraj Sports Complex in New Delhi on July 16. He will take on Australian Kerry Hope, a former middleweight European champion and WBO Asian Boxing Council middleweight title holder. A southpaw, Hope, 34, has a 23-7 win-loss record. “I am not fazed at all about the good stuff being said about Vijender,” he said. “I have been a pro boxer for 12 years. All that Vijender has achieved is at the amateur level.”
The World Boxing Council and Indian Boxing Council will jointly conduct the 10-round fight, and the tickets will be priced between Rs 1,000 and Rs 15,000.
Said Francis Warren, head of Queensberry Promotions, Vijender's UK promoter: “We selected the correct trainer and matched him according to what his development required at the time. We are four months ahead of schedule in terms of his fight for a title, but I wouldn't make the fight if he wasn't ready. The next chapter of his pro career is beginning and it is down to his hard work and dedication. He also needs to have the right people around him.”
Vijender's success can be attributed to a training camp of six to eight weeks, 12 to 14 hours of daily training and the aches, cuts and bruises that come with sparring with partners far better than him. He is no longer training for three rounds of three minutes each, but for 10 to 12 rounds. He follows a punishing regimen; there is no time for a breather. He eats, drinks and works out with stable mates like Jack Catterall, Adrian Gonzalez and Jimmy Kelly, all trained by coach Lee Beard.
After a gruelling training session, Vijender heads home to his wife, Archana, and son, Arbir. No buddies or relatives, just the three cooped up in an apartment. It is a life vastly different from the glamorous, party scene he was part of in India. Surrounded by coaches, managers and promoters, there is time for little else. Since turning pro, he has fought and won six bouts, the longest of which lasted five rounds. It was against Frenchman Matiouze Royer, and Vijender scored a technical knockout against him at the Copper Box Arena in London on April 30.
Vijender is an intelligent boxer, who is quick on his feet as well as in his thinking. And, these traits helped a seamless transition from a brash athlete into a suave, Page 3 personality. A champagne flute fit his hand as easily as his gloves. Now, he is adapting in a new environment, slowly making friends inside and outside the training hall. “People have started recognising me. Boxing is so big in England and I am a new fighter,” said Vijender.
Warren, too, banks on Vijender's acumen and says a world championship title could only be a matter of time. “His footwork and his work on the inside have improved a lot. But, for me, [what stands out] is his accuracy,” he said. “It was always one of his plus points, but now he is picking shots to do damage and really opening opponents up with his jab.... Add that to his naturally explosive power and aggression, and we have a combination that, in 12 to 18 months, will win him world titles. He has been excelling professionally outside the ring, and I commend him for that and the way he has taken to life as a pro fighter.”
Said IBC president Brigadier Muralidharan Raja: “I have seen Vijender as a boxer right from his junior days. Ever since he turned pro and started training in Manchester, Vijender has become a much leaner, fitter, faster and stronger boxer.”
Last month, Vijender was back in India for a two-week break, his second one in the past nine months. After some rest and recuperation with family, he did promo shoots with Star Sports, which has bought the rights to showcase his fights for a year. He then went to a film screening with actor Randeep Hooda, attended an Indian Premier League qualifier with cricketer Virender Sehwag, did some sponsorship work, attended a news conference to announce his title bout in Delhi and then flew back to England.
His brave decision to turn pro, amid protests, cynicism and controversies, seems to have worked both for him and his management team, led by Neerav Tomar.
Recently, the International Boxing Association announced that it would let pro boxers compete in the Olympics, so Vijender has a chance to go back to his amateur roots in Rio. “If I get a chance, of course, I will try to go, and even try to qualify in the Venezuela event,” said Vijender. Warren quickly shot down the idea. “Amateur and pro boxing should be separate,” he said. “It is unfair that young amateur boxers would be destroyed by experienced fighters at the Olympics.”
Said Raja: “That qualifier [in Venezuela] is in the first week of July; Vijender's title bout is on July 16. It is highly unlikely that he will go to Rio, unless he gets direct entry.”
For now, Vijender has his feet firmly planted in the pro boxing arena, where the numbers can be mind boggling. For instance, Floyd Mayweather Jr versus Manny Pacquiao was the most-watched pay-per-view event of all time. Official broadcasters HBO and Showtime reported more than three million pay-per-view buys. It was considered the most profitable fight in history, and Mayweather and Pacquiao split a total purse of approximately $600 million.
And Vijender is slowly becoming part of this extravaganza. His UK promoter has worked with some of the biggest names in boxing history, including Mike Tyson, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton. “To be honest, pro boxing in India starts with Vijender and currently ends there,” said Tomar. To usher in the new generation, the IBC, established soon after Vijender turned pro, is setting up the structure the boxers need to turn pro.
For his July bout, the promoters have worked out a three-hour package in the primetime slot. While the main fight of 12 rounds will last for about 30 minutes, the lengthy pre-bout programme will feature celebrities, including actors and cricketers, and is expected to have a famous presenter to amp up the crowd at the stadium. During his recent trip, Vijender invited bigwigs such as Board of Control for Cricket in India president Anurag Thakur and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. “Based on the concept of content is king, we are generating content for broadcasters,” said Tomar. “It is like a product launch for us. We are not looking to make money.” Vijender's promoter is eyeing the void in Asian boxing, where the only big name is Pacquiao.
Said Warren: “Governing bodies such as the World Boxing Organization have titles that are designed to find out the best regional fighters before compiling the world rankings. Vijender's next fight will give the winner a top 15 ranking. This is a huge event for Indian boxing. If Vijender wins this, he will become an internationally recognised, world-ranked contender, in front of 6,000 people in the nation's capital.”
Vijender has contracts with both his management agency and promoter, whereby he gets an amount regardless of the result, and also earnings on revenue-sharing basis. His first six bouts might not have pulled big crowds, but his promoters say his deal is “fantastic”.
And, Vijender is fully committed to this new world. “I get so much response and queries from other boxers at home on my Facebook or by email,” he said. “There are so many boxers out there who want to know more about the boxing scene.” Vijender, it seems, is learning the ropes, jab by jab.
Said Warren: “I have confidence in Vijender, and believe he will be winning this title in style.”