The fight in the boxing ring in Hangzhou will be not only about the medals. The Asian Games boxing competition, organised by the International Olympic Committee’s working group, is also a qualifier for 2024 Paris Olympics and that raises the stakes for the boxers.
In the 2018 edition of the Asiad, India returned with only two medals in the event — a gold and a bronze. This time, going by their recent performances, an improvement in the medal tally is a fair expectation. Claiming a few Olympic berths along the way will be an icing on the cake.
It will be no exaggeration to say that the onus will be on the women to deliver. They have the quality, depth and experience in their ranks. An Olympic medallist — Lovlina Borgohain — and two-time reigning world champion Nikhat Zareen — is at the forefront of women’s team. Add to it, 2022 worlds medallist Parveen Hooda (57kg), Commonwealth Games medallist Jasmine Lamboria (60kg), two-time youth world champion Arundhati Choudhary (66kg) and young Preeti Saipawar (54) — who was impressive at the world championships in March — and it shows the firepower in the six-member team.
Only six months back, four women boxers won world titles at home — an unprecedented feat that showed their preparedness for the Asian Games. With more Olympic quotas available in women’s competition — four each in four lower weight divisions — 50kg, 54kg, 57kg, 60kg, — and two each in 66kg and 75kg — it augurs well for the women’s team. In men’s competition only, the finalists in seven weight divisions qualify for the Paris Olympics.
“We are looking at three to four Olympic quotas from the women’s team. With less Olympic quotas available in men’s competition, it will be difficult to win too many berths but we have some experienced boxers in the lineup and expect a good result,” says head coach CA Kuttappa.
The two favourites to win a medal and Olympic quota are Nikhat and Borgohain. Both stamped their class at the world championships. Nikhat won back-to-back gold in flyweight division and Tokyo Olympics medallist Borgohain put an end to her poor run to become world champion in middleweight — a new Olympic weight category for her.
Fast counter-attacks, tactical fight
For Borgohain, it was a culmination of a tough journey. After Tokyo the Assam boxer rose to overnight fame, something that did not go well with her low-profile personality. She also had to make a big shift in her weight category with 69kg –in which she won bronze in Tokyo — being left out of the Olympic programme. The switch to a higher weight class was not easy. Besides adding weight in her tall and lanky frame, she had worked hard on her strength and agility. If there were any doubts about her performance, she put it to rest at the world championships with a terrific win over China’s Li Qian — the Tokyo Olympic silver medallist and one of the most formidable names in middleweight. While dispatching Qian 4-1 in the semi-final, Borgohain brought out her best in a fast tactical fight of counterattacks.
It is something that new high performance director Bernard Dunne has worked with the Indian boxers who are more comfortable fighting from a distance; stepping back and throwing punches. Dunne has added speed, and more punches to their attacking tempo. Roping in his long-time associate Dmitry Dmitruk as foreign coach has helped him sharpen the tactical nuances.
“Earlier it was about one or two punches on the counterattack. But we are now telling them to not step back fully after punches but be ready to throw more blows when the opponent is down,” says Kuttappa from China where the team reached well in advance for a training camp with other nations.
Big test for Dunne
For Dunne, who took over the reins from Santiago Nieva, the Asian Games will be big test. Since he joined the Indian team in October, after a long and successful stint with Ireland, he has set his sights on the Olympic qualifiers. He knows it is first step towards Paris and he wants to seize the opportunity in the first qualifier. Even the world championships were a preparation towards Hangzhou.
A lot, therefore, will be riding on the performance of the team because of the way Dunne has changed the structure of Indian boxing — be it doing away with the trials for selection or going for smaller number of boxers in the national camp . He has met with opposition while the boxers have moved court against the new selection process done through evaluation of various fitness parameters and skillsets in the national camp. With support from the BFI top brass, Dunne has been able to fight his way through. That in no way means the opposition has ended. Any adverse result at the Asian Games will see the daggers come out again.
The surprise omission of Amit Panghal — the only boxer to win a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games — raised quite a few eyebrows. Panghal lost out to Deepak Bhoria (51kg) — who carried the confidence of winning a bronze medal at the world championships to upset the Tokyo Olympian. Bhoria has notched up some big wins including that of Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist and 2021 world champion Saken Bibossinov. The Kazakh is expected to present a strong challenge to him in Hangzhou too.
Another youngster to watch out for will be Nishant Dev (71kg) whose courageous display at the worlds where he won a bronze was one of the high points for India. For experienced Shiva Thapa still burns with fire to win an Olympic medal and the Asian Games will give an opportunity to prove a point.