Hook, line and sinker: How Amit Panghal took down a monster

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

"Bhaisab yeh jo desh hain yaha se shaitan nikalte hain. Yeh Uzbekistan shaitan wale. (Only monsters come out of these countries. These guys from Uzbekistan)."

That's what Akhil Kumar, a boxer of no mean achievements himself, sounds like when talking about one of the powerhouses of Asian boxing. He is using a bit of word play, the sound of the "stan" in Uzbekistan rolling off Akhil's Haryanvi tongue like shaitan, Hindi for monster.

With a long culture of pugilism prowess and medals to match, the Central Asian nation is feared as much as it is respected. In the six Asian Games they have played since their break up from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan have won more boxing titles than anyone besides Kazakhstan, a Shaitan (monster) by itself. On Saturday, they won five of the seven gold medals on offer in the men's boxing.

"You speak to any country in Asia and they will tell you the same thing. You really hope you don't meet them in the early rounds," says Indian boxing coach Santiago Nieva.

There was no avoiding the monster anymore. He was standing between Amit Panghal and an Asian Games gold medal on Saturday. Pretty simple equation. Slay the monster, win the gold.

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This monster was the biggest of all. Hasanboy Dusmatov is amongst the best boxers in the world. Don't be fooled by his tiny 49kg frame. His left hook, a vicious superman bash, comes at opponents like something out of a horror flick. It is one of the baddest punches in the business. He's not just the Olympic champion, Dusmatov was officially the best boxer at the 2016 Games. He is the meanest of the lot, the stuff nightmares are made of.

Perhaps it helps that Panghal doesn't believe in monsters. "He's barely religious. Doesn't believe in all that nonsense. As a child you couldn't scare him with ghost stories even if you tried," says uncle Ramnarayan Panghal, who has travelled with his nephew to Jakarta.

This doesn't mean the 22-year-old isn't on edge on Saturday morning. The previous night, following a tough win over Philipino Carlo Palaam in the semifinals, he was having a difficult weight cut, having to lose 2.5 kilos of body weight before the morning's weigh-ins.

And so following a draining bout, he puts on his plastic sweat suit and works out. He calls up his five-year-old niece Mehek - his good luck charm - and tries to take his mind of the bout. "You will win a gold, uncle," she says.

Panghal sleeps fitfully. "I had to get up early in the morning around 5 am because I had to lose another half kilo. I couldn't sleep that well," he says.

In the morning, he would lose a little more than half a kilo. Like a child before an exam, a dehydrated Panghal makes frequent visits to the washroom. "Thoda bahut to jhijhakte to hain (You hesitate a little bit for sure)," he explains.

Dusmatov, in contrast, strides confidently to the ring, fresh from a 5-0 win in the semifinals where he repeatedly staggered his opponent. Panghal has battled Dusmatov on two occasions before, losing both times- at the Asian Championships last year and once more at the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Championships.

But Panghal, for all his nervousness, is looking forward to this contest.

Those two early losses came at a different time in his career. Panghal was just in his first year of international boxing back then, simply glad that he had even gotten a chance. He had taken up the sport in 2008 after being inspired by Vijender Singh's iconic bronze at the Olympics.

The second son of farmers in the village of Maina near Haryana's Rohtak, Panghal won a junior silver at the 2011 national championships. However, he would have no chance to push his case higher when the National Federation was banned in 2012.

"For three years I just continued to train hoping that maybe something would happen. Our coaches would say maybe we would get a chance in the future and it's only in hope that we trained," he says.

It was only when the Federation was (temporarily) unbanned that Panghal got a chance to compete at the 2015 Nationals, where he won gold and was included in the national camp. It still took another two years to get another chance at the international level.

"He was just new in the camp and when you don't have experience, you really struggle," says coach KC Kutappa.

During his time in the margins, Panghal wasn't particularly famous for his activities in the ring. "He was such a naughty guy. I'd call him monkey," says Kutappa. "(Former national coach) Gurbax Sandhu was always at his wit's end with him. He would say he's going home for one day and only come back in four."

But Kutappa, a former national champion himself, didn't think that carefree attitude towards training was an entirely bad habit.

"If he didn't want to train, you couldn't force him. But that also meant he was able to think on his own. If people told something, he wouldn't just believe it," says Kutappa.

And so when people suggested just how formidable the Uzbeks were, Panghal didn't necessarily take it as truth. But he soon learned just how good Dusmatov was.

In his first high level international competition, Panghal ran into Dusmatov in the semifinal and was roundly beaten, getting caught repeatedly with that wicked left hook. National coach Santiago, though, saw potential. He found it during a minor tournament in the Czech Republic.

"There wasn't any boxer in the 49kg class so Amit had to fight boxers who were one category heavier. It's a big disadvantage but he adapted. He beat a tall Olympian from Germany in his opening round and he went on to win the title. That showed he has a good boxing IQ," says Santiago.

Panghal has been a constant member in the team since. He fought Dusmatov once more in the quarters of the World Championships and this time, the score was a bit closer. But the Uzbek continued to show little respect to him, walking through his punches to land his own.

But the Indian improved. In Jakarta, Panghal is even more prepared. He has studied video footage from the rare occasions Dusmatov has been defeated. Santiago is a firm believer in video analysis, and he thinks they've spotted a tell.

Dusmatov has a distinct trigger movement for that vicious left hook. The Uzbek drops his left shoulder and crouches for a split second before swinging. The algorithm is drilled into training. In the night before the fight, Panghal is sent videos of Dusmatov pounding his opponent, on the boxing team's Whatsapp group. It reinforces what Panghal already knows. The left hook is preceded by the crouch.

It thus comes as no surprise that when Dusmatov launches one at Panghal early in their bout, the Indian sees it coming from a mile. He steps out of the way of the missile and counters with a straight left and right combination of his own. The Uzbek is rattled. The initiative is with the Indian. The bout is almost one-sided after this.

Dusmatov punches and misses. Sometime he lands, but the blows are taken on the gloves. The Indian counters instantly. He has grown stronger since the last time the two fought and as a consequence, his punches hurt.

During one exchange in the middle of the third round, the Uzbek goes down under fire, although it is ruled a slip. He knows what has happened though. As the bout goes on, Dusmatov tires visibly. He grabs onto Panghal, but the Indian is expecting this too. He pushes his opponent's arms off him and drops him on the canvas. "Amit was going to show no respect to the Uzbek," says Santiago.

Surprisingly, Panghal is only declared a split decision winner. But it is not something he will lose too much sleep over. He has already proved a point in beating the baddest Uzbek out there. He has laid the old saying about the shaitans to rest. Or perhaps indicated that there is another one in town.

"Hum bhi to Hindustan se hain. Hum bhi shaitan nikle. (We are from India. We turned out to be monsters too)."