See him strut around on television, with his now-trademark pose of gloved arms framing his face. Vijender Singh’s punches tell a tale—the Olympic bronze medallist has won all nine bouts that he has fought as a pro- boxer in a little over a year. His latest victory, over Chinese No. 1 Zulpikar Maimaitiali this month, fetched him both the WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight and the WBO Oriental Super Middleweight belts. There was, however, a not-so-encouraging side to ‘Battleground Asia’ on August 5, the day Vijender won his 10-round double title fight in Mumbai. Six other Indians—including pro-boxing debutants and 2008 Olympic quarter-finalists Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar—also won their bouts. But all the hype was only around Vijender.
A partisan media reported in glowing terms 31-year-old Vijender’s well-deserved triumph, and largely ignored the other winners—they are perhaps not deemed marketable. The handsome Vijender continues to be the most sought after Indian boxer, while the others play second fiddle, despite performing extremely well at the amateur level—and even in the pro arena. A good example is 26-year-old Neeraj Goyat, who made his pro debut in 2011—four years before Vijender—and has fought 13 bouts so far, registering nine wins, including the successful defence of his WBC Asia Welterweight belt on August 5. But not many outside the boxing circuit know of his achievements. Even Akhil Kumar (junior weltereight), Jitender Kumar (lightweight), Kuldeep Dhanda (lightweight), Pardeep Kharera (welterweight), and Dharmender Grewal (cruiserweight) won their non-title bouts on the same day as Virender’s big game, but were just ignored.
That is the flip side of pro-boxing in India. It is riding solely on the back of the talismanic Vijender, the showman who bid goodbye to his Olympic dreams after London 2012 and turned pro in 2015. Another reason is that pro-boxing promoters are a fragmented lot, with many trying to make a quick buck by organising small shows. Neerav Tomar, CEO & MD of IOS Sports and Entertainment, the company that has signed the likes of Vijender, Akhil and Jitender, agrees. “The market is being built. I don’t know how it will work if all join hands, because our earlier attempt didn’t succeed. The problem is many boxers are looking at short-term gains,” he says. Vijender too is aware of this, but is fine with the scattered promoters. “They cannot come together; you can’t put two swords in one case. They can organise shows, but should always put boxers’ interests above anything else. There are very few people in the Indian sports industry who keep athletes’ benefits in mind,” Vijender tells Outlook. He advises boxers to sign only with reliable companies with in-depth knowledge of the field and that they must always get their contracts vetted by lawyers. He then discloses his ambitious plan: “I will soon launch my own company, Vijender Singh Promotions, and will sign the talented for pro-boxing. They will train at my academy. If all goes well, pro-boxing will spread further in India.”
Vijender was probably encouraged by the huge response he has received since turning pro. “Two boxers who were also at the 2008 Olympics, Akhil and Jitender, were nowhere aftterwards, but as soon I turned pro, they too joined—and now there’s a long queue,” says Vijender, looking back at the last one year. Interestingly, the Boxing Federation of India (BFI), the officially recognised body that organises amateur boxing, also feels all can coexist. “Pro-boxing is like a filmi world; one needs to get a licence to organise bouts. Personally, I would like people to come together. If not, they can coexist. I believe in the adage ‘live and let live’,” says Jay Kowli, secretary-general of BFI and a former boxer.
One of many pro-boxing promoters is the India Boxing Council (IBC), which was launched in 2015 by P.K. Muralidharan Raja, a former secretary of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF), the predecessor of the BFI. Raja, whose plan of conducting bouts in different Indian cities hasn’t materialised, is now in favour of all promoters coming under one banner. “A few months ago, I even met BFI president Ajay Singh with a proposal (that they join hands with IBC). But I haven’t heard from the BFI,” he says. But Vijender warns of some promoters who are just fly-by-night. “A lot of greedy people have come into it. They feel there is a lot of money to be made in pro-boxing. But my aim will be to see that boxers who sweat and bleed in the ring should be happy,” he avers.
Raja feels there is no market for pro-boxing at the moment. “Promoters cash in on a few big names like Vijender’s.... We tell sponsors to first help us build a product, like cricket, and then expect returns,” he says. On the other hand, long-standing chief national coach Gurbaksh Singh Sandhu feels India has a good market for pro-boxing. “If professionals organise it well, it can go far, I’m very confident about that. But Vijender alone can’t sell it; if needed, boxers from abroad will have to be brought in. At present, these bodies are fighting amongst themselves. If the BFI itself gets into pro-boxing, it would be a positive step,” says the chief coach of Elite Team India (women).
Clock wise from top left, Neeraj Goyat, Akhil Kumar, Jitender Kumar and Kuldeep Dhanda
Well, the BFI is indeed planning a pro-league, and its secretary Kowli says it could be a reality by the end of the year. “It would cater to a large number of boxers. And we will apply the strict safety rules of the AIBA (International Boxing Association) and good governance,” he emphasises. BFI started planning after the AIBA decided last year to allow professionals to compete at the Olympics. It opened a new avenue for boxers, including Akhil, and many amateurs in India have since turned professionals. “The reason to join pro-boxing is my desire to box, whether it is Olympic style or pro, which will be there till my body allows me,” says 36-year-old Akhil. “Also, pro-boxing will open the window for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. AIBA has opened that window for pro-boxers.”
Vijender welcomes the BFI move to organise the league. “When so many companies are organising pro-boxing, let there be another one, if that benefits boxers...the main concern should be that boxers should get good money and their lifestyle should improve. Speaking from experience, a boxer has to work a lot besides training; I’ve to go to media and sell my shows, only then people come to watch me,” he says, adding that it’s up to the youth to take pro-boxing forward. “I’m aware that a lot needs to be done. Cricket is more popular, it is well organised.... The start has been good, and now it’s up to young boxers, how far they take it forward,” says Vijender.
But Indian boxers are not turning pro at the right time, points out veteran coach T.L. Gupta, who says it’s a tough transition. “Pro-boxing is very tough and making a comeback to it is still tougher. Even legends like Muhammad Ali, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Evander Holyfield found it tough on their comebacks. Fighting continuous bouts is a must. You cannot win an international medal, then take a long break. Akhil and Jitender, who have staged comebacks, will have to maintain their weights as well,” he warns.
Akhil and Jitender, 29, are also close friends of Vijender. But will they be able to emulate the handsome Haryanvi? It also remains to be seen if the much talked about Vijender-Amir Khan bout takes place. Vijender says he’s keen to fight the British boxer of Pakistan origin. “Why not? Hundred per cent it’ll happen; very soon it’ll happen. It’s going to be amazing and it will be the ‘Fight of the Century’ and people will love it because Amir is a good boxer and my friend. And, he has been a world champion, of course,” he says. That fight is some months away, and it may not exactly be reliving the days of Mike Tyson at the height of his powers, but it seems a world reputation is within the tantalising reach of Vijender.