Indian boxing had one of its most successful days of recent years on Monday at the Asian Championships in Bangkok. It wasn't just that boxers Amit Panghal and Kavinder Bisht advanced to the medal rounds but that they did so by beating Olympic champion Hassanboy Dusmatov and reigning World Champion Kairat Yeraliev in the quarterfinals. "I can't remember the last time Indian boxers beat a world champion and an Olympic champion on the same day," says chief coach KC Kutapa.
It was a particularly satisfying result for both Panghal and Bisht, both 23-years-old -- considering both boxers were taking part in their first major competition since moving up a weight division.
Bisht had told Santiago Nieva, high performance director of the Indian boxing team, about his decision to move to bantamweight (56kg) in December last year. It was a decision that took Nieva by surprise. Not the least because Bisht had been boxing in the light flyweight (52kg) division for all of his career. He had had reasonable success too, having made the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Championships in that category. What was also perplexing was that his chosen category is one of the most competitive in the Indian circuit - featuring boxers like Worlds bronze medalist Gaurav Bidhuri.
A couple of months after his compatriot, Asian Games gold medalist Panghal too made the decision to move up to the 52kg category in January from the 49kg category he had been competing in until then. He too would have to fight past a packed flyweight field featuring the likes of youth world champion Sachin Siwach and CWG gold medalist Gaurav Solanki, just to earn the right to represent India internationally.
Nieva says he didn't try to talk the two out of the decision. "Once a boxer says he isn't going to be able to make weight, there isn't much you can do about it. But there was a big question mark over whether they would have the same kind of performance," says Nieva.
Moving up a weight division comes with a number of challenges. Most boxers cut weight ahead of their bouts in order to compete in a weight division they feel they would have the best advantage in. By moving up, they were going to be at a physical disadvantage as they competed against naturally heavier boxers with a height and strength advantage, Nieva points out.
But the two boxers had their reasons for making the shift. For Bisht, it was the fact that boxing at a lighter weight division wasn't providing the advantage it once did. Indeed, the drastic weight cuts were sapping his energy. "I was cutting eight kilos of weight every time before a competition. I was always covering my self in clothes so that I could sweat more. Before competitions I would be eating nothing but salads and perhaps a little boiled chicken. Some days I wasn't eating at all. I felt it was hurting my performance. I simply didn't have energy in my body when I needed to box," says Bisht.
Panghal too felt a similar concern. He decided to make the move after competing at the Strandja Memorial boxing tournament in Bulgaria, where he won a gold medal, in February. "Weight todne me taklif aa rahi thi,(It was getting difficult to cut weight)" he admits. There was another problem too. In March, the International federation (AIBA) announced that the 49kg category would no longer feature at the Olympics and that the lowest weight division for the Tokyo games would be the 52kg category.
"The goal for any boxer is to take part in the Olympics. So Amit really had no choice but to make the move to the new division," says Nieva.
Panghal though isn't the only former 49kg boxer who has had to make that choice. The field at 52kg has become particularly competitive with boxers in lower-weight divisions moving up to chase their Olympic dreams. "It's not just Amit who has decided to go up. A lot of boxers from the 49kg division have moved up. The Olympics are the target for everyone. The international competition is very fierce," says Nieva. Indeed, Dusmatov, who had won the Olympic gold and the 2017 world championships silver in the 49kg division has also made the shift to the 52kg division.
Panghal had beaten Dusmatov at the Asian Games in August last year but it remained to be seen whether he kept his trademark speed even as he added another three kilos of muscle to his frame. His performance at Bangkok showed he had. "Ever since we knew that he wanted to make the shift to a heavier division, we started making him practice with taller boxers. He's also managed to keep his reaction speed and that has helped him," says coach Kutapa.
While both Panghal and Dusmatov were in a similar situation, Bisht was faced with the prospect of competing against a boxer who has long fought in the bantamweight division. Yeraliev was not only taller and as such had the reach advantage over the Indian, he also had the additional benefit of boxing south paw to the Indian's orthodox stance. "Kavinder isn't as tactically good as the Kazakh but he has the advantage of fighting at a high tempo," says coach Kutapa.
That high pace coupled with the fact that Bisht had improved strength and stamina as a result of fighting closer to his natural weight helped him out. "He just didn't stop coming at the Kazakh. He kept pressuring him. We told him to hit combinations rather than single punches and that worked brilliantly for him," says Kutapa.
While the coaches and boxers are pleased with the immediate result, they aren't resting anytime soon. Panghal faces a stern test against China's Olympic bronze medalist Hu Jianguan in the semifinal while Mongolia's 2013 World University champion Kharkuugiin Enkh-Amar stands between Kavinder and a place in the finals.
That though is where the Indian contingent hopes they both go. While the victories over Olympic and World Champions is an impressive achievement, it still only buys them a little bit of breathing room in what remains a very competitive field.
"It's not done yet. They still have to go on and win their semifinal bout and if they get past that then there is the final. And after that there is no guarantee that they will be going to the World Championships. They will continue to have to work hard. But they will take a lot of confidence with these wins. It's their first big tournament in a new category and so far, the results have been good. If they can beat the best boxers in the world at the Asian Championships, then they can be a good contender in the future too," says Nieva.