It is not often that boxing generates buzz in India. But 2019 was notable for as much action inside the ring as outside it. From the selection drama involving M.C. Mary Kom and Nikhat Zareen to failed dope tests to Amit Panghal's heroics, boxing in India this year saw it all.
One of the main reasons for the renewed interest in the sport was the inaugural edition of the Big Bout Indian Boxing League. The league, backed by the Boxing Federation of India (BFI), is owned by Delhi-based Sportzlive, which also owns the Premier Badminton League and leagues in handball and volleyball.
It offered a prize money of Rs 3 crore and featured six teams—Punjab Panthers, Bombay Bullets, Gujarat Giants, NE (northeast) Rhinos, Odisha Warriors and Bengaluru Brawlers. The Big Bout league ran from December 2 to December 21 and was broadcast by Star. The final saw the Giants, captained by world championship silver medallist (52kg) Amit Panghal, complete a thrilling comeback from 0-2 down to beat the Panthers 4-3.
The Punjab outfit’s captain, six-time world champion Mary Kom, missed the final because of an injury. But she was at the centre of arguably the biggest ‘story’ in Indian boxing in 2019—her rivalry with rising star Zareen. It was a clash of generations—Zareen, from Telangana, was four when the now 36-year-old Kom won her first Manipur state championship in 2000. Zareen came into the limelight by winning the junior world championship (51kg) in 2011.
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With Zareen’s arrival on the scene, it looked like India had a strong contender in the 51kg category and with Kom going strong in her preferred 48kg category, all seemed well for the national team’s prospects. However, after the lower weight classes were eliminated for the Olympics, Kom was forced to switch to the 51kg category. She went on to win a historic bronze at London Olympics in 2012. Kom switched back to the 48kg category after failing to qualify for Rio 2016, while Zareen continued to shine.
However, with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, Kom returned to the 51kg category in a bid to reach her second Olympics. Zareen was waiting for her. But Magnificent Mary once again proved her mettle by beating Zareen in the semifinals of the 2019 India Open. This win, along with Kom’s past achievements, was cited by the BFI as the reason she was chosen ahead of Zareen in the 51kg category for the world championships in Russia in September this year.
Kom returned with a bronze—her eighth medal at the world championships—making her the most successful boxer, male or female, in the history of the competition. The BFI had announced that gold or silver medallists at the world championship would automatically get India’s berths at the Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifiers to be held in China in February 2020. But, they tweaked the policy and chose Kom for the 51kg category.
Zareen objected and her social media posts, which got the attention of Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, forced the BFI to say that Kom would have to face Zareen in the trials in December. Going by her responses to the media, Kom was less than happy. The two faced off in the much-awaited bout on December 28 in Delhi. The veteran outpunched her much younger opponent and won 9-1 to earn her berth at the Olympic qualifiers.
The rivalry seems to be far from over as Kom refused to shake hands with Zareen after the bout. But as far as the Olympics is concerned, Zareen will have to take over from Kom in the weight category by 2024, because, by then, the latter will be above 40 and therefore not eligible for Olympic competition.
For most part, Indian boxing had lots to celebrate and it started with the season-opening Strandja Memorial, one of Europe's oldest and most competitive tournaments. Panghal's 2019 gold rush began in the tournament, which was also his last competition in the 49kg category.
Panghal moved up to 52kg in March and though he sounded a bit nervous about the shift, the results told a different story. He grabbed a gold immediately, at the Asian Championships in April, to assert his supremacy in the new division.
Apart from Panghal’s silver at the 2019 world championships, Manish Kaushik was the only other Indian male boxer to win a medal (bronze, 63kg). The silver made Panghal the undisputed top name in Indian men's boxing and he capped the year by winning the Best Boxer Award at the BFI's first ever pro-style league.
As for the women, 20-year-old Manju Rani, who lost her father—a BSF man—to cancer in 2010, found the individual glory she was looking for when she took to the sport. She was the lone Indian to make the women's world championship final this time and signed off with a silver medal in 48kg. The iconic Mary Kom had to be content with a bronze this time. Jamuna Boro and Lovlina Borgohain, too, won bronze in 54kg and 69kg categories respectively. The men and the women had identical hauls—13 medals (2 gold, 4 silver, 7 bronze) at the Asian Championship in April.
In the professional circuit, Indian boxing’s poster boy and first ever Olympic medallist (bronze, 2008) Vijender Singh extended his unbeaten run to 12 matches. Following in Singh’s footsteps Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Vikas Krishnan Yadav made his professional debut in January 2019. Both are now signed to the US promotion Top Rank, which has promoted Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao.
On the flip side, the accomplished duo of Neeraj Phogat (women's camp) and Sumit Sangwan (men's camp) flunked dope tests, sending down shockwaves within the fraternity.
The sport itself remained in doldrums internationally with the International Boxing Association taking charge of the Olympic qualification process and the conduct of the competition in the Olympics.
This was after AIBA failed to convince IOC of its financial well-being and integrity, which took a severe hit during the 2016 Rio Olympics due to poor judging.
The coming year promises to be a big one for Indian boxing in which both the seasoned stars and the up and coming ones would look to offset the disappointment of 2016 Games, where India failed to win any boxing medal for men and didn't have a qualified pugilist in the women's draw.
India squad for the Olympic qualifiers
51kg: M.C. Mary Kom
57kg: Sakshi Chaudhary
60kg: Simranjit Chakar
69kg: Lovlina Borgohain
75kg: Pooja Rani
Amit Panghal (52kg)
Gaurav Solanki (57kg)
Manish Kaushik (63 kg)
Vikas Krishan (69kg)
Ashish Kumar (75kg)
Sachin Kumar (81kg)
Naman Tanwar (91kg)
Satish Kumar (+91kg)
(With PTI inputs)