For all the noise about going pro and entering the “big leagues”, there remains an amateurish, boyish charm about Vijender Singh. There is a sense that the boy from Bhiwani has remained just so; a boy caught in a fascinating warp, thirsting evermore for glory, bubbling with untapped reserves.
There never seems to be a point where Vijender Singh relaxes, or settles for anything less than he feels he deserves or can achieve. The end goal is now a big, showy belt, quintessentially American in its size and lure, and Vijender, the current World Boxing Organization Asia-Pacific champion, will be seeking to retain his hard-fought title.
His opponent, Tanzania’s Francis Cheka, is massively popular in his home country, although he has recently seen a souring of relations when he was sentenced to jail for assaulting his bar manager. Cheka, at 34, is three years Singh’s senior, but has over 17 years of professional boxing experience, and has held the World Super Middleweight title. His record shows a steady, consistent performer with 32 wins and eight defeats, but no wins away from the African continent raise the question marks that Singh will look to add on to.
Boxing still taking baby steps in India
Professional boxing is a baby sport here in India. And not just as a sport, but in terms of public awareness, publicity, hype, glamour and monies. Singh has had to travel to various promotional events across the capital, conduct innumerable interviews arranged by his promoters, and literally implore people to come for his fight on Saturday.
Compare this with the Americas, and you see the stark differences. The star pro boxers there are celebrities and millionaires, the product of a well-oiled sports PR machinery, and the cynosure of millions of eyes. Hopes rest on individuals, cutting across borders and religious affiliations. Forget every punch in the ring, every move on a dance floor is analysed, every suspicion of substance abuse taken seriously, and every relationship or marital discord displayed and discussed at length. Celebrity boxers can be created with the right creative mix of a story, and constant television appearances.
Singh and his promoters can artificially stimulate a feeble version of that hype machine, as the curiosity remains high, but the end result of the bout is what matters in India, and even then, it has the shelf life of an enjoyable meal. Singh realised (and has bemoaned) this early on in his career. There is no doubt though, that the square jawed, good looking Haryanvi has managed to capture the attention of a majority of the population, and his decision to go pro and fight in India could well be a masterstroke, should he win this second bout in his country.
Can Vijender make it 8-0?
Singh vs Cheka has seen its share of mild trash talk and customary face-offs, but there is sweet naïveté to it when it comes to Vijender Singh. Cheka was in good form in the pre-match press conference, all bluster and show as he sought to demean the Singh’s achievements, his experience and his decision to fight him. Singh, on the other hand, looked like he was shooting for another episode of Roadies, and that the producers had told him to put his best “mean face” on.
Singh is a thoughtful, calculated boxer. His steady technique is not particularly television or stadium friendly, especially for an audience whose greatest interaction with pro boxing till date is probably Rocky Balboa vs Ivan Drago on Star Movies. While Singh may not go hell for leather, the most interesting aspect to notice would be to see just how far he has come in the last 18 months. With seven fights and a title under his belt, a year of training can seem much longer, especially given the late hour of his arrival onto the professional scene and the scarcity of time in front of him. His movements, balance and control will be the key as he seeks to take down his opponent.
Boxing is often considered a rudimentary, archaic and barbaric sport, with bludgeoning blows to the skull causing innumerable problems to boxers in the later stages of their career and life. There is little doubt of the reasons for its visceral attraction, though. With no ball acting as the centre of attention, this sport puts flesh and bone against each other, glorifying sweat, blood and glory in the process. For the fresh-faced Singh, this has been and will continue to be his life. There has been sacrifice and pain along the way, but all that will fade should he stand, arms aloft and victorious, on Saturday.
For us, the secondary glory chasers, this could be the beginning of something very special.