Amit Panghal might be renowned as India's first World Championships silver medallist in men's boxing, but in recent weeks, it's his beard that turned heads at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. He'd started growing it out in March, when sporting activities were curtailed as India went into the COVID-19 lockdown. It's now touching the top of his chest, looking particularly outsized on his five-foot-two frame.
"I've always wanted to grow a beard but never had the chance. I've always been a boxer and for a really long time, it was banned to compete with one. Once I realized there wasn't going to be any competition for some time, I decided to grow mine. Even after I returned to the camp in August, I was able keep it because we hadn't returned to full contact sparring then. I don't think any sportsperson in India has a beard like mine. I'm very happy with how mine looks," he says.
Panghal will likely be trimming his accessory shortly. On Friday evening, the 24-year old, as part of a 16-member squad, will travel to Italy and France for a 52-day training programme, where 13 members of the team will also participate in the Alexis Vastine International Boxing Tournament in Nantes, France at the end of the month.
"I've put in a lot of work on grooming it. At the camp a lot of people would admire it. They would add all I needed was a pagri (turban). But I've got to cut it off now and that's going to be painful," he says only half-joking.
The sacrifice will be necessary. The Alex Vastine tournament will be his first competition since the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in February when he booked his Olympics ticket. The coronavirus pandemic has affected his training too. Even though the Indian boxing camp restarted in August, the number of restrictions put on the national campers as part of the Sports Authority of India protocols has meant that there has been no sparring. "The problem we were having in India is that there were a lot of limitations in how we could train. We couldn't practice in the ring and even if we had to spar, the quality of opponents isn't great because only a limited number of boxers were allowed back to the camp. We will be able to train better in Italy and the tournament in France will allow me to compete against some good quality fighters. It will be a good way to understand the areas that I'll have to work on," he says.
While it's clear that training over the last few months hasn't been perfect, Panghal is clear that he hasn't regressed in any way. "Of course it would have been great if the Olympics had been held as per the schedule. I was in really good form and my confidence was very high. Even after the lockdown started in March, I still continued to train in my village however I could," he says.
Panghal was just about hitting peak form when the pandemic struck and indeed rose to the top of the AIBA world rankings in July - when the Olympics were originally scheduled to begin. Nevertheless, he's looking to make the most of the additional time he's now got on his hands. "There are a number of things I couldn't have prepared for in March because there wasn't a lot of time to the Olympics. But once I had a year, I could make those changes," he says.
One key area he says he's worked on are his power. Panghal had originally started competing in the 49kg light flyweight division and had had his share of success, winning a gold at the Asian Games. That weight class was removed from the Olympics in favour of the 52kg flyweight division. Panghal had shifted but was always amongst the smaller competitors in that new division. While his speed made up for the inches in reach he was giving up, there was a strength mismatch that he feels he's now bridged. "I worked on my diet during the lockdown. I'm now walking at 55kg which I can cut down to 52kg at the time of the competition. I'm carrying a lot more weight in my punches now. That's giving me a lot of confidence," he says.
He's also grateful for the extended break he's been able to give his body. "Usually every sportsperson carries some small injury all the time. Because it's the Olympics he pushes himself anyway. But because of the break, I'm very fresh right now. I'm seeing the results of other athletes who are returning to competition now. They are making some huge improvements. I think that will be case for me as well," he says.
But the only way Panghal will find out just how much he's improved will be at the competition in France. And that means the beard he's so lovingly tended will have to go. "I want to see the level of my fitness. I also want to see at what level I am at. I've tried to improve myself. I feel I've done better. It will be a shame I'll have to trim my beard but that's just a shouk (pleasure). Boxing is my priority," he says.