Two years back, arrived a puzzlingly mediocre Hindi film called Fugly. Part political drama, part buddy flick, Vijender Singh – otherwise known as Indian Amateur Boxing’s first ever Olympic medalist (in 2008, Beijing, Bronze) – played a CM’s spoiled Jatt son who turns over a new leaf with his bunch of Delhi friends. I remember wondering if this was the Anna-Kournikovization we were witnessing of perhaps India’s most promising boxing career in forever. After all, it had been two years since he had failed to repeat his bronze medal performance in the London Olympics, losing in the quarterfinals. Only months before the event, he had been arrested in a drug-raid conducted at his Chandigarh residence – an incident that almost made everyone forget that he was once the middleweight amateur top-ranked boxer in the world and the winner of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award.
Yet, here he was, seemingly smack in the middle of a dark biopic of a young star falling prey to fame and fortune.
The movie was a disaster. Singh, everyone’s favorite pin-up boy, wanted to bring boxing back into the mainstream limelight of the nation. Instead, he took a shine to the limelight himself, and began to make a career out of it. I wondered if, in his late 20s now, it was too late for him to resurrect a career. But then again, Sania Mirza found her groove after traversing the same graph too, becoming a top-ranked doubles player after struggling through her singles career with injuries and her country with controversies surrounding her marriage.
Last year, I read an article about Vijender Singh – that good-looking future hero of Punjabi movies – training hard, and alone, in gloomy Manchester. He had food and acclimatization issues, but he just wanted to be heard really. After all, he was still a kid away from home.
He had knuckled down, thrown it all away less than a year before the Olympics by wanting to turn pro (only amateurs compete at the Olympics), and was living the solitary disciplined life expected from most world-class athletes. He had secured a multi-year agreement with Frank Warren’s Queensbury Promotions, and understood that this – and not Bollywood and showbiz – was his chance to put India on the boxing fast-track. Instead of focusing on boxing’s popularity within his own country, he began to focus on his own country’s popularity within the world.
He fought Sonny Whitling in October at the Manchester Arena last year, in his first professional fight. He won by technical knockout in Round Three of Four. Finally, at age 29, he was a professional boxer. He had tasted blood. Never before had his country’s imagination been captured this way by his sport. People took notice. India has a boxer, to go with Pakistan-origin two-time World Champion Amir Khan. Perhaps they will fight one day.
Over his next five fights all over the UK, Singh knocked out all his opponents. He grew in confidence, 6 on 6, and was finally scheduled for the biggest fight of his career: Australian journeyman Kerry Hope for the vacant WBO Asia Pacific Super MiddleWeight title. The title sounded made-up, like a motivational tool for him to succeed further. But it was legit. For the first time, he fought in front of his home crowd, in New Delhi. And for the first time, he was made to work for his victory – he danced 10 rounds with the Australian, out-boxing him in the initial few rounds, as he was always accustomed to fight for lesser rounds, but tiring as the match went on. He won by a unanimous judges’ decision. Watching on were India’s acting superstars, and India’s cricket superstars – all the people he once wanted to become in order to give boxing a higher profile. Now, they were watching him and cheering him on, speaking for him and pretending to understand the sport. This was a start.
30-year-old Vijender Singh then told the world how he wanted to face Amir Khan. 29-year-old Amir Khan replied, like a father calming down an inexperienced kid: Singh needs to fight for another couple of years before reaching his level. He needs more experience. He would destroy his career if they fought now, despite Khan having undergone two surgeries on his wrist recently.
Whatever the case, Singh is now in the position to dream. He is in the position to sound overexcited and brash. It has been a short journey, but this is only his comeback – one that he was meant to do years ago. Now, he has to make up for lost time. This is only the beginning. A loss within his next five fights will hurt his career, given his age, which is why he cannot afford to slip up.
Not for one single moment, not for a film or a modeling assignment, and not for any amateur attractions.