Indian boxing in 2019 witnessed some history-making performances, selection drama, and big-ticket doping bans but also found their Olympic hope in pint-sized dynamo Amit Panghal.
Amid the ignominy, the 23-year-old Panghal fetched India its first-ever silver at the men’s world championships, the redoubtable MC Mary Kom was mostly in top form and medals poured in internationally courtesy a deep talent pool.
Vijender Singh, who claimed his 12th successive victory in the professional circuit this year remained unbeatable, still looking for an opponent who can stand up to the raw power of his punches.
On the downside, shockwaves streamed through the fraternity when the accomplished duo of Neeraj Phogat (women’s camp) and Sumit Sangwan (men’s camp) flunked dope tests and a floppy selection process led to the country’s most celebrated boxer Mary Kom being tied into an unsavoury controversy.
Former junior world champion Nikhat Zareen challenged Mary Kom for a fair trial bout and was thrashed in a 9-1 defeat on Saturday (December 28) when the six-time world champion headed to make the Indian team for next year’s Olympics qualifers.
For the most part, Indian boxing had lots to celebrate and it started with the season-opening Strandja Memorial, one of Europe’s oldest and most competitive tournaments.
Panghal’s 2019 gold rush began in the tournament, which was also his last competition in the 49kg category.
Zareen and Meena Kumari Devi became the first set of Indian women boxers to finish on top at the same event. Zareen later went on to hit the headlines by vociferously raising the demand for a trial against Mary Kom.
Panghal moved up to 52kg in March and though he sounded a bit nervous about the shift, the results told a different story. He grabbed a gold immediately, at the Asian Championships in April, to assert his supremacy in the new division.
Pooja Rani, a boxer who felt shy about wearing gloves at the start of her career, ensured that women too went home with a gold with her best ever performance at the event. Mary Kom gave it a miss to prepare herself for the world championships.
Then came the world championships in September and October, the blue-riband event which lost some of its sheen after being stripped of Olympic Qualifier status by the International Olympic Committee due to the alleged administrative mess and financial mismanagement in the International Boxing Association (AIBA).
There was some drama when the Indian women’s squad was finalised for it as Zareen protested after being stopped from appearing for a scheduled trial bout. However, it didn’t make much of a difference to the final list as Mary Kom was picked based on her golds at the India Open and an Indonesian tourney besides the consistent performance in the national camp.
What also tilted the scales in the veteran’s favour was her victory over Zareen in the India Open semifinals. Nonetheless, the BFI managed to create a controversy where none should have existed, by denying Zareen a scheduled trial bout and leaving its decision for quite late in the day.
In the world championship for men, Panghal gave India a watershed moment by making the finals after Manish Kaushik (63kg) fetched the bronze, which had earlier been also achieved, in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015.
The silver made Panghal the undisputed top name in Indian men’s boxing and he capped the year by winning the Best Boxer Award at the BFI’s first-ever pro-style league.
As for the women, 20-year-old Manju Rani, who lost her father a BSF man — to cancer in 2010, found the individual glory she was looking for when she took to the sport. She was the lone Indian to make the women’s world championship final this time and signed off with a silver medal. The iconic Mary Kom had to be content with a bronze this time.
The BFI had decided that the gold and silver-winners from the women’s world championship would be given direct selection for next year’s Olympic qualifiers.
However, the body’s President, Ajay Singh, stirred up a hornet’s nest by stating that the BFI would make an exception for Mary Kom (51kg) and select her without a trial.
Zareen raised the protest card and even wrote to the sports minister, demanding a trial. The BFI, after maintaining a stoic silence, announced trials and the controversy finally ended after an angry Mary Kom defeated the younger boxer to not just make the cut but also prove a point about her abilities at 36.
The sport itself remained in doldrums internationally with the International Boxing Association taking charge of the Olympic qualification process and the conduct of the competition in the Olympics.
This was after AIBA failed to convince IOC of its financial well-being and integrity, which took a severe hit during the 2016 Rio Olympics due to poor judging.
The coming year promises to be a big one for Indian boxing in which both the seasoned stars and the up and coming ones would look to offset the disappointment of 2016 Games, where India failed to win any boxing medal for men and didn’t have a qualified pugilist in the women’s draw.
(With inputs from agencies)