The wait seemed to continue forever. While a number of Indian boxers had made it to the Olympic Games, none ever returned with a medal. But this changed in 2008.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a tall young boxer, blessed with long arms, went on to change the script for Indian boxing.
Vijender Singh’s bronze medal in the middleweight category -- the first Olympic medal in boxing by an Indian -- proved to be the punch the sport needed in the nation. This was further boosted by MC Mary Kom and her performance four years later at the 2012 London Olympics.
A few jabs for a job
Over the years, all Vijender Singh ever dreamed of was a government job -- his ticket to a secure life. And growing up in a middle-class jat household in the outskirts of Bhiwani, Haryana, the youngster saw boxing as a means to attain this goal.
“At first, it was nothing more than an opportunity for me to get a decent government job,” the Indian boxer said in the book My Olympic Journey.
“It may be difficult to comprehend, but a majority of sportspersons from a rural background look at sports as an employment opportunity.”
Boxing in search of sustenance, Vijender Singh rose through the ranks in the domestic circuit in a commendable manner. But none of his accolades ever resulted in the coveted job.
When that didn’t work, Vijender Singh was asked to aim for the Olympics. After all, ‘Olympians were sought after by various government departments’.
For Vijender Singh, Athens 2004 was all about that -- the Olympian tag.
Although Vijender Singh bowed out of the competition following an opening-round loss in the light welterweight category, the then 18-year-old was unfazed.
“I would sleep for three-four hours and go about experiencing it all. It was one big party for me,” Vijender Singh said.
But things were about to change. With the Indian boxing coach GS Sandhu insisting that his wards watched every single bout of their weight category, Vijender Singh would get a glimpse of the best in action. While he enjoyed boxing, it was the medal ceremony that spurred him on.
“Britain’s Amir Khan won the silver medal and seeing him and the others there made me realise that I too could have been on that podium,” Vijender Singh said.
A blessing in disguise for Vijender Singh
Back home with a newfound purpose, the Indian boxer worked on his game in the coming years.
With medals at the 2006 Asian Games, the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and the 2007 Asian Championships, Vijender Singh headed for the Beijing Games determined that his punches would do the talking.
With the bantamweight ace Akhil Kumar leading the charge, Vijender Singh flew under the radar.
“Not many thought I was good enough to win, And perhaps that was a blessing in disguise,” Vijender Singh said.
While Akhil Kumar continued to grab the headlines with quality wins, including the one over the then world champion Sergey Vodopyanov, Vijender Singh went about his business in a measured manner.
A win over Gambia’s Badou Jack in the opening round was followed by an intense fixture against Angkhan Chomphuphuang of Thailand.
Though the Indian recorded a 13-3 win over the Thai, Vijender Singh’s march to the quarter-final was anything but easy as the final score suggested.
The bout saw Vijender Singh use the ring well to negate his opponent’s attacks and counter-punch to pocket his points. But Chomphuphuang’s technique left Vijender in a lot of body pain.
“He (Angkhan Chomphuphuang) was a Muay-Thai boxer and his elbow techniques injured me on my left side. I had a lot of treatment on my day off (before the quarter-final),” Vijender Singh told Sony Sports’ Medal of Glory show.
Making Indian boxing history
However, with three days separating his round two bout and the quarter-final, Vijender Singh knew he had enough time to heal.
“I would shut myself up in a room, switch off my phone and focus on my bout. I didn’t let any negative thoughts enter my mind,” Vijender Singh said.
Though Akhil Kumar’s loss in the quarter-finals shook the Indian boxing squad a bit, Vijender Singh ensured that nothing disturbed him.
“The team was pretty glum,” Vijender Singh recollected. “It (Akhil Kumar losing) was a huge shock. Almost everyone thought that he would win a medal. But now the attention was on me.”
While there were moments to cheer for the Indian contingent as a whole - Abhinav Bindra had won a gold medal in 10m air rifle shooting and Sushil Kumar a bronze in wrestling - the boxing squad was still looking for something of their own to add to the script.
And Vijender Singh ensured that he delivered when it mattered most.
His quarter-final bout against Ecuador’s Carlos Gongora saw Vijender Singh being tested on both the offensive and defensive fronts.
While Gongora was quick with his footwork, often getting out of harm’s way in no time, Vijender Singh used a combination of punches to earn the points.
For the Indian, his left-hand jabs and crucial uppercuts made the difference as the latter half of the bout saw Vijender fall back on his evading tactics and excellent footwork to seal the bout.
Though the Ecuadorian tried to close the gap with a flurry of punches in the final seconds, it barely mattered as the Indian was declared the winner on points. Vijender Singh became the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal.
Over the years, Vijender Singh was offered a handful of government jobs -- first with the Indian railways and then with the Haryana police -- but this time, the boxer in him chose to look beyond and stayed true to his calling.
For a man who got into the sport with a hope of landing a government job, boxing is now a way of life.