Lovlina Borgohain strode to the ring 278 days after winning an Olympic bronze medal. Accompanied by her trademark smile plastered wide on her face, she was ready for her first international bout since Tokyo at the Women's World Boxing Championships.
Standing across the ring was her arch-nemesis, former world champion Nien-Chin Chen. The Chinese Taipei pugilist had beaten Lovlina each time they had faced before the Olympics, including for the world crown in 2018. Lovlina's win over Chen in Tokyo offered her some solace and she was keen to prove that was no lucky break. But there was a tinge of nervousness - her bouts with Chen have always commanded the absolute best from her and Lovlina had been away from the ring for three quarters of a year.
"It was her first competition since the Olympics and her first bout was against a well-known tough opponent. She was a little nervous...tension toh rehta hi hai [there is always tension]. Especially considering the fact that she had no international exposure in nine months," Bhaskar Bhatt, head coach of the Indian women's boxing team, told ESPN.
Bhatt said that he wanted her to compete in the Strandja Memorial and Thailand Open earlier in the year but she wanted to prepare for the World Championships properly.
A nervy start
The bout against Chen was a nervy one. Both pugilists took the cautious route - neither managed a clear punch in the opening 35 seconds and neither went on the offensive in the opening round.
Lovlina's strategy, though, remained consistent throughout. "Strike and move. Don't get caught in front of her. Punch and step back and repeat. Uske saamne mat rehna, side nikalna [don't stay in front of her, move from the side]," roared the Indian coaching team from her corner.
"Chen is a hard hitter - her specialty is that she waits for the right moment, gets into the proper stance and jumps into a punch. We knew that she would go for the big punch the minute she gets close or settles in, so we did not give her that much room," added Bhatt. He conceded that Lovlina "wasn't able to punch as well as she wanted to" but did well enough to see out the bout. The 24-year-old won 3-2 in the 70kg category.
Now that Chen is out of the way, the nerves have settled down. Lovlina next faces Cindy Ngamba of the Fair Chance Team in the round-of-16 on Friday. Cindy was born in Cameroon and moved to France before settling down in Bolton in England. A champion of the England Boxing Nationals, she will represent the Fair Chance Team since she doesn't have a British passport yet.
Cindy, much like Chen, is a heavy-hitter. With a win to her name, Lovlina is better prepared. "We'll need her to be aggressive from the start and look to score more points. A hard-hitter needs space and cannot generate power until he/she finds a stance and gets into the right position. We won't let her settle in, the aim is to keep her moving and invite her. The closer she gets, the easier it is for Lovlina to punch and keep moving," said Bhatt.
According to the coach, Lovlina's range of punches is her biggest asset and it will be useful in a bout like this. "She's light on her feet and can throw the long punches. She's never stationary in her bouts, she lands a punch and shuffles across. That's what sets her apart - her upper body movement is phenomenal and she stays light on her feet."