There aren't many recognisable faces training alongside Indian boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav at the Charles Houston recreation centre in the city of Alexandria in Virginia, U.S.. The centre has produced a number of high-profile boxers -- including 2016 Olympic silver medallist and current WBO featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson.
These days, though, it's mostly youngsters and relatively unknown professionals giving company to Krishan, who has been training there for the past month and a half. But, this is how he wants it. While the Indian is clearly one of the most high-profile boxers here, he's looking for improvement by learning the basics of his sport once again.
Krishan once thought he knew all there was to know about boxing. With three medals at the Asian Games, one at the Commonwealth Games, a bronze at the World Championships and two -- going on three -- Olympics appearances to his name over a decade-long senior international career, this might have seemed a fair assessment. The consensus was that while the 28-year-old was undoubtedly an elite talent, he was something of a known commodity in Indian boxing. National boxing coach Santiago Nieva might have thought the same thing until he got a painful surprise at the start of the year. It came in February, just before the start of the Asia-Oceania Olympic boxing qualifiers in Jordan, when Krishan threw a left hook while hitting the pads with Nieva.
Nieva had braced for the power he was used to from Krishan. This time, though, the force of the blow caught him unprepared. "The punch hit him so hard, it hurt his shoulder. He later told me he had to get it iced," recalls Krishan.
That additional power, Krishan says, was generated because he had simply stopped twisting his lead foot while throwing his punch. This wasn't something he had ever done before. Indeed, as Krishan says, this wasn't anything any traditionally trained Indian boxer would have done. "All our lives we had been taught to twist our foot while throwing the punch. We hadn't ever questioned it," he says.
Krishan says he first got a different perspective from coach Ronald Simms when he trained with him at the end of 2019 at the Indian Institute of Sports -- a private training facility in Bellary, Karnataka. "Ron asked me to go through video footage of any top professional boxer and see if they ever twisted their foot while throwing a hook. I did and realised everyone braced their foot while punching," he says.
Krishan noticed that planting his foot into the canvas allowed more power to flow through his hook. That change to his technique paid dividends at the Asian Olympic qualifiers, where he coasted to an Olympic quota. But Krishan wasn't satisfied. "At the end of the tournament, I made a list of all the areas of my game I wasn't happy with. I knew I had to work on all of them," he says.
"I had god-gifted speed and I was getting by all my life because of it. But if I have to go to the next level, there had to be major changes." Vikas Krishan
While he had initially thought he had only a few months to work on his problem areas, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics meant he suddenly had a lot more time to work with.
That's the principle reason he headed out, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, to Alexandria, where he's training alongside coach Simms. There are several areas of improvement he's targeting. "The main problem I'm facing is because I'd trained in the amateur Olympic style all my life. Coach Ron (Simms) says boxing is boxing but there is a difference. The goal in the Olympic format is to punch quickly and move all the time. It's a system that trains you to be fast but at the cost of control. It's good if you are only looking to punch quickly and move but it has its limitations when you need power. Because you are moving all the time, you aren't ever balanced. Even in my case, when I used to throw really heavy punches, I'd often fall over because I was so unbalanced," he says.
Krishan is aware that an argument could be made that all his success -- and he is certainly one of India's most accomplished boxers ever -- came despite all the ostensible flaws in his technique. "I was doing well despite all of it. I of course had god-gifted speed and I was getting by all my life because of it. But if I have to go to the next level, there had to be major changes," he says.
Change isn't easy, however. "There are sacrifices because you are trying to unlearn a lot of things. It gets a little frustrating because you have to consciously avoid making old mistakes. Suddenly you find yourself using muscles you hadn't needed before. So your body aches a lot more than it normally would," he says.
Krishan doesn't mind, though. The novelty of training away from India is something he appreciates. "One of the challenges of boxing for as long as I have is that a level of boredom sets in because you are doing the same thing each day. Additionally I really like that I have a variety of partners to train against. Right now if I was training in India, I already know I'm familiar with every other boxer at the national camp. I'm also much stronger than nearly everyone else in my weight category, so there's very little improvement I can make while training with them," he says.
Krishan isn't training in the U.S. for the first time. He was most recently in the country a year ago, when he had signed with the Top Rank fight promotion, and subsequently trained for and fought two professional bouts. While he isn't averse to the idea of fighting professionally again, Krishan isn't looking to participate in any further contests until after the Olympics.
"Right now my sights are focused entirely on the Olympics. I've already made it clear that I'll only be satisfied with a gold medal there. Right now, I just want to work on my technique in the U.S.. I'll return to India at the end of November and then I'll take part in any amateur competition before the Olympics next year just to test the changes I've brought to my game. After that my real test will come in Tokyo," he says.