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Rediff.com  » Sports » 'Vijender is poised to break into the big league'

'Vijender is poised to break into the big league'

July 15, 2016 09:09 IST

'If a person whom Vijender had thrashed earlier is now a World champion, why can't Vijender be champion now too?'

Vijender Singh during a live training session

IMAGE: Vijender Singh during a live training session. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

Vijender Singh, the Olympics bronze medalist, hopes to set another milestone in Indian sporting history as he gears up for his first pro bout in front of home fans in New Delhi on Saturday, July 16.

Questions were raised when the Olympian decided to give up his amateur status for pro boxing last year, with critics claiming he had given up on his country for the big bucks of the professional league.

Vijender silenced all naysayers with a smashing start in the professional circuit, winnikng his first six bouts via knock-outs.

P K Muralidharan Raja, former secretary-general, Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, launched the Indian Boxing Council -- a national body that sanctions professional boxing -- last year with a view to give boxers another platform to get to the top level.

Raja, who has been involved with Indian boxing for more than 35 years in various roles -- he was India's chef de mission at the 2012 Olympics in London, believes Vijender will be a path-breaker for pro boxing in the country.

Raja tells Rediff.com's Harish Kotian about Vijender's big pro bout in New Delhi and its impact on boxing in India.

PK Muralidharan Raja

IMAGE: P K Muralidharan Raja, founder, Indian Boxing Council.

How big a boost is it for pro boxing in India that a boxer of the calibre of Vijender Singh will be seen in front of his home fans?

It is one of the biggest events as far as Indian boxing is concerned, in a long, long time after the Olympic medals of Vijender Singh and M C Mary Kom.

Pro boxing is an in-thing in the rest of the world, but in India we are lagging, probably because we were focussing more on the amateur level. But it has stabilised our boxing standards.

So, now, it is logical that we move on to pro boxing. We have talent in plenty and we have thousands of boxers who do not have a space in amateur boxing because amateur boxing is the pyramid; it is only one person at the top, whereas in pro boxing it is not so; there are so many people who get chances, there are so many different titles and so many different levels.

And even if you have some losses, you can still bounce back and make a comeback.

There are World champions who have initially had 3, 4 losses, but they bounced back to become World champions and top boxers of their time.

This is not the case in amateur boxing. If you are not in the camp or you are not there in the Indian team, you are out of the whole equation.

Generally, in amateur boxing, the peak is around 24 to 25 years and it's finished after that. In pro boxing, you can stretch your career up to the age of 37 or 38, or we have seen some World champs after turning 40.

But then every amateur boxer can't become a pro boxer. You need guts, you need endurance and the staying power, because you got to fight eight rounds, 10 rounds or sometimes even 12 rounds, unlike in amateur where you have only three rounds.

In pro boxing you have big money too. Now that they have started in India, the initial payments would not be good because we don't have big promoters, but once our boxers come up to some standards, which I am hoping will happen in the next few months, and we are able to make them participate in tournaments outside India, they shall be earning pretty decently.

If somebody reaches the level of the World title challenge fight or at the top level, you are talking in the range of $100,000 to anywhere between $200,000 fights.

So there is a lot of hope for boxers and there is name, fame and money at the same time, and I believe Vijender is the path-finder for that.

It is a beginning and it is a good beginning for pro boxing in India.

Indian Boxing Council's founder P K Muralidharan Raja offers Vijender Singh his first Pro Boxing License in Delhi on July 14, 2015

IMAGE: Indian Boxing Council founder P K Muralidharan Raja offers Vijender his first Pro Boxing License in Delhi, July 14, 2015. Photograph: @iosindiaofficial/Twitter

You think it was worth the gamble for Vijender to sign up with pro boxing and give up the chance to have a crack at possibly another Olympic medal?

Of course, he would have moved someday.

As far as his amateur career is concerned, how long could he have continued his career?

There are already so many youngsters who have come up and, anyway, Vikas Krishnan was in his weight category, so they would have had to fight it out for that one slot for the Olympics.

Or Vijender might have had to move to 81kg, but his body is more suited for the 75kg category where he can do well.

Vijender is a great fighter. Whatever he had to do, he has done it. If you are talking of the Olympics, he has represented India in three Olympics and whatever was possible at the amateur level he has done and he could not do anything more at that level.

It is not only a question of making money. Every sportsman likes to remain in the spotlight as long as he can.

And when it comes to pro boxing, there is a boxer called Jack Badou from Gambia. He is now in the US. He is a current World champion for some weight category for either WBC or IBF in the super middleweight category.

He had faced Vijender in the amateur category in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I remember Vijender had thrashed him 13-2 in that bout. That man is the current World champion and his fights are a minimum $100,000 each.

So if a person whom Vijender had thrashed earlier is now a World champion, why can't Vijender be champion now too? It's only a question of getting the right people to guide and help him.

I would say it was absolutely the correct decision. He is a talented boxer and he is brilliant; he is intelligent and he has all the requisites for a world class boxer.

Whatever was lacking is probably being filled up by Francis Warren and his team. He is getting real professional training and coaching, which unfortunately we wanted, but could not give because we didn't have the kind of coaches or other such facilities.

Vijender has a full team working on him. He has a boxing coach, a dietician, a trainer, a psychologist. Such are the things you need in India for boxers in the Olympic squads, but in India it doesn't work like that.

Right now, he is well-poised to break into the big league. In pro boxing, the top 15 boxers are really good, the rest are like padded up. It all depends on your promoter, on how you get the right line and other things.

Probably Vijender also had a few easy bouts earlier, but now onwards it will be tough.

I am told that if he wins this bout he will be moving to the top-15 ranking in his weight category.

Once that happens, the actual work starts, because every fight he will have, it will be against a ranked boxer in the top-15 and that is not going to be easy because they will be all 10-round or 12-round contests and it will have big money involved.

That's why I say, Vijender has laid the path for others and we have plenty of Vijenders in the pipeline. So all in all, it is exciting days ahead.

Vijender Singh celebrates

IMAGE: Vijender celebrates a victory. Photograph: Dave Thompson/Getty Images

Has Vijender's success attracted more Indians towards pro boxing?

Yes, there are more boxers taking up pro boxing, but it is not only because of Vijender.

To put it across in another way, Vijender has got his own following of boxers, but as you must realise among the sportsperson community if there is one Sachin Tendulkar he will have people who are his fans from the sporting community and he will have his detractors also.

So there are people who are not in the Vijender camp, but have come on their own, and there are a huge lot of them.

It is also because amateur boxing is virtually finished in India, especially over the last four years.

There have been no proper National championships held. All the juniors, who were 18 in 2012, have not had an opportunity to play seniors. Many of them have gone to other disciplines like karate, taekwondo and some of them have migrated to pro boxing.

When we made the announcement last year to launch the Indian Boxing Council there has been tremendous interest level.

You look at a normal boxer who wants to turn pro, he sees a route now. Yes, there is Vijender, but if you talk to the other boxers they will say hum bhi kam nahi hai (We are not any lesser, we can also do well).

Vijender is the path-breaker for Indian boxing. He is a beacon, I would say; others are following him but then everybody wants to come out on their own.

After the London Olympics, all these guys were waiting to turn pro, like Shiva Thapa, Vikas Krishan and Sumit Sangwan. All of them were sending us messages and telling us to make them a part of pro boxing.

Vijender Singh (left) in action against Dean Gillen during their middleweight bout

IMAGE: Vijender, left, in action against Dean Gillen during their middleweight bout. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Would AIBA's decision to give pro boxers at shot at the Olympics attract more boxers to this format?

That certainly helps in a country like India, but it won't make much of a difference in countries like the USA, UK or France, which has already got pro boxing in a big way.

In India, the stigma of pro boxing is still there. All the government people, like the army, railways, all of them see pro boxing and say, 'there is money, we will not promote that. We should have only Olympic sports.'

We, in the Indian Boxing Council, are giving only peanuts as compared to other sports like cricket, kabaddi, etc, but there is still an objection because people come up and say 'this is pro boxing.'

In cricket, you can play leagues and make money. Similarly, you can play leagues in kabaddi, tennis, hockey and earn money.

When it comes to pro boxing, all the government bodies, especially the army, seem to be having a problem. I have had a discussion with the army chief and requested him, so hopefully (it will be resolved).

So, to these people, the AIBA decision would be helpful because they will say since AIBA has approved it, the government can also give its nod to the whole thing.

But I doubt if pro boxers will ever go for AIBA events or Olympic qualification events because if it was fair and square they would have gone.

If they would have had an eight-round or a 10-round fight they would have gone. The pro boxers who go for Olympic qualification events will fight under amateur rules, refereed and judged by amateur referees and judges.

If a pro boxer wins, people will say, 'he was obviously expected to win, he is a strong boxer,' but if he loses due to some reason then everyone will point fingers at him.

The young kids in amateur boxing will just run around; they are very fast. They will just tap and look to score. The tap, which is counted as a score in amateur boxing, is not counted as a score in pro boxing.

So this thing of allowing pro boxers in the Olympics is a pure publicity stunt by the AIBA to get more eyeballs because they were not getting much importance in the last few years.

Just now in Venezuela we had this Olympic qualification tournament, but I don't think many pro boxers had gone to take part; so it has not served any purpose, I would say.

Vijender Singh during a training session  

IMAGE: Vijender during a live training session at the Phoenix Market City Mall in Mumbai. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

How many boxers have signed up for pro boxing in India?

You will be surprised to hear that I have got more than 180 boxers signed up as of now. The three fights which we have organised -- the Indian Boxing Council's IBC 1, 2 and 3 and the Golden Gloves -- we have staged around 40 fights.

There are around 150 more boxers waiting for fights and another 200 plus boxers have been sending letters to get registered.

If you look at it, in six months' time we will have around 800 to 1,000 boxers and after this event on Saturday we will be having regular fights across the country.

We have successfully set up everything in three years. We announced it last year but we have been working on it since 2012 to set up the whole thing, set up rules, regulations, officials, judges, referees, doctors, software and everything else.

It is an opportunity and opening for boxers and amateur is not the end-all or the be-all for boxers in India.

You were part of the Indian Boxing Federation for a long time and have followed Vijender's career all through. Were you surprised by his sensational start to pro boxing or was it something you expected?

I was not surprised because I knew that in pro boxing when you are picked up by a promoter it means that you have something in you.

The promoter will only pick you if you have got talent and have the potential to make it big. They will build his career gradually and they will never put him up against stronger opponents at the start of his career. They will gradually raise the level of his opponents.

Vijender is now feeling confident after six wins in a row. I don't think even this opponent, Kerry Hope, will be that tough. He should finish off the bout in the fifth or sixth round.

Hope does not have too many knock-outs to his credit nor is he a hard-hitter. I expect Vijender to win this one.

How big a blow has the suspension of the Indian Boxing Federation been for Indian boxers, especially going into the Olympics? Is that the reason why only so many boxers qualified for Rio? How do you think we can get out of this sorry situation?

The only way out for them is, I think, they will need to have elections. They have to have a new body, they have to elect a new president, secretary and other office-bearers; basically, somebody has to take charge.

Vijender during an interaction with students in Mumbai on Wednesday

IMAGE: Vijender during an interaction with students in Mumbai on Wednesday, July 13. Photograph: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

What do you think went wrong? This is the problem for the last four years...

See, there have been different groups; they have not been able to see eye to eye. Hopefully, I wish they do it quickly because it has been a big loss to boxing in India. I would have stayed on there, but due to this issue in 2012 we had to quit.

We could have continued when we quit in 2012; it was only the government's Sports Code which took us out.

As far as elections and votes were concerned, everyone wanted us to continue -- Mr (Abhay Singh) Chautala as the president and me as the secretary-general. If elections would have been held, we would have been elected unanimously because we were getting the results.

From 2004 (the Olympics in Athens) when we had zero results to having eight boxers qualifying for the London Olympics, we were in the take-off mode as far as the 2016 Games was concerned.

We had so many plans, so many things put in place for 2016, but the then sports minister, Ajay Maken, brought in the Sports Code, saying that any secretary-general doing two terms must have a cooling off period and, similarly, three terms for the president and then out.

I had met Ajay Maken in London during the 2012 Olympics. I told him that we have our team working well and all the plans are in place and if a new body comes in there will be a lot of confusion.

Our team is in a position to take us to the next Olympics and everything is planned. I told him to give us four years' time and by then we would have a second line prepared to take over the posts of president and secretary and other posts and the handover would be smooth.

But once when we came back all the bureaucrats objected to the extension, saying if it was given to one sport it will have to be extended to others sports as well. So that one decision turned down the whole thing and our request was rejected.

Once we were out, everybody wanted to be in the driver's seat, but now nobody wants to take control because nobody knows how to do things, and that is how the whole thing is in a mess right now.

How's the response for the pro boxing event on Saturday, July 16?

The response has been tremendous. I am not aware of the tickets sales, but I believe it has been very good.

Whatever people have seen or heard about pro boxing it has not been that great.

They get to see only Manny Pacquiao or Floyd Mayweather fight and now they see Vijender fighting, but that too just for two or three rounds. They have not seen proper fights which have gone the distance.

On Saturday, Vijender's fight is slated for around 9 pm, but we start at 5 pm. We have got 10 fights lined up, including about five international contests and one Indian title for the super welterweight.

Vijender will be the final fight of the night and we will have undercards fight before that big bout. So people will get to see four-rounders or six-rounders and all fights will be without any protection for the boxers.

I can assure you that it will be money's worth for everyone who comes to watch the bouts.

Harish Kotian / Rediff.com