From almost quitting boxing to making Tokyo cut, this is the Ashish Kumar story
Among the nine Indian boxers who qualified for the Tokyo Games, little known Ashish Kumar will be a serious contender for an Olympic medal.
The middleweight (75kg) boxer beat Indonesia’s Maikhel Muskita in the quarter-finals of the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Amman, Jordan in March last year and confirmed his spot for Tokyo 2020. It will be his Olympics debut.
A few years ago, however, Ashish Kumar considered quitting the sport and joining the Indian army or becoming a police officer. Things were tough for young Ashish in the ring.
Boxing in the blood
Growing up in the small township of Sunder Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, Ashish Kumar was not spoilt for choice when it came to seeking a career in sports.
“I had the choice to either pick wrestling or boxing as they dominated the place I grew up in. I have three elder brothers, all of whom were known as great boxers in town. I naturally gravitated towards boxing,” Ashish Kumar told the Olympic Channel.
“Moreover, I was a skinny kid, so I did not fancy my chances at wrestling anyway,” Ashish chuckled.
Ashish Kumar took up boxing at the age of 14 and discovered he had the talent for it. He also had the backing from his family.
“My father was always very supportive of me. The only thing he told me was to apply myself properly to boxing. I had made the choice to be a professional sportsperson and it was up to me to give it my all,” he said.
When he was 16, Ashish Kumar shifted to Bhiwani – the place that gave Vijender Singh, India’s first Olympic boxing medallist – to train. But hardships soon started to kick in.
Ashish Kumar did not impress at the state or national level. A breakthrough win was never forthcoming no matter how hard he tried.
“There was no let-up in my training at all. I worked extremely hard, did all the right things, but I didn’t win any medals for almost six years. I always lost in the first or second rounds and if I did manage to make the knockouts, I would lose the medal fight,” the Indian boxer recalled.
“I was frustrated and demotivated. Things reached a crescendo at the 2014 nationals, where I had prepared very well but lost again. It was then that I felt that I was better off taking up another job and becoming settled as they say.”
The turning point
Early in 2015, Ashish Kumar made up his mind to join the Indian Army or the police. A month later though, the National Games were scheduled in Kerala.
“I had already qualified so I thought I might as well give it a go before leaving for good. That tournament changed my life,” Ashish said.
Perhaps it was a lack of pressure or that he had made peace with his decision to leave boxing, but Ashish Kumar came up with the performance of his life at the National Games.
In a plot that would not look out of place in a Bollywood blockbuster, Ashish Kumar won the National Games title by beating former national champion Kuldeep Singh, whom Ashish had lost to a month earlier.
“I was back in love with boxing. It would not have been possible without the support of my coach and especially my father,” said Ashish Kumar.
“My father always told me to be positive – even when I was losing bouts. I had seen him not buy things for himself and instead invest that money into my training and diet. He made a lot of sacrifices for me, and I am grateful for that.”
The magic moment
Ashish Kumar went full-steam into boxing from that moment and it finally paid off in March last year in Amman where he sealed his spot at the Tokyo Olympics. He dedicated it to his father, who had passed away a month earlier.
“I was just so ready before that bout. I knew if I won, it would be another life-changing moment for me,” said Ashish Kumar. “See, the motivation is the same for everyone at that stage – everyone wants to be at the Olympics. You cannot take anyone lightly but maybe I just had an extra factor pushing me.”
With an Olympics place sealed, the Indian boxer then came up against top-seeded Eumir Marcial of the Philippines in the semis.
He lost. But that bout showed how far Ashish Kumar had come – he now chose to look at the positives instead of chastising himself for the loss.
“I think that was a decent fight. Marcial had been dominating opponents till then but I stood up to him well,” he said. In fact, Ashish Kumar even fired a parting shot at Marcial – all in jest, of course.
“After the bout, I told him that he may have won this time, but the next one will not be so easy. He shot back saying ‘we will see’,” laughed Ashish Kumar. “We have known each other for a long time, so we are good friends and both of us understood it was all said in good humour.”
From facing the disappointment of failure early in life to keeping a positive attitude, Ashish Kumar has come a long way. That maturity will be one of his biggest weapons when he launches his medal campaign at Tokyo come July.