Vijender Singh: Bhiwani to Beijing and beyond...
Here's a peek into the life of India's only Olympic medal-winning boxer, his early days at the Bhiwani Boxing Club and meteoric rise to stardom
Boxing came to the Beniwal family of Kaluwas with Subedar Dariyaj Singh, Vijender Singh’s paternal grandfather, who had fought against the Chinese and the Pakistanis during his long stint with the Indian Army. Mahipal is Dariyaj’s son, and his elder son Manoj Singh Beniwal caught the bug. Training every evening at the Vaish University boxing academy, Manoj made the nationals before joining the army. But before leaving Bhiwani, Manoj had become a hero to his younger brother Vijender, who couldn’t wait to get back from school, dump his bag, and sprint after Manoj to the boxing academy.
Manoj fought the Kargil War and then worked with the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sierra Leone, before chucking it all up in December 2008 to return home and look after the property business Vijender had helped the family set up following the Olympic Games.
The stint with the Indian Army had shattered all of Manoj’s own dreams beyond repair. ‘Serving the nation’ was useful in the marriage market, but Manoj only wanted to be a boxer, not a hero. After Kargil and Sierra Leone came the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 and Manoj was drafted into the team that looked after security in the capital.
Three years later came a posting at the China border in Sikkim. Manoj had joined the army on the strength of his boxing achievements. But in the 10 years he spent in the Force, not many times did he get a chance to be the boxer everyone thought he could be. After all, part of the deal with getting a job through the sports quota is that the sportsperson will continue to be a sportsperson, representing his PSUs in national level tournaments, and ‘working’ only after retirement.
Disillusioned and having had his fill of putting his life on the line (“kitne baar marte marte bache thhey”), Vijender’s success came as a lease of life to Manoj; goodbye fauj, enter Manoj the businessman.
By the mid-1990s, Vijender was already seriously thinking of becoming a boxer and nothing but. Those were not easy years for the Beniwal family, because while they had some land to their name, Mahipal Singh’s position as a driver with Haryana Roadways wasn’t good enough to cover his sons’
education, insatiable appetites as well as boxing classes. So he turned to that old killer-saviour of the lower financial classes —no, not a loan, but overtime.
“Viju took part in three sub-junior tournaments, but didn’t win a medal,” Manoj recounts. “But by 1997, he was also starting to show signs of his boxing ability, and joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Centre in Bhiwani. That same year, he won the junior nationals at the age of 12.”
Jagdish Singh was training youngsters at the SAI centre, the Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC) had not yet been set up, and so Vijender shifted bag and baggage to the SAI hostel in 1999.
And that’s where the guru-shishya combination was forged — Jagdish and Vijender. The coach had stars in his eyes already, and would go on to punch above his weight, boasting to the authorities that the first Olympic medal for India in boxing would come from one of his students.
By the time Vijender was ready to take on the world, Jagdish would have assumed the status of a rebel, not making life easy for himself or his students. Meanwhile, Vijender was happy to learn what he could. He knew he could punch well; he was growing up to be a tall, lanky man with long arms, useful in amateur boxing, where reach is of paramount importance.
Through those training years, Vijender’s father wasn’t thinking of an Olympic medal. All he hoped for was that the future champion wouldn’t follow Manoj to the army. Mahipal knew only too well what life without the men in the house meant, having chosen to work for the state government instead of in the army primarily because his own father was in the fauj, fighting battles for the country, earning a tough living. There was no certainty if the Subedar would return home, and so there was also no question of Mahipal leaving home. His wife Krishna says, “Vijender would come home with cuts and bruises and a broken nose, but we were happy that he was still near us and not far away.”
Shaitaan of Kaluwas
“Bahoot shaitaan tha,” both his father and elder brother say about their Viju. Not that little Kaluwas offered too many opportunities for shaitaani, so kids tended to expend most of their energy on the cricket or football fields. “Main to Bhiwani mein hi rehta hoon… whenever Viju comes home, we still play football or cricket with the local kids, just like in the old days,” Manoj says.
The shaitaani, thankfully, didn’t distract Vijender from his main focus: boxing. If there were any doubts about his future, 2002 changed everything. Fifteen-year-old Vijender took part in the senior nationals, and what’s more, won the gold. There wasn’t too much money yet, but that would also start coming his way when, despite opposition from chief coach GS Sandhu, Vijender managed to find a berth in the squad for the Afro-Asian Games in 2003. He was still a ‘junior’ at the time, not having reached 18, but he was good enough to return home with a silver medal.
The first of many life-changing incidents. The Haryana government rewarded Vijender with seven lakh rupees for his effort. The same year, Jagdish opened the Bhiwani Boxing Club. For Vijender, it felt almost like the facility had been set up just for him. “I used to get on Manoj’s old bicycle, one spare t-shirt in my bag, and reach BBC every day. I used to be lazy about training and the coaches beat me up fairly often, but I never missed a bout. The winter mornings were tough, because we started training at 6am. Main toh bahoot kalti maarta tha, but I made up for it in the afternoons and evenings,’ Vijender says.
His older brother says affectionately, “I don’t know if he was bunking classes or not, but he has God’s gift for boxing, so it didn’t matter.”
The story of those years when Vijender’s exploits as a junior boxer gave Jagdish the confidence to raise the stakes is best heard from the coach himself. His tone is rather blatantly self-congratulatory. “When Vijender won the nationals in 2002 (beating defending champion Harikrishna in the final), Sandhu was sitting in the arena. Everything Vijender learnt at the time was from me. Sandhu clearly told me that he didn’t want Vijender in the senior team. Acting president of Indian Boxing Federation and Haryana top cop RS Dalal was very excited about Vijender and told me that he wanted Vijender to be in the senior camp. But Sandhu was adamant that Harikrishna had more maturity and was a better bet. There were a lot of words exchanged, and Dalal took my side by announcing that Vijender would be part of the senior team, while continuing to train under me in Bhiwani.”
Here’s the conversation between Vijender and Jagdish at the end of the second of four rounds against Harikrishna in the final. The score is tied at 9-all. A rookie on one side, a four-time national champion opposite him. The future of both guru and shishya on the line after the heated pre-match
Vijender: What’s the score?
Jagdish: Forget the score, you are well on your way to becoming the new star.
Vijender: How is that?
Jagdish: Dekh beta, your opponent is a South Indian, and they work with speed and strength. After two rounds, he should have been leading. North Indians depend on stamina and endurance and power. These next two rounds are yours!
Viju vs Harikrishna
Within 20 to 25 seconds, Harikrishna sent in his famous left jab, which Vijender blocked. Then Vijender let fly with what Jagdish calls his ‘sabse pyaara’ punch — the right upper-cut. It connected with Harikrishna’s chin and the champion was down for the count. It was always going to be Vijender from there on. “Usne itna pyaara fight dikhaya,” Jagdish recounts, his eyes going soft with the memory. “He was on fire. Harikrishna hardly got a punch in as Vijender danced around the ring, landing big punches and superb combinations. There was a bout going on in the adjacent ring, and they stopped to watch what was happening because the crowd had gotten totally involved.”
Quick fact-check: it wasn’t that the other fighters stopped midway through their fight to watch Vijender beat Harikrishna.
Dalal asked everyone to stop what they were doing and watch Vijender fight. Vijender remembers Dalal hugging him as he stepped out of the ring. “Unke pocket mein jitne paise the, mere haath mein de diye; he told me that I had made him proud.”
Little surprise then that Vijender was named Best Boxer of the tournament.
There are always many takers for the credit of a young boxer making it big, and here is Dalal’s version of what happened: “(Captain) M Venu was one of our coaches at the time, and when we spoke, I gave him the job of spotting talented youngsters (a story Venu corroborates). It was Venu, who spotted Vijender, and made me watch him in practice at the Nehru Stadium in Gurgaon. Vijender was a junior then. I ensured that he got international exposure and went to train in Cuba. We were so happy with the work Venu had done that we made him the chief coach after Sandhu took a break in 2005–06. But he was homesick and wanted to go back to Karnataka so we couldn’t continue with the arrangement.”
Sandhu’s position at the time, which Jagdish is so critical of, was a rather unenviable one. On the one hand, there was a four-time national champion; dependable, mature, someone you could count on to deliver. On the other was a complete greenhorn with unquestionable talent. Who was to say if he had the expertise and the temperament to punch his way through a moderately big event involving two continents (Suresh Kalmadi’s much-maligned farce, the Afro-Asian Games)?
Jagdish’s only focus was to push his talent through. Sandhu, on the other hand, was answerable to everyone — the federation downwards — if his decision turned out to be flawed. Unlike Jagdish, he could not stake everything on this confrontation. Happily, in the end, everyone won. But this was only the cue for the next rather well-recorded Sandhu-Jagdish battle, which began when the media started taking an interest in the still-seventeen-year-old boxer. Adrenaline pumping away, Vijender declared to mediapersons: “I want to represent India at the Olympic Games.” Innocuous, you might say?
The authorities didn’t think so. On seeing Vijender’s words splashed across the sports pages in the Hindustan Times the following day, Sandhu fumed and shouted at Jagdish, “You are interfering with my work.” Sandhu was probably convinced that Vijender was parroting Jagdish’s lines, slighting Sandhu in the process (and who can tell the truth of that?). The old animosity that took flight when Jagdish launched the BBC as a direct challenge to the federation and sports ministry was playing out here.
Sandhu has traditionally played fair with the boxers, wherever they may be from. And there’s no evidence that he has played politics with the careers of young boxers. Was Sandhu just doing the federation’s dirty work then? Or did he honestly feel Vijender was not up to scratch (if that was the case, Sandhu’s credentials would be severely dented)? “Kal ka chhokra, daari-moochh nahin nikli hain, yeh Olympic khelega?’ Sandhu reportedly told Jagdish within earshot of some of Jagdish’s trainees at the time.
One of these, who must remain anonymous because he is still active in the sport, confirms that “Jagdish coach was a bit scared, lekin woh peechhe nahin hate. Sandhu Sir toh bahoot gussa thhe…”
But Jagdish had lucked out by then. Not only was Vijender showing signs of being the star he would become within the next five years, Akhil Kumar was also training under Jagdish at the SAI Centre at the time and there was no question that there was no better bantamweight fighter in the country, and few better than him elsewhere. The 2004 Athens Olympics were just a matter of Akhil living up to his potential and Vijender getting a chance to take part in the qualifiers. Jagdish didn’t need anything else, and neither would Vijender once he bridged the great divide between the senior national squad and the fringe.
This was well before Vijender and Akhil became stars and had their share of fall-outs with Jagdish. After their qualification for Athens had been taken care of, in a show of defiance, they returned to Bhiwani to continue their training under Jagdish, cocking a snook at Sandhu in the process. Jagdish remembers that Sandhu drove down to Bhiwani to take Akhil and Vijender back to Patiala, but they refused. The duo went to Patiala much later, with less than a month to go for the Olympics.
The defiance worked as a snub to Sandhu all right, but did it do a bit of disservice to the two boxers? After all, both Akhil and Vijender crashed out in the first round in Athens. It was the era of high-scoring matches, before the rules were changed for the nth time (now, a point is awarded only if at least three of the five judges agree on a strike made with the white part of the gloves) and Vijender lost to Mustafa Karagollu of Turkey by a score of 20–25. Interestingly, at the time, Vijender was fighting in the light welterweight category in keeping with his lean, teenaged frame. The bulked-up cool dude version we have today is a result of the physiological changes he underwent between 2004 and 2007.
‘Pehle Olympics dekha kahan tha, sirf suna tha,’ Vijender describes that period. ‘When I went to Athens in 2004, I was still seventeen and my eyes widened in awe. It was like, yeh hota hai world ka sports. When I was part of the march-past during the Opening Ceremony, aankhe khuli reh gayi, main dang reh gaya. I said, wow!’
But the making of the champion was very much in progress. In fact, when he saw the medal ceremonies taking place, Vijender says he took a silent vow to stand on that podium one day (like, I’m sure, all athletes do, and most fail to pull off ).
History was just four years away. In between came his first big medal in an international competition of note, when he lost to South Africa’s Bongani Mwelase in the final of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. This was in 2006. Vijender was still just twenty-one, not yet at the peak between twenty-four and twenty-seven that sees most good amateur boxers hit the top pitch. Akhil was in the zone already, and this was reflected in his gold-medal-winning effort in the same tournament.
In 2006, at the Doha Asian Games, Vijender moved up to the middleweight division, and moved down a step on the podium, losing to Kazakhstan’s Bakhtiyar Arteyev in the semi-finals, again by a five-point margin: 24–29. But this came as probably the biggest fillip to Vijender’s hopes and dreams for two reasons. One, he had only just raised himself to the middleweight category, and two, he reached the last four despite a back injury.
Jagdish talks to me about the phase in great detail, even though, around this time, Vijender had started spending less and less time in Bhiwani, being tied up in Patiala and with his national and international commitments. ‘Before taking part in the Afro-Asian Games, Viju told me that he first wanted to be a national champion. Around 2006–07, he had won everything in India and had started to win medals and reach the finals in international tournaments as well. He had this junoon that being a great boxer is one thing, but nothing is worth anything unless you win an Olympic medal.’
This, coupled with Jagdish’s own ambitions, made for a potent force. As the days rolled by and they got closer and closer to Beijing 2008, Vijender started making frantic calls to Jagdish, asking for clarifications, help, advice, saying that Jagdish understood him better than the coaches at the national camp.
Jagdish, obviously, stood by: ‘There was nothing new to teach him or tell him. It was just a matter of building his confidence without making him over-confident. I think I did that well.’
Confidence was never in short supply for boxers from Bhiwani anyway. Vijender said to me when he was a 19-year-old boy back in 2004: ‘Hum Bhiwani se hain. Jo ek baar Bhiwani mein training karte hain, woh kisi se nahin darte.’ Couple this with a more recent conversation, when he told me about being beaten by a youngster (whose name he has forgotten) during a fight in Bhiwani when they were both 14 or 15.
Vijender said, ‘I can lose one day, but if someone beats me, I make it a point never to lose to that person again.’
Sadly, this doesn’t always come true. Vijender hasn’t managed to beat Cuban boxer Emilio Correa Bayeux, to whom he lost in the 2008 Olympic semi-final, and whom he faced off with again at the World Championships in October 2011. But he has had a chance to prove the point with Arteyev at the President’s Cup in 2008. ‘I have the experience now and the maturity. I have won medals in major tournaments and I have beaten Athens 2004 champion Arteyev,’ he said a month before the 2008 Olympics.
A report in The Hindu on 25 July 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics kicked off , begins with the lines, ‘The spring in Vijender Singh’s step is understandable. Leaving behind memories of a first-round exit in Athens 2004, he is looking forward to step into the ring at Beijing.’
Around this time, and I am witness to it as well, Vijender had put behind him the two failed qualification attempts and only remembered that he had qualified for the Games as he believed he was ordained to. ‘That win (over Arteyev) makes me believe this Olympics is going to be significant in my life,’ Vijender said then.
Fast hands. Super reflexes. A very heavy punch. And a quick, decisive mind. All qualities Jagdish knew Vijender possessed; it was always just a matter of clearing his head of the clutter. If he could do it himself, great. If not, someone had to do it for him.
Even before the Olympics, everyone knew that, with Vijender, it was just a matter of making him feel good about himself; that done, his talent and ability would take him through. And that’s what happened. But if the Olympics was the end of Vijender’s journey, it would have counted for less than it does today. Vijender could have gone the same way after Beijing. To be honest, he did start walking the route to self-destruction for a while.
What else explains his virtual disappearance from the ring and daily photographs with Bollywood heroes and heroines? And needless statements like, ‘I want to try my hand at professional boxing now.’ There was even talk of a Bollywood film for a while. Thankfully, it didn’t last.
Meanwhile, here’s the icing on the cake: headlines in the newspapers on 30 September 2009 screamed VIJENDER IS THE NO 1. If the thought of an Indian boxer winning an Olympic medal was a pipe dream, an Indian becoming the World No 1 was even wilder.