Earlier this year, when 18-year-old Shiva Thapa became the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the London Olympics, the countrys count in the Games ring went up to seven, the highest ever for the nation. Thapa, who competes in the 56 kg bantam-weight category not only won the quota, but also claimed the title in the Asian qualifiers in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Though the likes of Asian Games silver medallist Manpreet Singh and Commonwealth Games (CWG) champion Paramjeet Singh Samota missed the bus to London, it was perhaps the strongest ever contingent for the event. After Beijing Olympics, where Vijender Singh won the bronze medal, Indian boxing saw the emergence of young boxers like Vikas Yadav, who claimed the bronze medal in the 2011 World Championships in Baku and a young Devendro Singh, who shocked favourites like CWG silver medallist Amandeep Singh and the 2007 World Youth Champion Nanao Singh to bag a quota in 49 kg for London.
But in London, the failure of the Indian boxers, many of whom came close to entering the medal round, including Vijender, meant that Indian boxing was again on the back foot. If Vikas Yadavs first-round defeat and Manoj Kumars quarterfinal loss were a result of dubious umpiring, Vijender Singhs reversal in the quarters of the 75 kg category to old foe Uzbekistans Abbos Atoev had to do with the Beijing heros injuries.
But what was heartening was the fearless show by 18-year-old Devendro Singh against Irelands Paddy Barnes in the quarterfinals in the 49 kg category. The Manipuri boxer impressed many with his swift feet and showed that he was a boxer to watch out for. Young boxers Devendro and Manoj Kumars performances also meant that the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) also praised the Indian boxing team after the London Olympics. Four of the seven boxers, who went to London, are under 20 and the experience gained in London will surely help them in the long term. If Vijender Singh became the first Indian to be ranked number one in world rankings in 2009, the rankings of Devendro Singh (five) and Vikas Krishan Yadav (three) show the talent India has.
Post-London, none of the seven boxers participated in the Nationals held in Hyderabad in November. But the fact that more than 20 boxers who have won medals in the World Junior Championships were taking part in the event speaks about the talent India has in boxing. Boxers like Naveen Kumar, Vikas Khatri and Mandeep Jangra went on to win medals and impressed the selectors and national coach Gurbax Sngh Sandhu. The national camp now sees 60 boxers instead of the usual 44, and most of them would hope to get medals in the 2014 CWG and Asian Games.
But one thing which can hamper the growth of Indian boxing is Indias absence in the World Series of Boxing and AIBAs Professional Boxing programme. With the Mumbai franchise opting to stay out of the event this year and AIBA tweaking the rules relating to headgear and protective equipment next year, it remains to be seen if Indian boxers will be able to keep pace in this ever-changing sport.
For Indias star boxer Vijender Singh, it will not be just about adjusting to the rule change. Having made up his mind to compete in the 81 kg category at the Rio 2016, Vijender will be entering a whole new world. He would have to compete with heavier men. Considering that Vijender banks on his slick footwork to score points, he will enjoy a distinct advantage over other slow movers. But more importantly, it will be the tall boxers mental strength that will decide his fate in the new category. Maybe, the new challenge will see him spending several more hours sweating it out while training to be a medal contender in the Rio Games.
But the biggest fear for Indian boxers is isolation. AIBAs suspension of the Indian Boxing Federation means that seniors like Vijender and the juniors alike will not be able to compete in international tournaments under the Indian flag. It is ironic that the day AIBA suspended the Indian body, our youth boxers won three medals in the World Youth Championships in Yerewan, Armenia. Narender Berwal won the silver medal in a category (91 kg) usually dominated by European boxers, and LP Prasad and Sandeep Sharma won bronze medals in the 49 kg and 75 kg, respectively. In a year or two, these boxers will join the seniors in the national camp and their emergence now is a good sign for Indian boxing.
Over the years, boxers like Vikas Yadav and Shiva Thapa have been able to hone their skills under coaches MS Dhaka and GM Manoharan, respectively, and for Indian boxing to be powerhouse like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Italy, India will need to see more boxers like them. Unlike the pre-Beijing days, many boxers hail from the north eastern states. And their tendency to maintain their weight over the years makes them key members of the Indian team.
The Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are scheduled to be held in 2014. And the coming year will also see Indian boxers taking part in World Championships, an event which will provide them tough competition. And to become a powerhouse in the boxing world, Indian boxers will have to win medals and prove themselves.