Pooja Rani: After disappointment in Cologne, Boxam was an acid test
Reigning middleweight world champion Atheyna Bylon was throwing fire in the ring at the Boxam Tournament in Spain. In the quarter-finals, she destroyed former world champion Russia's Zenfira Magomedalieva 4-1 and in the semi-finals, she was set to face India's very own Pooja Rani.
"I was a little apprehensive as she unleashed hell on Zenfira in the quarter-finals. And moreover, I had never competed against her before," Rani recounted to the Olympics.com.
But Rani was well-prepared. Under the guidance of India Women's High Performance Director, Raffaele Bergamasco, she had studied her opponent carefully and had a plan in place to win against the fierce boxer.
"She was taller than me and hence had a better reach. So you would never go close to her as that would make things easier. But at the same time, I did not change my natural attacking game and followed what Sir told me before the match. After the first round, I was much more confident that I was going to win."
Rani likes to rely on her sixth sense during a bout. That she feels gives her an edge over her opposition. And against Bylon she grew into the encounter with time and pulled off one of the most remarkable victories of her career.
However, the lockdown had made matters complicated for the pugilist. She had gained weight while she was at home and was fighting a race against time to get fit before the Cologne World Cup.
"However hard you try you cannot maintain the same discipline at home. I was very overweight around 81 kg which is significantly higher than my weight category (75kg). In boxing, you must have a partner to train. Again, once I joined the Patiala camp in September I had to come back home within a few days as my father was not well. I missed another month of training."
She went to Europe to train to make up for lost time and yet she was far from her best. At the World Cup, she had to settle for a bronze after losing to Netherland's Nouchka Fontijn.
"I trained for two and half months in Germany and Italy and slowly I was getting back to shape. After I lost I understood, that I need to train a lot. I am nowhere near the level I want to be. In Bellary, I started training with full concentration. After Cologne, it was an acid test."
After training in full swing before Boxam, she had once again regained her swift movements and powerful punches and was gunning to win gold. However, she lost to American Melissa Graham and had to settle with the second spot.
"The finals were about to start at 4 pm. We reached the venue a couple of hours before and started warming up. But soon the organisers informed us that one of our members of the contingent has turned out to be positive and you cannot compete.
"The focus completely shifted from the match. Then suddenly, they informed me that your match will take place. The mind was all over the place. Then inside the ring, I did not know what I did."
However, her Italian coach Bergamasco did not chide her much as she had evidently progressed a lot since Cologne. There was another reason for being light on her.
"There's a thing that we can't lose to Italian boxers. Our coach is Italian and for him, we have to beat Italians anyhow. In Boxam I faced an Italian (Canfora Assunta) who used to be in 69kg and now she is fighting in the 75kg category. I had to beat her and I demolished her 5-0. Sir was very happy."
Rani has won many prestige bouts in her career. After announcing her arrival on the national stage in 2009, she went on to win the silver medal in the Asian Boxing Championship in just three years' time. But her gold medal match against then world champion Wang Lina in the 2019 edition of the Asian Championship remains her most remarkable outing.
"That is undoubtedly my best bout till now. Defeating her to win gold, the joy was unparalleled. I don't want to take names but people had bet on me that I would lose. Even in the semi-finals, they bet that I would lose to Kazakhstan. Nobody had expected me to play that well. After I won, I shut my critics. They were my own people and still they were doing this kind of things. So, zid thi, ki jeetna hai. (I was stubborn to win)."
The 30-year-old is now sweating it out at the Inspire Institute of Sports in Bellary, Karnataka as she does not want to have any regrets before going to Tokyo. She missed out on Rio in 2016 after losing in the second round of the AIBA Women's World Boxing Championships and this time she wants to board the flight to Tokyo well-prepared and ready for any eventuality.
" I don't know how will I perform in the Olympics or whether I will get a medal, but jaan laga rahi hoon in training. I am training hard so that I have no regrets."