Meet Saheb Singh Narwal, the beloved 'uncle' behind Manju Rani's Worlds medal

Narwal had no formal coaching himself in boxing, but took it upon himself to train all the Rohtak youngsters in the sport Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

On Sunday afternoon, inside the room of a house just behind Rohtak's Rajiv Gandhi stadium, there is no shortage of believers in 19-year-old Manju Rani.

Family, well-wishers, fellow boxers, coaches, and some journalists are all crammed into the room watching on their phones and laptops, the live stream of the final of the 48kg category at the Boxing World Championships in Ulan-Ude, Russia.

Manju narrowly lost 4-1 to local hope Ekaterina Paltceva, but still returned with a silver medal, the only Indian to do so. Notwithstanding a score that had more than a whiff of hometown decision about it, Manju was now in exalted company. She joins the likes of Mary Kom as a boxer who reached the final of the World Championships on debut - incidentally in the same weight class as the six-time World champion did back in 2001.

Unsurprisingly, the mood in the room is festive and buoyant. Laddoos are distributed. Manju's future is one full of promise. Her star can only rise.

That, however, was not the consensus just over two years ago. Manju was nowhere in the national reckoning. She was not even good enough to be considered at state or district level.

After a loss in the 2017 Rohtak district championships, the list of her supporters was all of one person. It was not her mother Ishwati Devi, who had encouraged Manju to box even when her late husband had been against the idea. It was not even Manju herself.

In fact, Ishwati had approached coach Saheb Singh Narwal asking if she should not take her daughter home. Her husband had died of liver cancer in 2010 and she had no income other than a small pension with which she was raising five children of her own and another two of a relative in the village of Rithal in Haryana's Rohtak district. It didn't make sense to let Manju have dreams that seemed unlikely to ever be fulfilled.

It was Narwal who put his foot down. He had first kindled boxing ambitions in Rithal, building a training area on his own farm land. When several of the children showed promise, he hardly thought twice before taking a house on rent in Rohtak, so the youngsters could be closer to the stadium. Knowing the financial hardship her mother was under, Narwal had taken Manju into his own family. He had gone above and beyond what might have been expected of him as a coach and he wasn't going to give up just yet.

"I felt that it was a burden on Narwal sahab to support her boxing career. But he said even if no one believes in Manju, he will continue to support her," recalls Ishwati. Perhaps that's why Manju rarely refers to him with the formal 'coach'.

"He's much more than a coach. He's looked after me like I'm his own daughter," Manju says.

"No one calls me coach. The children call me 'uncle,'" Narwal smiles.

Narwal, 46, certainly looks more a friendly uncle than a strict coach. He is a slight man, barely taller than the 5'4" Manju. He wears an India coach's T-shirt but that's only because Manju got one for him from the national camp. And while he can officially claim to be the coach of a World Championship medalist, he has absolutely no formal training as a coach - boxing or otherwise. Boxing happened only by chance.

Narwal had been a hockey and kabaddi player himself and coached the children in his village in the latter sport. When the Haryana government issued the SPAT (Sports and Physical Aptitude Test) scholarship program, Narwal coached the same children for that general fitness exam too. He recalls coaching around 45 youngsters out of which 22 won the scholarship.

"At that time the state government policy was that they would send a coach to provide formal coaching to whichever village seemed to have the most talent. We had 22 children who got the scholarship so we qualified," Narwal recalls.

As it turns out, the coach allotted to Rithal - Sube Singh Beniwal - was a boxing instructor. And while he insisted that the children learn to box, Narwal wasn't so sure at first.

"I had no clue about boxing. It seemed like a dangerous sport and I was worried the players would get injured if I taught anything wrong," he says. It was only after some coaxing by Beniwal and the fear that his village would get no instructor at all that Narwal decided to let the youngsters train as boxers.

Nothing was done in half measures. Since there was no place to train, Narwal offered up a piece of his own land, next to a fish farm he owned where a small raised platform was constructed to serve as a ring. Frayed ropes were strung around wooden stumps that served as the corners. A used heavy bag was strung up on a kikar tree.

Narwal learned along with them, partly by observing Beniwal and also by studying the sport himself.

"I went to Bhiwani where there are a lot of boxing academies and also watched a lot of boxing videos," he says. And while he had doubts at first, he picked up the sport relatively quickly.

"Sab dhoka ka game hai. (It's entirely about deceiving the opponent) You have to trick the opponent into thinking that you are going to punch somewhere but instead you have to hit somewhere else. When they are punching at you, you have to dodge that. That's the key."

Even with such a rudimentary setup and a coach who was learning the sport simultaneously, there were no shortage of results for the young children in the academy.

"Within the first year one of our girls Jony Phogat won a gold medal at the national school games," says Narwal. She would be joined by others, including Nisha Phogat and Manisha Narwal who went on to win medals for India in junior and youth international meets. Narwal's own children Anshu and Ankit are in the national reckoning, with Ankit In Ireland with the national youth team.

Even after Beniwal got promoted to a job away from Rithal and it was left to Narwal to coach on his own, the medals continued to flow. As the standard of the young boxers improved, Narwal decided to do what he could to help them continue to grow. He took a house adjacent to the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Rohtak where he felt the girls could benefit from better facilities and competition. Next to his house - on a neem tree this time - hangs a heavy bag which the children use to practice.

None of this was cheap.

"He doesn't charge a single rupee for any of the training he provides. He pays for their kit and gloves on his own. The car in which he took all the girls for local competition is now completely broken down," says Sunil Kumar, whose daughter trains with Narwal.

Narwal is not worried about these expenses.

"Money is always an issue. I've sold off two plots of my family's farmland to pay for the coaching and travel and rent. There are times when I've had no money to pay for my next month's expenses but I've never worried too much about these things. If you worry about how you are going to do things, you won't ever do anything."

Help comes from unexpected sources. A religious charitable trust near Rithal provides 30 litres of milk each day, which has motivated some children to come regularly to train. A wealthy relative provided vehicles to help the children travel to competitions across the state. A neighbour in Rohtak, who was a Railways coach, provided equipment.

But there were those who made things difficult too.

"Quite simply, some coaches were jealous. They saw someone who had no formal degree in coaching, suddenly producing these boxers who were beating their girls," says Sunil. It was Manju who seemed to get caught in the crossfire.

She was always one of Narwal's most prized pupils, among the first to join his SPAT training program and later fiercely determined to make a name for herself as a boxer.

"She's like me, very tough. She was always fascinated with winning medals," says Ishwati.

Narwal recalls a phenomenally talented athlete. "She was one of the most athletic children I had seen. When she first joined for the SPAT coaching, she was doing a high jump of three-and-a-half feet even though she was only around four feet herself."

But while she had plenty of talent as a boxer, Manju never could seem to catch a break with the local judges.

"If they want to keep someone down, they will find an excuse to do that. I have no background as a coach. I don't know anyone in the administration. If Manju got wronged, how could I help her get justice?"

What he could do was support her in every other way. Which is why when he moved to Rohtak city, he took Manju along with him.

"He took care of her every need and raised her like his own child. I never had to worry about her at all," Ishwati says. Narwal repeatedly took Manju to trials at the National Boxing Academy in Rohtak and pleaded with the coaches there to enrol her as a day scholar.

"I knew she had a financial requirement, so I asked them to take Manju over my own daughter," he says.

For the first two years since she moved to Rohtak with Narwal, Manju was in a state of limbo.

"In 2016 when she lost in the state championships, I convinced her that we would do so well the next year that it would be impossible to ignore her. And then in 2017 she was beaten in the district championships."

It took all his powers of persuasion to keep the then 17-year-old involved with the sport.

"I told her, don't quit now. That she will be someone who will fly in planes and play for India soon."

His luck finally turned when he was able to arrange a trial with Amanpreet Kaur, a coach with the Indian youth team.

"She advised us to take an admission with Lovely Professional University and play from Punjab instead of trying to win from Haryana all the time," says Narwal. The change of state paid off almost instantly with Manju winning the gold medal at the 2018 Nationals while representing Punjab.

Her career graph has only soared after that, with medals at every international competition - silver at Strandja and bronze medals at the Thailand Open and India Open -- she has competed in since.

Manju is a regular at the national camp now. She trains with various coaches including Raffaele Bergemasco, who led Italy to six Olympic medals, and Commonwealth gold medalist Mohammad Ali Qamar. Yet, while she was at Ulan-Ude, she routinely made calls back to Narwal and sent him videos of her opponents over Whatsapp. In the minutes after she claimed her silver at the Worlds, she made a video call to him, triumphantly holding up her medal over the choppy connection from across the world.

The medal done, Narwal is now thinking of what lies ahead. It has to be a fight for the 51kg spot in the Indian team with Mary Kom. Only then can Manju, who will have to move a weight class up, attempt to win a quota that will allow her to travel to the Olympics.

The legendary 36-year-old Manipuri is unlikely to give up her spot easily, or even acquiesce for a trial without a fight. Even with the momentum of a silver medal behind her, it seems unlikely that Manju will get a chance.

Once again, that's what the bulk of conventional logic will have you think. Not for the first time, Narwal disagrees. He certainly believes Manju has what it takes to make that place on the roster.

"I will always believe in her."