History of boxing in India: From a staggered start to a global powerhouse

India has been involved in amateur boxing since the 1920s and made its mark in Asia in the 1950s and 60s. It is now a regular medal contender on the world stage.

By Rahul Venkat

Boxing, with its long association with the Olympics, is one of the most popular sports in the world.

Tracing its roots back to 3000 BC Egypt, boxing first appeared as a global event at the 23rd Olympiad in 688 BC.

In India, too, records of a variation of boxing called the mushti-yuddha (war of fists) can be found in ancient texts, including the epic Mahabharata.

However, in the context of modern Olympics, amateur boxing made its Summer Games debut at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, USA. It was not part of the Olympic programme in 1912 but since then, it has featured in every edition of the Summer Games.

The history of amateur boxing itself can be traced to 1867, when the Queensberry Rules were first published.

Written by a Welsh sportsman named John Graham Chambers, the Queensberry Rules sought to formalise a code of conduct for boxing - which till then had existed as a form of prizefighting without any fixed set of rules.

The first amateur boxing championship was organised in the same year while the first official championship was hosted in 1880.

The sport rapidly grew across the world and the first instance of amateur boxing’s presence in India dates back to 1925, when the Bombay Presidency Amateur Boxing Federation was formed.

Bombay, now Mumbai, was the first city to formally conduct boxing tournaments in India.

Boxing slowly evolved in India over the next few decades. Post India’s independence from the British rule, the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation was formed in 1949.

The first-ever national boxing championships in India took place at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai in 1950.

At the global level, India participates in four major events in amateur boxing - the Olympics, the World Championships, the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

Here’s Indian boxing’s history with each event.

Indian boxing at the Olympics

Though boxing has been a long-standing fixture at the Summer Games, India’s first brush with boxing at the Olympics came at the 1948 London Olympics - a year prior to the formation of India’s first national boxing federation.

Seven Indian boxers - Rabin Bhatta, Benoy Bose, Robert Cranston, Mac Joachim, Babu Lall, John Nutall and Gene Raymond - qualified for London 1948.

Babu Lall, in men’s bantamweight (54kg), registered India’s first Olympic victory in boxing as he beat Allan Monteiro of Pakistan in the Round of 32. He, however, failed to overcome Puerto Rican boxer Juan Evangelista Venegas in the next round.

Indian boxing, however, could not build on that start as no Indian boxer could qualify for any of the next four Olympic Games (1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968).

The drought was finally broken by Mehtab Singh, Muniswamy Venu and Chander Narayanan, all of whom qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Since then, Indian boxers have been part of every Olympic Games.

The first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal was Vijender Singh - who won bronze in the men’s middleweight (75kg) category at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Women’s boxing was introduced to the Olympic programme in London 2012 and the legendary Mary Kom brought home India’s second Olympic boxing medal - a bronze in the flyweight (51kg) category - that year. Lovlina Borgohain won India's third Olympic boxing medal at Tokyo 2020, bagging a bronze in the welterweight (69kg) category.

Indian boxer Vijender Singh (right) won bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Indian boxing at World Championships

The first official World Boxing Championships, under the ambit of the International Boxing Federation (AIBA), was organised in 1974. The first AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships was held in 2001.

Earlier held every four years, the men’s World Boxing Championships have been a biennial event since 1989 and the women’s tournament have been biennial since 2006.

Indian boxing enjoys a rich legacy at the Women’s World Boxing Championships, courtesy Mary Kom, who has won a record six gold medals in the event.

Mary Kom - the most successful boxer at the Women’s World Boxing Championships - was also the first Indian boxer to win a medal at the global event with a silver in the light flyweight (48kg) category at the inaugural edition.

Besides Mary Kom, India’s Lekha KC, Jenny RL, Laishram Sarita Devi and Nikhat Zareen have also been women’s world champions in their respective categories.

With 10 gold, eight silver and 21 bronze medals, India is the fourth-most successful nation at the women’s boxing championships after Russia, China and Turkey.

The first male Indian boxer to win a World Championships medal was Vijender Singh, who won bronze in the middleweight division at the 2009 World Championships.

No male Indian boxer has won gold as yet at the World Championships, with the best performance being Amit Panghal’s flyweight (52kg) silver in the 2019 edition.

Mary Kom has won a record six world titles.
Picture by Getty Images

Indian boxing at Asian Games

Amateur boxing made its debut at the Asian Games at the 1954 edition in Manila, Philippines. It was a men’s only event then, with women’s boxing being introduced at the 2010 Asian Games.

Indian boxing has enjoyed considerable success at the Asian Games over the years. India is the eighth-most successful nation at the continental event with nine gold, 16 silver and 32 bronze medals.

The first Indian boxers to win Asian Games medals were Sundar Rao, who won bronze in the men’s lightweight (60kg) division, and Hari Singh, who won silver in the men’s middleweight (75kg) category. Both medals came at the 1958 Asian Games.

Four years later, Indian boxing celebrated its first Asian champion. Padam Bahadur Mall won gold in the men’s lightweight category beating Japan’s Kanemaru Shiratori in the final.

Hawa Singh is the only Indian boxer to win two Asian Games golds. He won his first gold at the 1966 Asian Games in the heavyweight (81+kg) division and defended his title at the 1970 Asian Games.

Among the women, Mary Kom became Indian boxing’s first Asian Games medallist, winning bronze in the flyweight (51kg) at the 2010 Asian Games.

She is also the only female Indian boxer to win an Asian Games gold, which came at the 2014 edition.

Indian boxing at Commonwealth Games

Boxing has been held at the Commonwealth Games since its first edition in 1930, when it was known as the British Empire Games. Women’s boxing was only introduced at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Indian boxing has a storied history with the Commonwealth Games fetching eight gold, 12 silver and 17 bronze medals. The tally makes India the tenth-most successful country in the competition’s history when it comes to boxing.

The first Indian boxer to win a Commonwealth Games medal was Shivaji Bhonsle, who won bronze in the men’s welterweight (69kg) at the 1970 Commonwealth Games.

Indian boxing’s first Commonwealth Games gold medal came at the 2002 edition, where Mohammad Ali Qamar won the light flyweight (49kg) division.

Pinki Rani became the first female Indian boxer to win a Commonwealth Games medal with her bronze in the flyweight category at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Mary Kom became the first Indian women’s Commonwealth Games gold-medallist with her victory in the flyweight category at the 2018 edition.

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