Coming amidst a turbulent four-year period for Indian boxing, Vijender Singh’s professional debut and unbeaten run have come as a breath of fresh air for the sport.
In late 2012, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) decided to suspend the erstwhile Indian Boxing Federation (IBF), due to a lack of transparency in their election process. The grassroot level impact was so severe, that India would field only three boxers in Rio 2016 as compared to eight at the London Games. National tournaments were few and far between, with an AIBA appointed ad-hoc committee governing the sport in a haphazard manner.
For a sport which has always given India success at both the continental and international level, it needed a fresh impetus to capture the country’s imagination once again. On October 10, 2015, Vijender landed his first knockout punch within the professional realm, with a 1-0 victory over United Kingdom’s Sonny Whiting.
An unprecedented run has seen him remain undefeated for another six matches. That streak includes a title victory in his own backyard at the Thyagaraj Stadium, where he would defeat Australia’s Kerry Hope to be crowned WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight champion.
For the first time ever, India witnessed a 30,000 capacity crowd for a boxing bout – something the amateur extension has yet to garner on the national front. This also came during a time when boxing’s popularity in India was hanging by a thread, signifying the sheer impact of Vijender on the Indian consciousness.
Over the period of these seven fights, Vijender has quickly climbed into the world top 15 of his weight category, highlighting his meteoric march towards the top of the hierarchy. However, the 31-year-old now faces his toughest challenge yet, in the form of reigning WBF Super Middleweight champion Francis Cheka.
The Tanzanian has won 30 of his 40 fights in a career spanning over 17 years. Out of his 30 victories, 16 have come through knockout, including a walloping of American Geard Ajetovic.
A week ago, Sportskeeda contacted Cheka to get his thoughts on the upcoming fight against Vijender on December 18. He said, “I have heard a lot about this Indian boxer and it’s time we put him in his place. He might have won seven matches in a row, but he has never faced an opponent with my kind of experience. I have seen his previous fights, and he hasn’t fought anyone substantial yet. I’ve had 17 knockouts in my career, and fought way many more rounds than he can ever imagine. Once I start landing my punches, it’s over for your (India’s) golden boy.”
Cheka’s confident approach to the bout prompted us to get in touch with Vijender, who is currently training in Manchester under the helm of Lee Beard. Here are excerpts of the interview.
Q. It’s been an unprecedented 11 months for you. Vijender the brand has become massive and you’ve also climbed into the world top 15. How different is this phase from your Olympic boxing days?
I’ve never been more confident in my own ability to win and continue winning for long period of time. As I progress further, I realise there is so much more to learn in this sport every day. There is a huge difference between Vijender’s first fight with Sony Whiting and right now, because that Vijender wouldn’t even stand a chance against Cheka. Now, my technique is superior and I’m much stronger than before.
In terms of difference, I think I only felt the difference till I was fighting in the UK; once I had my Kerry Hope fight in India, it just felt like I was representing India at the Olympics again. I never thought in my wildest dreams that so many Indians would come out to support me and shower me with the love that they did. It’s going to be the same crowd that will make me win my eighth straight bout.
Q. You have been training with Lee Beard for a while now. How much of your game has changed since your inception to pro boxing?
He (Lee) really knows how to push and motivate someone, and his motivation is not aimless, you know? A lot of people will motivate you for the sake of it, but his motivation is based on situations during the match. If I do this, this will happen, hence I need to do it much more. I can’t obviously discuss these details with you now, but yes, he’s quite the motivating character.
In terms of changes on my game, I think it’s quite evident for anyone who has followed me to see how I’ve beefed up and become much stronger than what I was. I lasted 10 rounds last time, indicating my stamina has also gotten better. I’m mainly working on my technique right now; the thing is, if you’re boxing for as long as 10 rounds, it’s natural for your technique to have loopholes once you’re tired. That’s when you end up giving those small gaps in your defence or even miss punches which you normally don’t miss.
My main focus right now is to better my form and technique, along with my stamina, so that there are no loopholes in my defence till the 10th round. If you work on this, everything follows suit, and I think Lee is the perfect trainer for this because he has so much knowledge about in-ring situations.
Q. Francis Cheka is arguably your toughest opponent yet, considering the amount of experience he has had at the top level. He had some choice words for you; would you like to respond to that?
I would like to laugh at this statement of his. I’m going to be honest, I have never indulged in pro-boxing trash talk, I don’t understand it and I will always, and I mean always, let my boxing in the ring do the talking. He can talk all he wants about my weakness and my previous opponents; all I can say is that the ring will decide what happens.
I have faith and confidence in my own ability. I have also watched a lot of his videos on YouTube to examine his style. Both me and Lee sat down extensively to discuss his drawbacks and strengths so that we can focus on that. So I won’t pass any comments on that now; all I can say is that I’m ready, and bring it on! Also tell him these words, ‘Singh is King’.
Q. You were quite angry that the ad-hoc committee didn’t select you for the Rio 2016 Olympics. Is there a chance that we can see you return to Olympics action in Tokyo 2020?
Okay, I’ll be quite honest about the situation here. The ad-hoc committee guys contacted me and told me two weeks before Rio, asking me to go. However, I had prior professional commitments, and also I was asked to go only after I made myself heard about the situation. I had professional fights lined up, including weigh-ins etc, which I couldn’t just leave like that.
They should have done it in a more structured manner, instead of just asking me casually two weeks before. So I decided it’s not possible. Also, Olympic training is very different. If someone is running the 5000m, you can’t ask him to run the 100m in two weeks, right?
If everything goes well, and it adds up to my schedule, I will not rule the Tokyo Olympics out. However, I have a lot on my plate till that time comes.
Q. Apart from you, another pro boxer – Neeraj Goyat – also entered the top 35 rankings in his category. Your thoughts about his progress?
You know, the state of the sport hasn’t been the best over the past four years. So any amount of success is important for both the country and the sport’s future. I wish more power to him, and also wish that he doesn’t stop this upward ascent. This is just the beginning for him, and if he continues the way he is boxing, nothing can stop him from becoming India’s best.
Q. Do you think there has been improvement in the state of amateur boxing in India, since the time you left?
Not really, there hasn’t been (much). Every boxer I speak to talks about how they are struggling to consistently play tournaments throughout the year. They can’t attend international events, so a lot of talent has just been sitting on the bench. However, now there is a new chairman, a few events have been conducted, it will change very soon I’m sure. It has to.
Q. Vijender Singh four years ago was fighting every week, Vijender Singh now fights once every one-and-a-half months. Does the time gap between fights annoy you?
Not really. I feel like this change is refreshing as it gives me more time to analyse what I’m doing with my game. If I make a mistake I get time to reflect on it, chalk out the solution and eventually execute. Before, because I didn’t have as much time, I would hope to find a solution while boxing; here, I leave nothing to chance.
I know if I make a mistake it’s because of my slow reflexes or my technique, not because I couldn’t work on it before. I’m enjoying these gaps and I feel my best boxing is showcased in this kind of format. I have so many other sessions of cooling down and warming up, that is helping me better my game.
Q. Any of these specific techniques being applied for the fight against Francis Cheka?
*Laughs* I’m not going to discuss any of that, because I don’t want my opponent to be aware of what I’m doing. However, as I said, I have studied his game and will be adjusting my game accordingly.
Q. Any parting words for your fight against Cheka?
Yes, I will knock him out!