Political detour done, Vijender Singh raring for U.S. debut

Olympic medallist Vijender Singh had turned professional in 2015. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP

Two days to go before he makes his professional boxing debut in the U.S., things are going smoothly for Vijender Singh. He's through most of his media engagements to promote his bout against Mike Snider and more importantly he has his weight and conditioning under control for the super middleweight contest. "I'm feeling good and relaxed," says the 33-year-old over the phone from Newark, New Jersey. "My preparation is done. Now I'm just waiting to get to the stage and hear my music once again."

When and where to watch Vijender Singh vs Mike Snider

4:30 AM (IST) 14 July, 2019: LIVE on Sony Ten 1 HD and SonyLIV

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When he steps into the ring at Newark's Prudential Center to the beat of 'Singh is King', it will be over a year and a half from the last time he did so competitively. For multiple reasons and distractions both in and out of his own control, Singh has been inactive as a fighter ever since he improved his professional record to 10-0 with his win over Ernest Amuzu back in July 2017.

This is not the situation Singh, the only Indian men's boxer to medal at the Olympics, had expected to find himself in ever since he boldly stepped away from his storied amateur career and turned professional back in mid-2015.

He was nearly 30 when he did make the switch to the professional ranks with the stated ambition of fighting for a world title at Madison Square Garden. It was a risky decision since he would have to rapidly his change his boxing style from the point-scoring, touch-and-move approach he had perfected over nearly two decades in the amateurs to the more deliberate and hard punching of the professional ranks. He had also to quickly get fights and wins under his belts if he had to pad up his resume with the hope of getting the high-profile fights he felt he deserved.

But it had seemed that Singh's career had stalled. He fought thrice in 2015, five times in 2016, before his final two bouts in 2017. And while he won a couple of minor regional belts, it was not the sort of reward he would have been satisfied with. He was expected to fight Rocky Fielding for the Commonwealth title but that fight fell through, as did others. Frustrated, he walked away from his UK-based promoters and was eventually signed by Top Rank, one of the biggest names in the business.

It was a move that was expected to get his career back on track. Indeed, Singh was training under one of the greats of boxing coaching in Freddie Roach and was slated to make his U.S. debut in April this year. Then just days before his bout he was injured in a sparring session and had to pull out.

"It was a heartbreak for me," says Singh. "First I wasn't getting fights and then, just a few days before such an important fight, I got injured for no fault of mine."

Cue yet another enforced break. Singh returned to India where he threw up another surprise by announcing his candidature as a Congress candidate for the Lok Sabha parliamentary elections. His switch from sparring in the gym to the grind of the campaign trail might have failed but Singh doesn't dwell too much on the loss. "Life is about taking risks. It doesn't always work but you have to try," he says.

Following his defeat at the polls, Singh returned to boxing. On learning he had a fight set up against Snider -- no slouch as a 13-5 record would suggest -- he threw himself back into training. Instead of going back to California to train under Roach, he opted to return to Manchester under coach Lee Beard, who he had first trained with when he decided to turn professional.

Beard, who has coached multiple world champions including Ricky Hatton and Argenis Mendez, admits he wasn't ecstatic at what he saw. With no competition in a year and a half and only limited gym time in that period, Singh was clearly rusty at the start of his five-week stint. "On the first day, his rhythm and technique were not going well," says Beard. "His timing was completely off."

His strength and conditioning needed work too. "I knew he was doing some campaigning, which wasn't the ideal situation for him to be in," says Beard. "He told me he was doing a lot of door-to-door walking and then a lot of driving, which isn't the best routine."

But while Singh might have been rusty, his work ethic and will power remained intact. "Because he was returning after so long, I expected him to take a few breaks between training days," says Beard. "I understood that would be the case because I didn't want to burn him out too soon. But in the end he only took two days off over five weeks. That shows his commitment. By the third week, his muscle memory kicked in and he was able to pick up the pace. By the end, I was more than satisfied with where he was."

"I'm looking to get this fight out of the way, then hopefully do two more fights this year. I'm not going to do any more experiments. It's only going to be boxing from now on." Vijender Singh

Both Singh and Beard know that the bout against Snider won't be the easiest one, especially for someone coming off a long hiatus. What is to Singh's advantage is that it will be an eight-round contest rather than the ten-rounders of his last four fights. And they also know that Singh can't afford too many long breaks like the one he is just ending. "At his age he needs to be as active as possible," says Beard. "We can't go in and out of camps in this way any more. If he wants to fight for the big titles, he needs to be fighting regularly."

This means that Singh, unlike what he has had to do over the past 18 months, will have to stay focused on just his boxing as much as possible. "If he wants to improve, he needs to keep ticking off the days in the gym and not start from zero each time," says Beard.

Singh concurs with that assessment too. "I'm looking to get this fight out of the way, then hopefully do two more fights this year," he says. "I'm not going to do any more experiments. It's only going to be boxing from now on."