When he won the bronze in Beijing in 2008, Vijender Singh became the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal. He went where no Indian boxer had ever gone before. The lanky kid from the tiny village of Bhiwani, Haryana created history. His story captivated the nation.
Fast forward seven years, an year before Rio Olympics, Vijender said he was done with amateur boxing. At 29 — not a youngster anymore — he was shifting career paths. He decided to go professional.
“Risk lena padtha hai life mein, risk lene waale hi kuch khaas kar sakthe hain. (It’s important to take risks in life, only those who risk, go on to accomplish big things).”
That’s Vijender Singh’s response when asked how he feels now about that switch. And mind you, it was quite the risk. For starters, professional boxing, before Vijender’s rise in the last one year, was virtually an unknown phenomenon in India. You just have to look at the story of Neeraj Goyyat, a bright talent who gave up amateur boxing when he was 20 to turn professional and been struggling to get into the limelight since then.
Vijender was stepping into uncharted territory.
And now, almost exactly a year later, undefeated in six fights, he is gearing for his first title fight when he takes on Kerry Hope in the WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight Championship.
“That Olympic medal in 2008 is why I am here right now,” he told, acknowledging the stardom that the medal brought him. And he is right. He had, in abundance, what other pro-boxers in India lacked — marketability.
Does he have any regrets, an year down the line, that he will not be in Rio representing India at the Olympics?
“Honestly, no! I have been lucky to get a good team around me, win my first six fights thanks to the training I have received and I am just excited to be back in India. It’s going to be my first fight in India in six years after the 2010 Commonwealth games. It’s my first title fight as a professional. What more can I ask for!”
It has not always been easy for Vijender. There was a lot of criticism when he announced the decision to turn professional in June last year. Back then, it meant Vijender would not represent India at Rio Olympics, though the rule has since changed. There were suggestions that he was taking the ‘easy route’ by choosing to sacrifice Olympics for pro-boxing.
“It’s a bit odd. Now that I am winning my fights, a lot of people are delighted for me. People appreciate me now, there is tremendous support on Facebook and Twitter. But it has not been easy for me either. People see the stardom and money I earn in professional boxing, and say ‘wow, what a life’ but it’s not easy,” says the boy from Bhiwani in near-fluent English with a hint of a British accent.
“In amateur boxing, you have the chance to learn from your losses, there is a bit more leisure there,” says Vijender’s trainer Beard. “But in professional boxing, it’s important to have an unbeaten record. If you lose, sometimes the road to get back can be tough because it’s not always easy to get a fight. In that sense the pressure is much higher.”
Vijender concedes that it is different in that sense. “If you lose, your market goes down,” is how he put it. But he says his biggest strength is to not let that fear of failure affect him in the ring.
“It’s not just about me now. I want to influence young kids, coming from a village like I did, and show them that this a career option. From eight boxers in 2012, we have three boxers going to Rio. So if the federation is not doing their job, I hope people can get inspired by seeing the platform pro-boxing is providing,” he says.
And make no mistake, if he wins his title fight, with the entire nation watching on, he would have done just that — for the second time in his career, Vijender would have inspired the nation.