Amit Panghal was born premature and spent the first five years of his life as a sickly child suffering from repeated bouts of pneumonia. But neither his small build nor a childhood spent visiting the doctor every week could stop the boy from playing pranks on towering village elders of Haryana or picking fights with bigger blokes. The 23-year-old brings the same cheeky confidence to the boxing ring, where he is shredding bigger reputations, the latest being three consecutive wins over World/Olympic medallists at the Asian Championships in Bangkok in April.
"Back then, he would listen to the complaining neighbours with full respect," recalls elder brother Ajay of the brat who'd stand chastised with head bowed down. "But next day, it would be the same all over again," he laughs.
Having beaten Rio Olympics bronze medallist Hu Jianghuan of China and World Championship bronze medallist Kim Inkyu of Korea in the 52kg final, after reducing the combative Rio gold medallist Hasanboy Dusmatov of Uzbekistan to a blundering bunny, Panghal won't hold back against the non-Asian challengers - current world champ Yosbeny Veitia and Rio silver winner Yoel Finol - when he runs into them eventually. Punching above his weight was what his village, 7km off Rohtak, remembers of the boy since his pre-teens.
Small for his age, the restless lad was known to turn up on village streets and pull elders' bicycles from behind, steal marbles from other children and run after kites. While elder brother Ajay would win bronze medals in the Haryana State Championships twice in the late 2000s, the older sibling's time was also spent placating neighbours. "He looked weak but he'd never shy away from picking up a fight or playing some mischief. He'd steal kanchaas during a game or run away with somebody’s kites and run so fast that nobody could catch him," Ajay recalls.
In Bangkok last month, scything through big reputations proved to be a turning point in Amit's career - bigger than his Asian Games gold - believes coach C Kuttappa. "I have worked closely with Vijender Singh, Suranjoy Singh and Vikas Krishan. But I must say, Amit is the cleverest of them all. He punches as swiftly as he backtracks and that's his biggest strength. He knows that he is short but that does not stop him from trying to win. I'd call him an aggressive boxer, not a passive one," the coach says.
Panghal would previously take longer to study opponents. "In Bangkok against the Chinese boxer, Amit knew he had to avoid medium and long range punches as the opponent was tall and caught him at close range. Against the Korean in the final, his counter-attack worked and he showed that he does not fear close range," explains Kuttappa. For a premature kid who'd struggled with persistent health problems, Panghal had grown up pretty pugnacious.
It could be down to the earliest fight sequences he watched repeatedly: those starring Dharmendra in the movie Dharam Veer that played on a loop once a day on the local cable network. Panghal would sit with his father Vijender Singh in their two-room house in the village Myna near Rohtak and clap deliriously every time the action hunk started punching the baddies and ape his dance from the 20-inch CRT TV. It was his parents' way of keeping him still for a few hours and not run riot with his myriad mischiefs.
"Almost every evening, I'd watch Dharam ji’s movies and sometimes, we asked the local cable guy to repeat Dharam Veer. Amit would sit in my lap and not stop clapping and jumping when the fight scenes happened. For him, Dharam ji was the world's best fighter," remembers 50-year-old Vijender.
At the village ground, Panghal was known for his pin-point accuracy to target kanchaas inside the circle - now, it's punches he dodges and lands precisely. He'd follow his brother into training under coach Anil Dhankar at Chowdhary Chottu Ram Boxing Club soon after, riding pillion on Ajay's bicycle.
Panghal would demand new gloves daily, but he’d be given only hand-downs from other trainees. "When I started to train at the village, Ajay would give me some old gloves of his friend and all I thought was to train. I kept pestering him for new gloves but he'd steer the conversation always to what to do in the ring. When I won the gold at sub-junior nationals in 2009, I won a new pair of boxing gloves," Panghal recalls. He'd offer the new pair to his coach who'd say, "Your gold is enough for me. Train with these gloves and win more such medals," he recalls. Next year, he'd become junior national champion.
It was the same year coach Dhankar got transferred to Gurgaon and it meant Panghal too had to shift base. With his father's expenses set to rise, elder brother Ajay decided to leave boxing and sought recruitment with the Indian Army.
Panghal’s grandfather Jagmal had been an honorary captain in the army. Vijender tilled his one-acre farm and his father's army pension brought in some modest additions. But Panghal’s training also meant Vijender often borrowed from relatives and friends. "I'd ask for some money as I didn't want Amit’s training to suffer. We did what was possible, but now when I look at the medals he's brought from the Asian Games, I realise nothing I did must've been enough for a boy as talented as Amit," says the father.
"When I first saw Amit, he was below 25kg at the age of 10 but his movement was very fast. He competed in the 26kg sub-junior category and would often defeat heavier boxers," coach Dhankar recalls. He'd win the Haryana state title in 2013, still a junior, but would not be allowed to at the senior nationals since he was below age.
L Devendro Singh was the livewire in his weight category, often edging out Panghal, but other issues dogged his transition too. Kuttappa remembers dealing with an impatient Panghal. "He was very naughty when he joined the camp. He'd come to training 2-3 days late after weekly holidays. I would hand him punishment, but eventually take him back into training. So I would talk about his strong points. He had natural momentum. But he would not listen or concentrate on training. Boxers like Mike Tyson had also such issues initially. Slowly, Amit started taking boxing seriously and I guess the big change happened when he won the senior nationals 49kg gold in 2016," recalls the coach.
When Swedish foreign coach Santiago Nieva joined the Indian training camp in 2017, he found Panghal's game a bit undercooked for international success. Another lightweight Shyam Kumar had won at some international tournaments, and was firmly in Nieva’s plans.
"When I first saw Amit during the selection trials in March 2017, I had Shyam Kumar in my mind for this weight category. Kumar was tall and boxed well from a distance. But when Amit fought against him, Kumar had a lot of problems," Nieva recalls. He initially reckoned Kumar had under-performed that day but then Panghal defeated him repeatedly. "Amit has ring intelligence. He had his technical flaws and his punching technique was not the best, but he solved the tough situations in the ring. Despite not having good power and balance, Amit outdid his opponents with his swift movement and landed punches from different angles. He had that extra plus which all great boxers have," Nieva says, comparing him to a cerebral boxer like Vikas Krishan.
Before the weight changes happened, the Indian team management decided to get Panghal to compete in 52kg at a tournament in the Czech Republic, where competition was to be stiff to even make the team. "Amit outplayed Kavinder Bisht, who was a regular in 52kg at that time too," says Nieva.
In Bangkok last month, Panghal outclassed Dusmatov in the quarterfinals. The two boxers have built themselves a bit of history and nice little rivalry. Bangkok was to be the fourth time in their career with Amit moving up to 52kg two months ago.
Panghal had defeated Dusmatov in the Asian Games final last year but the fact that Dusmatov had been competing in the new weight category for longer made the Indian boxer’s task difficult. "In the 2017 World Championships, Amit had lost to Dusmatov and lost to him earlier in Uzbekistan in the Asian Championships too. After the loss at the Worlds, Amit told me he will defeat Dusmatov!" Nieva remembers.
It was a surprise for the coach who was used to other boxers whipping up shabby excuses like losing to an Olympic champion or going down to a tough draw. "Earlier, Amit only looked for more chances to score. But we taught him to land stronger and powerful punches instead of many ineffective ones. That worked for him in Jakarta and Bangkok too," says Nieva.
The realisation had come two losses too late for Panghal, and missing the World Championship medal hurt. "The first time I faced Dusmatov was in his country and I could not read him in the first two rounds. The same thing happened in World Championships, where I had seen his videos on laptop prior to the tournament but took time to understand his game. But those losses too helped figure out his game," Amit says.
Dusmatov's game hinged on the left hook and the key was to block those and play defensively in the first round. It would puzzle the Uzbek and give Panghal a chance to inch close and hit his punches before retreating. "He also jumps for his punch and, with his short height, that made him threatening. I dodged him with my footwork and when he did not expect, my counter punches came," explains Panghal.
Amit drifts mid-conversation to his cell-phone, which is used to update his Twitter and Instagram accounts for 2000-odd followers. He got onto social media after the Asian Games gold, but the phone's also constantly lit as he plays PUBG and Mini Militia. The pugilist insists it's only to take his mind off boxing.
"When I shifted to Gurgaon to train under Dhankar sir, it meant that I was going to stay away from my family for the first time. It was a different setting, and I'd see big cars and showrooms in the mall. But I was happy doing my training," he recalls.
In his free time, he'd watch videos of two-time Olympic champion Vasyl Lomachenko of Ukraine. A bazooka boxer, the iconic fighter's dominance in light-weight categories is down to his ability to connect 6-7 punches in one go. "It's what I also aspire to achieve. Yes, the new weight category is a challenge as I have not faced other European boxers but recent wins have given me a lot of confidence. No Indian boxer has reached the final of World Championship or Olympics and if I am able to do that, it will be the biggest thing in my life," he adds.
Brands lit up in neon signs in those Gurgaon malls, which he only saw from a distance, are now within Panghal’s reach. "At the 2017 World Championships, I did not have enough money to buy an extra pair of ring shoes. I liked one particular pair very much but I could not afford it," Panghal says. He'd ask team-mate Kavinder Singh Bisht to lend him some money, which he would repay later. "Boxing also gave me friends, who didn't think twice before helping me. Now I can buy 2-3 pairs of shoes, but those were the things which motivated me to not stop training or my dream," he recalls.
His friends would also cook for him, meals he remembers fondly. "At home, I would eat choorma and kheer almost everyday. But here my friends would cook and I'd make almond milk for them daily. Eating the 3 phulkas with aloo gajar was the best meal which I had," he laughs a rare, hearty laugh.
Boxing also brought Panghal his most gleeful memory yet. "When I went to Bulgaria in 2017 for a training competition, I saw snowfall for the first time and called up my parents and brother to tell them. They too were very happy as I showed them the video," he adds.
It also brought him a date with his childhood hero. "Last year, after I won the Asian Games gold medal, I tweeted about my desire to meet Dharmendra sir and we all met him in Mumbai. We exchanged stories of our pranks during shooting and training," he says.
The Asian Games triumph brought him cash reward of Rs 3 crore from the Haryana government, part of which Panghal spent on buying his father a new SUV the same day.
He is now busy persuading his reluctant father to get himself a passport. "Amit keeps telling me to apply for a passport. I ask him what will a person like me do in a foreign country. Maybe, he'll win a medal in Tokyo and I will go to watch him. That will be the only reason for me to go abroad," Vijender laughs.