There was a sense of haste when the Indian boxing team headed to the Asian Boxing Championships early last week. It wasn't just because the team had found out at the last minute that they would be allowed to travel to Dubai, where the continental tournament had been shifted to, from India, following the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the medal tally will suggest India has done well, that wasn't the point of the tournament for the Indian squad, which will be travelling to Tokyo in about fifty days' time. The competition was the last chance for the nine members of the Indian boxing team who have qualified for the Olympics to get match practice prior to the Tokyo Games.
For some like Amit Panghal, it would be a shot in the arm while for others, the results at Dubai seem to suggest there will be more questions than answers.
World No.1 boxer Panghal is likely to be heading to Tokyo brimming with confidence. In the first round, he beat Kharkhuu Enkhmandakh of Mongolia -- a fighter he had laboured to a win over at the 2020 Asian Olympic qualifiers. In the semifinals, he beat 2019 World bronze medallist Saken Bibossinov, whom he might very well run into in Tokyo. In the final against the reigning Olympic champion Shakobidin Zoirov, Panghal ended up losing a tremendously tight 3-2 decision despite the majority of judges declaring him the winner of the second and third round. India have sought a review of the decision.
Apart from Panghal, though, the remainder of the Tokyo boxing contingent will feel they have work to do.
Although he was in a tough field featuring two-time world medallist Ablaikhan Zhussupov of Kazakhstan and Asian Games champion Bobo Usman Baturov of Uzbekistan, Vikas Krishan Yadav had been looking forward to taking part in the Asian Championships -- his first tournament since the 2020 Asian Olympic qualifiers. "A medal at the Asian Championships doesn't matter to me as much as getting to compete against these guys," Yadav told ESPN before his departure. "I want to box against them once before the Tokyo Olympics. It doesn't matter if I win or lose but if I box once against them, I'll be very confident of what I need to do at Tokyo," he had said. Unfortunately for Vikas, although he got a chance to compete against Baturov in the semifinals, he was cut above his eyebrow in the first round, forcing the contest to be stopped. Vikas only had a little over two minutes of a look at Baturov before the Uzbek was declared the winner based on the scoring until that point.
Ashish Kumar too got just a very short look at prospective opponents in Tokyo. He lost in his first bout to Kazakhstan's Abilkhan Amankul, a former World silver medallist and top contender at Tokyo.
Room for improvement
Mary Kom received her eighth medal at the Asian Championships and Pooja Rani her fourth. Pooja's Asian gold should be seen in the light of the fact that she had all of one bout over the course of the tournament. Kom, though, showed room for improvement. That was to be expected considering the poor buildup the squad had had for the competition. The national camp in Delhi's Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium was halted after several COVID cases came to light. Those infected included women's boxing coach Ali Qamar and their High Performance Director Rafaelle Bergamasco. Training was subsequently organised in Pune's Army Sports Institute a couple of weeks before the team's departure for Dubai and only a handful of Olympic-bound boxers, including Kom, turned up for it. "Mary had a very good tournament overall. With limited training, her performance is really praiseworthy," Qamar said.
Despite the plaudits, what would worry the Indian was the fact that she seemed physically weaker than her Kazakh opponent -- who hasn't even qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
Three members of the Indian team travelling to the Asian Championships -- Ashish Kumar, Lovlina Borgohain and Simranjit Kaur -- have recovered from bouts of COVID-19. While Borgohain had been infected in October last year, Kaur had only just recovered a few days before heading to Dubai. Both of them lost early to relatively unheralded opponents. Borgohain was beaten by Uzbekistan's Khamidova Navbekov.
Kaur's performance would be particularly deflating. At the Asian Olympic qualifiers last year, the Indian had comprehensively beaten Rimma Volossenko of Kazakhstan. This time around, though, Kaur was a long way from her best. The Indian's come-forward style doesn't work as well if her stamina is lacking, as was the case in Dubai. It was only natural then that the Kazakh returned the favour with a dominant one-sided win. Coaches can only hope the Kaur finds her way back to fitness over the next couple of months.