New Delhi, Jul 16 (PTI) An unprecedented nine Indian boxers will be taking the ring at the Tokyo Olympics, conscious of the fact that medal expectations from them are at an all-time high.
PTI takes a look at the five men and four women, who would be aiming to make amends for the no medal show in the 2016 Rio Olympics in the competition starting July 24 at the Ryogoku Kokugikan arena, primarily a sumo wrestling venue, in the Japanese capital.
MEN: === AMIT PANGHAL (52kg) -- This flyweight is shouldering expectations that would be enough to bog down a super heavyweight in some cases. The world number one, the top seed, Panghal is being seen as a sure-shot medal for India in Tokyo. He knows it and he is revelling in the spotlight.
The Armyman from Haryana is a nice mix of controlled aggression and tactical acumen. His cabinet already has the World Championships and Commonwealth Games silver medals, an Asian Games gold medal, and multiple Asian Championships medals.
Competing in his maiden Olympics, the 25-year-old has been unstoppable for the past four years, starting with a breakthrough Asian Championships bronze back in 2017. Even in loss, he has hardly ever looked outplayed. But he does know his weaknesses well. A late starter and someone who tends to wear off a bit in the final three minutes, Panghal says he has addressed the issues in his desperate pursuit of an Olympic medal.
MANISH KAUSHIK (63kg) -- Also a debutant, also an Armyman and also a 25-year-old. Kaushik is the classic dark horse. He isn't the one hogging spotlight but before you know it, he might just have booked a medal.It happened at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (silver), it also happened at the 2019 world championships (bronze).
The soft-spoken son of a farmer from Devsar village of Bhiwani, that famed cradle of Indian boxing, Kaushik has harboured Olympic dreams since the time he saw Vijender Singh win that historic bronze in the 2008 Beijing edition.
Last year he was out of action for nearly 10 months after picking up a bicep injury during the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Jordan. The Olympic postponement was actually a blessing for the boxer, who has worked on making his punches more impactful and improve stamina.
A bout of COVID-19 kept him from competing in the Asian Championships earlier this year but he has recovered well enough to be a strong bet if not the best bet for a medal.
VIKAS KRISHAN (69kg) -- Here comes the veteran of the pack. A two-tim Olympian, among the most decorated boxers of all time in India, a man so experienced that he could well put together a list of dos and don'ts for all the debutants with him.
Another Haryana-fighter, Krishan personifies tact in boxing. He likes to plan is every move and on most times, he executes them to perfection. Having dropped the nonchalance of his early days, Krishan has grown into a more sorted fighter, thanks in no small measure to his stint in the US professional boxing circuit.
The 29-year-old will compete in his third and final Olympics and has ironed out some major chinks in his armour -- balance in the ring, close range boxing and the jab. He says his jab is now nearly perfect.
To get there, he has made sacrifices -- big and small -- the big one being staying away from his young children. He has seen them 'grow up in photographs' in the past one year.
ASHISH KUMAR (75kg) -- The gritty customer from Himachal Pradesh's Sundar Nagar. He made the cut for Tokyo, a month after losing his father last year. The 26-year-old has been making steady progress in a weight category which a certain Vijender Singh made his own by scripting history more than once.
Ashish's Olympic journey hasn't been the easiest. He lost the man who wanted to see him reach this point a month before he made the cut. And this year, COVID-19 caught him during a tournament in Spain. His athletic body absorbed the blow and he showed no symptoms.
Ashish seemed a bit off-colour in the recent Asian championships where a bronze came his way but the way he has battled adversities outside the ring, the Tehsil Welfare Officer in Himachal Pradesh's social justice department won't be the one to be taken lightly at the Games.
SATISH KUMAR (+91kg) -- The first super heavyweight to qualify for the Games but the one about whom not many are talking about. The 32-year-old is the oldest of the five-strong men's squad but surprise, surprise, he is an Olympic debutant.
Another farmer's son from Uttar Pradesh's Bulandshahar, Satish has medals at the Commonwealth as well as the Asian Games.
'Hamara naam kabhi akhbaar mein aata hi nahi, bout hi itne late hote hain hamare. Meri biwi ko doubt hota hai kabhi kabhi ke main boxer hun bhi ya nahi (My wife sometimes doubts if I am a boxer at all),' he had once said with a straight face reflecting on his relative anonymity caused by order of bouts which leaves the heavier categories for later and thereby out of newspaper reports.
He claims to have worked on a secret strategy for the Olympics and pace is another aspect in which he hopes to be a step ahead of the rest as heavier weight divisions are not particularly quick-moving in the ring.
WOMEN: ===== M C MARY KOM (51kg) -- If there is a name in Indian boxing which needs no introduction, it is Mary Kom. This 38-year-old icon would be eyeing a second Olympic medal, something that puts her heads and shoulders above all else in the Indian team.
A six-time world champion, her achievements and medals have become a bit difficult to keep count of. And the astonishing part, the Manipuri isn't showing any signs of slowing down.
The ring is quite literally her playground and it has remained so for more than two decades now.
Among the sharpest movers in the ring at the peak of her prowess, Mary Kom is, however, candid enough to admit that she has slowed down but to make up for that, she has worked on adding more muscle and thereby more power to her punches.
It remains to be seen how she handles the younger competition which awaits her at the Games. She is fittingly one of the two flag-bearers of the Indian contingent and has sharpened her hook to make sure that nobody takes her lightly.
SIMRANJIT KAUR (60kg) -- A powerhouse of talent from Punjab's Chakar village in Ludhiana, the 26-year-old lost her daily wager father in 2018, four months before she picked up her maiden world championship medal.
The sole breadwinner of her family, Kaur fought a battle of sorts outside the ring too when she kept knocking on Punjab government's door for a job to ensure that her sporting ambitions do not fall by the wayside in desperation to support her mother and two younger brothers.
She still hasn't got the job despite innumerable promises from the worthies in her state government. Aggression is the biggest asset of this fighter with an imposing frame and her punches have hard-to-miss power but she would like to be a bit more in control when up against dogged defenders, who are good at taking advantage of her natural instincts to launch into an offensive.
She endured a bout of COVID-19 in May when there was a virus outbreak in the national camp and her symptoms were quite severe for a good 2-3 days.
LOVLINA BORGOHAIN (69kg) -- The youngest in the Tokyo-bound women's boxing team is a low-profile, high-performing asset. The 23-year-old started out as a kickboxer, took to boxing in school and has since become a two-time world championship medallist already (2018 and 2019).
Her build-up to the Games has also been rocky. The youngster missed a training trip to Italy at the fag end of last year, testing positive for COVID-19 a day before departure. She had travelled to her hometown in Assam to visit her ailing mother and came back to test positive for the virus, robbing her of crucial training and competitive exposure.
Considered a technically sound boxer, it would be interesting to see how she responds to the pressure of being at the biggest sporting show.
POOJA RANI (75kg) -- A battle-hardened veteran, who felt shy to wear the gloves at the beginning of her career as 'they look awkward on a girl'. The 30-year-old has come a long way since those days to be an Olympian.
A product of Bhiwani's robust boxing culture, she had kept her sporting foray a secret from her father as she feared being stopped, even going to the extent of hiding her injuries by staying over friends' places.
She hasn't had the easiest of journeys. Her troubles began when she burnt her hand during Diwali celebrations in 2016, which was followed by a career-threatening shoulder injury in 2017.
She had given up on herself by that time but not entirely. Alone with no sponsors, she fought back to save her career and the perseverance paid off. She is now bound for Tokyo, where a bit of that perseverance might just help her get to the pinnacle. PTI KHS KHS KHS