Duryodhan’s Mahabharat: India’s welterweight medal hope at World Championship

Gaurav Bhatt
Duryodhan Negi even battled depression when afflicted by vitiligo.

What’s in a name? Don’t ask a man who shares his with the chief antagonist of the great Indian epic Mahabharata.

"Panditji ne pata nahi kya soch ke naam rakh diya (Don’t know what the priest was thinking when he named me)," wonders Duryodhan Singh Negi, India’s welterweight contender at the upcoming boxing World Championships in Russia. My father too was very religious, so I’m guessing he didn’t interject either. Back in school, I even tried to get it changed but it didn’t work out.

A common misconception about the eldest of the Kauravas, stemming from a cursory grasp of the linguistics, goes that Suyodhan became Duryodhan as his character grew viler, nevermind that both monikers are used interchangeably in several translations. The logic being Su means good, and dur, bad. (Think durgam i.e. inaccessible, like the treacherous Himalayan locale of Duratoli, Munsiyari in Pithoragarh district, Negi’s hometown).

Honestly, I’m okay with it now. The target now is to make it to the point that if somebody looks up the name Duryodhan, it should show my picture, Negi says. I know 3-4 Duryodhans. Such names are common in our area, sniggers Kavinder Singh Bisht, the bantamweight from Bungbung, 60km further east of Duratoli. Par yuddh toh inhone hi lade hain (but only this one has been in wars).

Bisht, of course, alludes to Negi’s days of being a ‘ghatak commando’ for the 4th Kumaon regiment, a past which makes the latter a popular raconteur in the national camp at NIS, Patiala. "He is a very intelligent person. We all go to him when we have any doubt or want to discuss news. Everyone keeps asking him about army life. Tell me bhai, do you have any stories filled with action?

There s one in particular Negi uses for regaling purposes.

***

Negi recalls the chilly, sleepless nights of December 2008 in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district, spent in the open with a service rifle in his hands, on the lookout for ULFA militants. After receiving the intel, 4th Kumaon’s Charlie company advanced towards the hideout, nestled in the thick foliage of the Garo hills, and Negi was part of the raid.

They had higher ground and direct advancing was risky, so our commanding officer played a trick. He took half the team through the main path. Our team of 8-10 soldiers moved slowly through the jungle towards their location. The militants were resting, and it was when we had sneaked really close to the hideout, that a flashlight came on. We took our positions and opened fire.

The firefight lasted about half an hour, and the soldiers checked the site the morning after. Some fled, but 7-8 of them had died," Negi says, a matter-of-fact retelling devoid of bravado. It’s duty. As a soldier, certain things are expected of you. Just like as a boxer, I’m expected to do certain things.

Surely any similarities end there?

You can say that," Negi laughs. Army experiences make training for world championship seem easy. I’ve finished the morning practice now, and I am free. I’ve got nothing to do with anybody. In the army, you could’ve had the most grueling of training sessions, with 2-3 hours of sleep, but you’d still have to be ready to go anywhere at any time. A soldier never switches off. That’s also a kind of fun I miss now.

Growing up in a lower-middle class family in Uttarakhand a state which contributes the second-most number of army recruits (100 per lakh) meant enlistment was the default career option for Negi.

He passed all tests but the medical in 2003, failed on account of high blood pressure. Thoughts of giving up crossed his mind, but the simple sight of soldiers running in tandem every dawn kept fuelling the passion. Negi trained and got the BP under control, and made it the following year. I just had to succeed. If before I wasn’t sure, after the failure I desperately wanted to be an army man. And I got postings in areas such as J&K, Nagaland and Assam, where you’re always waiting for intelligence, always ready to follow orders, says Negi. One has to be ready to put life on the line.

Duryodhan Negi (R) with teammate Kavinder Bisht (L), 10 years his junior, and coach Khimanand Belwal, who helped him during his early days.

Or take up boxing at the age of 26. Little difference, if you ask Negi.

I was ordered to compete in the inter-battalion competition as part of the training. I had no experience, and I was very worried that my face will get smashed. I won that tournament. Perhaps others were more worried about their faces, laughs Negi.

Boxing was new, but fighting was no big deal for Negi. Be it playfighting during rounds of chor-police, making loud dishoom noises lifted from Mithun Chakraborty films, or simply roughing up bullies. Negi did have a reference for boxing as well.

I remember watching Suranjoy’s Olympic quarterfinal (2000, Sydney) on Doordarshan. He was so close to winning the medal, says Negi. I met him sometime back at a camp, but couldn’t bring myself to walk up to him and tell him how much he inspired me.

Bisht speaks of Negi with similar reverence.

I feel motivated just watching him train. I think, ‘if this guy is training like this at 34, why can’t I do it?’ says Bisht, 24. My dream is that I box till I’m his age, and he continues till 40. Anybody who looks at him thinks he’s maximum 25-26. He trains more than us younger boxers at camp.

Then there’s the fact that the two come from a region not exactly known for being a boxing hotbed.

There is talent among juniors, but for so long it’s been the two of us, not just from the same state but the same district. He has been my room partner since 2015. I have seen all the ups and downs. So many competitions, trials. Never takes an off day, never breaks down, says Bisht. Kabhi tootte hue nahi dekha iss insaan ko (I have never seen this guy break).

***

Five years ago, Negi was broken to the point of keeping himself locked in a room. Everything seemed to be working out for Negi in 2014. A silver at the army nationals got him the chance to train at the state-of-the-art Army Sports Institute (ASI), Pune. He’d go on to win his first national title the same year. But it was the onset of vitiligo an autoimmune condition that causes the skin to lose pigmentation which left the boxer debilitated. The pale patches first appeared on the neck and fingers, then the face and within months Negi had lost pigment in almost all of his body.

The loss of pigmentation, and in turn confidence, meant that at a time when Negi should have been fighting rivals and jostling for the spotlight, he was left battling inner demons and hiding from the public glare.

It affected my confidence a lot. Whenever I would go out, I would feel that everybody is looking at me. It’s incurable too, but then somebody suggested Ayurveda, and that I should give up doodh, dahi. How could a boxer survive like that?"

It was when the funk started affecting his performance, that coach Narendra Rana and the rest of the coaching staff at the ASI staged an intervention. It was depression, and you could see it in his boxing. I took other coaches and went to his room. We just reminded him that there are people less fortunate than him, struggling with various problems in life. ‘You have a fit body, you are a fit boxer, what’s this superficial thing holding you down for?’, recalls Rana. I think the thing clicked when we assured him that it will have no effect on his boxing. I confirmed it with AIBA if such cases are considered fitness issues. We got him a certificate of full fitness after all the tests and everything. And that’s when I think it clicked for him that whatever this situation is, it’s not going to stop him from being a proper boxer."

Negi says it was all about putting things in perspective.

I realised that I have a wife, a son and a daughter who will always love me unconditionally. I know many differently-abled people, who not just battle every day but continue to live life and enjoy it. My problems were essentially only skin deep. I remember how tough it was, but the only message I have for anybody dealing with the same issue is that you try and feel comfortable in your own skin, in your mind, says Negi. Because honestly, if you feel comfortable and walk around with full confidence, then the rest of the world also treats you with respect and looks past your colour. It’s about the realisation that you aren’t ‘suffering’. Now I go out without any issues, says Negi, and with a chuckle adds: In fact, I think I’m even better looking now.

***

Being simultaneously older and less experienced than rivals is a stinging 1-2 to the body for a boxer. Negi thus was long overshadowed by senior boxers. Olympian Manoj Kumar was the chosen one when both competed at 64kg, and also when both moved up a pision. As Manoj petered out, statemate Ashish took the reins, and despite finishing second to Negi at last year’s nationals, earned the Asian Championships call where he took bronze.

I should have gotten a chance at such a major tournament before, says Negi, who beat Ashish in the selection trials in July. But I also started late so it’s nobody’s fault. There were doubts in my mind when I was the number 2 or 3 boxer. But it’s motivating that the coaching staff was keeping track of our performances and training.

In fact, 17 months ago, half of this Indian squad Negi, Bisht, Brijesh Yadav (81kg) and Sanjeet (91kg) were B-listers competing in the semi-professional WSB competition in Rohtak, while the first-stringers basked in the glory of their CWG exploits. On one of those nights in Rohtak against Russians, Negi lost and Bisht won. But afterwards, both spoke with a hint of indifference about their performance, alluding to doubts about their place in the larger scheme of things.

I was one win away from a medal at last Worlds, and then last year I realised that I was the number 2 boxer in my pision and that bothered me. But then again, it was my problem because I wasn’t sure of my weight and was thinking of going up a pision, says Bisht, who went from 52 to 56kg and has cleaned up the competitive pision since.

It’s understandable that a boxer will have doubts when they aren’t picked, says high-performance director Santiago Nieva. Those guys who were number 2, number 3 now know that there was nothing pre-decided on who the top guys are, who will go to all tournaments. Anyone who impresses, no matter the level of competition or even just during training sessions, will be selected for trials before major events.

Nieva adds: Duryodhan has a very high work rate, tremendous combinations and ability to put pressure on opponents. The problem was that he was not fast enough, and after some time his defence would start slipping and he would get punched. The defence has since improved, he has looked good in the training. I have high hopes for him.

Negi is neither the most graceful welterweight nor the most technical. And at 5’6, he gives up inches in reach and height to most in the pision. Simply put, in a pision full of killers (like 2017 Worlds silver-medallist and current PanAm champion Roniel Iglesias of Cuba), Negi isn’t going to be a world-beater on tactical acumen alone. The one thing he has going for him is the gas tank. Staying at a distance against taller opponents presents the risk of being picked off. Negi fights close and relies on long combinations, a strategy demanding top-shelf endurance. Negi’s got stamina for days and the rule changes in amateur boxing, promoting aggressive punching, mean he will always be in with a shot.

Pahadis are known to be naturally good when it comes to endurance. Then his years training with the army," says Rana. "His game is built on offence, he doesn’t let his opponents breathe, and such offensive boxers with high endurance rule boxing in today’s world."

***

Negi’s is a story of fighting odds as an outlier. From being unfit for the army to becoming a ‘ghatak commando’ engaged in firefights. From being scared from putting on the gloves to being the one dishing out pain in the ring. From lowly inter-battalion tournaments, being a gatekeeper in the national set-up, to becoming a medal hope at the World Championships. From standing out from the crowd to coming to terms with his own skin, and, not to forget, his name. We used to watch Mahabharat on TV when we were kids, and nobody liked Duryodhana’s role. Negi’s parents or the priest must have had something in mind to name him Duryodhan. It is most definitely an unusual name… But it suits him, Rana laughs but is quick to substantiate the remark. Don’t get me wrong, outside of the ring he is a very honest and dedicated person. He never argued, no matter what the training. He is helpful and an all-around good fellow. But in the ring, he punishes opponents," Rana says, adding just the perfect descriptor. "Bohot kroor boxer hai. (He is a cruel boxer). In the ring, he truly becomes Duryodhan."

After all, in the literal sense, Duryodhan means an unconquerable fighter.

The Indian corner

A look at the men’s squad that’ll compete at the World Championship

Amit Panghal 52kg

The biggest medal hope. After the CWG silver and Asiad gold at 49kg last year, the move up to the Olympic category of 52kg was expected to be difficult for the 5’3" Panghal. He aced the litmus test with a gold at the Asian Championships.

Threats: Yosvany Veitia (Cuba, reigning World champion, 2019 PanAm silver), Daniel Asenov (Bulgaria, 2019 Euro silver)

Kavinder Bisht 57kg

Bisht was one win away from a medal at the last edition. That was in 52kg, reached after a draining weight cut that almost made him walk away from the sport. Now boxing at bantamweight, Bisht got silver at the Asian C ship, where he defeated the reigning world champion Kairat Yeraliyev.

Threats: Yeraliyev (Kazakhstan, reigning world champion), Duke Ragan (USA, 2017 silver, 2019 PanAm silver)

Manish Kaushik 63kg

Kaushik was supposed to be India’s lightweight fix after the CWG silver last year, but trading wins with two-time Olympian Shiva Thapa took a toll on his confidence. With both boxers moving up to the bridging Olympic weight of 63kg, Kaushik got the last laugh at the selection trials in July.

Threat: Andy Cruz (Cuba, 2017 world champion, PanAm champion)

Duryodhan Negi 69kg

The biggest tournament of the career of the 34-year-old, who qualified on the basis of consistent performances over the year and a win over Asian Championships bronze-medallist Ashish in the trials. Muscled out in the welterweight by boxers such as Manoj Kumar, and with seasoned Vikas Krishan dropping down to 69kg, Negi would hope to seize his chance.

Threat: Roniel Iglesias (Cuba, 2017 silver medallist, PanAm champion)

Ashish Kumar 75kg

National bronze-medallist broke out on the scene seemingly out of nowhere with a silver at the Asian Championships. Ashish had a run of close defeats and dubious decisions but tempering aggression in the ring has resulted in increased confidence and performance. Like Negi, for Ashish too this is a baptism by fire, with Olympic medallist Vijender Singh interested in an amateur comeback.

Threat: Arlen Lopez (Cuba, Olympic champion, PanAm champion)

Brijesh Yadav 81kg

With the light heavyweight pision absent at CWG and Asian Games, Brijesh comes into the squad with a resume lighter than his celebrated peers. The one chance he got, at the Asian Championships, was ruined by a cut in the second round. With the category part of the Olympic scheme of things, the national silver medallist will look to be the top contender.

Threat: Julio Cesar La Cruz (Cuba, Olympic, World and PanAm champion)

Sanjeet 91kg

Once struggling to box out of the shadow cast by the much flashier Naman Tanwar, Sanjeet has become the top heavyweight thanks to multiple wins over his statemate, most recently in the trials. But with no major performance under his belt, and the heavyweight pision stacked with talent at the world level, each win would be an upset for the 20-year-old.

Threat: Erislandy Savon (Cuba, Olympic bronze, reigning World and PanAm champion)

Satish Kumar +91kg

The most consistent boxer in the Indian set-up (there aren’t many talented superheavyweights to choose from), Satish earned a silver at CWG (with wins over boxers from Trinidad & Tobago and Seychelles) and bronze at the Asian Championships. The 30-year-old will be outstruck by top boxers at the World level.

Threat: Kamshybek Kunkabayev (Kazakhstan, World silver, Asian Championship silver