Simranjit Kaur had the spectators at the Indira Gandhi Stadium on their feet and in full voice during her opening bout at the Boxing World Championships. This wasn't just due to the expected partisanship for a home boxer. The 23-year-old's fighting style is unabashedly a crowd-pleasing, high-octane one, in which she constantly stepped forward and walked down USA's Amelia Moore with a barrage of blows. She took her share of punches as well but more than made up for it in snapping the American's head back regularly to take a 4-1 split decision win in the women's 64kg bout.
It was effective but quite violent. Simranjit's mother Rajpal Kaur, who was present in the stands might have been forgiven for shielding her eyes from the brutal spectacle. But she sat through it entirely unaffected. "I'm not afraid of watching my daughter fight. If you want to hit your own punches, you sometimes have to take your punches too," says Rajpal.
Simranjit has taken more than her fair share of punches outside the ring too. And she's managed to roll with them. The life of the girl from Chakar village in the Ludhiana District in Punjab, has been a hard one even if she isn't one to complain. She treats it all matter-of-factly, including the fact that her father died in July this year. She doesn't know the exact cause but suspects it might have something to do with his drinking habit.
Her father's illness had been a constant and money has always been hard to come by. "We have had problems. There are times when we didn't have enough to eat. But I've done whatever I could to support her," says Rajpal. Indeed, it was Rajpal who pushed her daughter to step inside the boxing ring for the first time when she was 14. It was at the Sher-e-Punjab Boxing Academy in Chakar. The academy trains girls free of cost. Simranjit's elder sister Amandeep as well as her brothers Kamalpreet and Arshdeep trained there, and Rajpal was adamant that Simranjit too would learn the sport.
Rajpal's own life experiences had shaped that stubbornness. "I always wanted to play but I was asked to do the household chores. But when I was young, I saw PT Usha running and I decided my daughter would be an athlete. Dahej ke liye beti mar dete the. Mujhe to apni beti khilani thi (they may kill girls for dowry in Punjab but I was always insistent that I would make my daughter a sportsperson). Even today, I travel to all her competitions even if she says she doesn't think I should come," says Rajpal.
And so Simranjit took up the sport albeit reluctantly. "I wasn't very keen at first but I slowly started liking it," she says. She soon got very good at it. In 2013, following a medal at the Junior Nationals, she won a bronze at the World Juniors. She would make a huge impact at the Senior Nationals in Haridwar in 2016 too, taking two standing eight counts before stopping her opponent in the final of the women's 64kg division, a performance that led her to be named boxer of the tournament.
Despite that effort she only got sporadic chances at the international level. Her first chance was at the prestigious Ahmet Cömert Tournament in Turkey in September, where she picked up a gold. But it still needed foreign coach Rafale Bergemasco to put his foot down to ensure the fighter got a break at the World Championships. "She didn't get a chance to compete at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. But I insisted that she had to take part at the World Championships. This win is a win for me as well," he said after the bout.
Her performance earned her rare praise even from her opposing corner. USA's Billy Walsh isn't one to be too generous with his praise considering he's coached the legendary Katie Taylor in the past. But he credited Simranjit's skill on the day. "She fought very well and it was a good result for the Indian boxer," he said. But he also added a caveat: "She needs to remember that she is still only in the last 16. She needs to recover both physically and mentally. Because beating the USA isn't the end of the competition," he said.
Her own coaches admit there are limitations she has to overcome. Her heavy banging style might pummel lesser boxers into submission but leave her open to counters from more seasoned opponents. "Simranjit will hit a lot of very clear punches. That's very good for the judges to see, but she needs to be careful with how she uses her energy. She shouldn't tire out before the end of the bout," says chief coach Santiago Nieva. But Nieva and Bergemasco both admit that while her aggression must be carefully managed, it's something that can't be, and shouldn't be coached out of a boxer. "Simranjit has a very important quality and that is her heart," says Begemasco.
While there's no doubting the extent of her determination, that heart will continue to be tested. Simranjit herself while happy with her debut, but would want to finish with a medal. "I want to win a medal and dedicate it to my father," she says. And she has bigger plans for herself. "I want to be champion at Tokyo," she says.