Moving from being an Olympian boxer to the professional ring wasn't an easy choice for Bhiwani boy Vijender Singh. A new book follows him as he battles his inner demons and social pressures to continue playing for the Indian flag. Edited excerpts:
Vijender Singh in a bout against Sonny Whiting of Great Britain during their International Middleweight contest at Manchester Arena on October 10, 2015, in England. In 2013, Singh was in the thick of a controversy, when the police claimed that his car was spotted outside a drug smuggler's home Pic/Getty Images
'I thought about it myself, made my own plans,' he says. If there's one thing that the Bhiwani boys and the Bhiwani coach Jagdish agree on, it is on the sorry state of affairs at the elite national training camp.'When I joined the national camp, I knew nothing about training methods or nutrition,' Akhil says. 'I was like anyone else, only half-literate, from a rural background, a poor family. So for example, even as late as 2007, all of us used to drink a litre of coke each, every day training. Or exercises. No one taught us how to do any exercises except the most basic ones we learnt back in our schooldays.'
One of the things that appeals most to Vijender about turning pro is that he is his own man, and he can blame no one about the shape and direction of his career. Things are so much simpler. 'Pay your coach, get trained properly, go fight, get your money, go home,' he says. 'There's no running around trying to get permission from here, clearance from there, trying to flatter the right people, trying to know the right people, begging for the money that is supposed to be yours in the first place. Beg, beg, always beg for everything.'
'You ask me what is wrong with the system. It is difficult to say because there is nothing really systematic about the way sports is run in India.' In 2013, Vijender, already frustrated by the hopeless ban on the Indian boxing federation, faced yet another challenge. This one threatened to derail not just his career, but the life he had built for himself.
In March, Vijender had travelled to Mumbai for some promotional work. He had been dropped at the airport in his car by three friends, including the boxer Dinesh and another boxer from Punjab called Ram Singh. After dropping him, the plan was that Dinesh and Ram Singh would drive back to Patiala. Vijender spent two days in Mumbai, and came back to his house in Gurgaon. The next morning, he saw on TV, the police were claiming that they had found his car outside the house of a well-known drug smuggler in Punjab who had been arrested. They had also arrested Ram Singh, who had confessed to being a part of the trade, and had told the police that Vijender knew the arrested smuggler well.
The Punjab police, who were in charge of the operation, told reporters that Vijender and Ram Singh had consumed heroin twelve times. 'Twelve times!' Vijender laughs. 'I wonder who was keeping count of this. Were the police sitting with me and going, 1, 2, 3….12?' Dinesh says that the whole thing was a conspiracy, a way to get some attention to the case by involving a famous name.
'The car was not even in Zirakpur, where the police said they found it,' Dinesh says. 'I remember it very, very well. I was with Ram Singh in Patiala when someone called him and said, "Bring this car to this spot," and he asked me to come along.' When they reached the spot, a few kilometres from the SAI training centre in Patiala, they were met by two policemen. 'They asked me to get off the car, and then they drove away with Ram Singh,' Dinesh says.
Vijender's brother Manoj says that the car had a GPS, and when the police made their statement against Vijender, the first thing he did was to ask for the GPS records. But by then, Manoj says, those records had been erased and the GPS had been removed from the car. The police demanded that Vijender undergo a dope test. He refused, saying that he will agree to it if the National Anti-doping Agency — NADA, the apex body for doping control for sportspeople in India — are put in charge of it. The NADA test was clean.
Manoj took over the responsibility for handling the situation — he liaised with lawyers, fought with the investigating officer, canvassed for support. He told Vijender to stay put in his home in Gurgaon. 'For one month, I did nothing but stay at home,' Vijender says. 'I didn't speak to journalists, I felt no need to give them any proof of innocence. If I were guilty, it would come out. If I wasn't, it would come out. Now that I think of it, I had a great time at home. I ate well, slept a lot, watched movies.' In the end, the police filed no case against him, brought no charges.
'But I became so much tougher after that,' Vijender says. 'And it really really struck me hard that my boxing was going nowhere. I needed to change something, I needed to be ruthless.' He needed to get out of this comfortable limbo, where he was a celebrity, surrounded by friends and family, with always someone in his entourage ready to help out with whatever he needed.
He saw his old boxing mates move away too. One by one, ground down by the poor training at the national camp that snuffed out their chances of winning international medals, and then the long-running administrative mess that made it next to impossible for them to compete, the boys from Bhiwani quit boxing.
All except Vijender.
(Extracted with permission from Ringside With Vijender by Rudraneil Sengupta, exclusively available on the Juggernaut Books app)
In 2013, Vijender Singh, who won India a bronze medal in boxing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was accused of consuming heroin.
Two years after the dust on that case settled, he announced that he was leaving amateur boxing to become a professional boxer and started training in Manchester with trainer Lee Beard.
The run up to his pro debut at Manchester Arena in October 2015, brought in a lot of bad press. The Padma Shri awardee was accused of abandoning his country for more money.
As Vijender gears up for his seventh match — on Saturday against Australian Kerry Hope for the WBO Asia title — a new book, Ringside with Vijender by journalist Rudraneil Sengupta, explores the many factors that drove the boxer to make the tough choice.
A battle for a title
The July 16 bout will be Vijender Singh's maiden WBO Asia title run in the professional circuit. It was to be held in June but got rescheduled to July