Vijender Singh, Indian icon
After following in the grand tradition of The Silk Road and venturing east to earn his fortune, India’s most famous fighter Vijender Singh is laying a new route west. Singh found success and fortune in The Orient after boxing his way to a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympic Games, but the 29-year-old decided to break new ground. Should he be successful, the pathway he is laying could and open up a vast and previously untapped marketplace.
Middleweight Vijender signed a four-year professional contract with Queensbury Promotions through IOS Sports and Entertainment and now trains under the watchful eye of Lee Beard in Manchester, England.
Vijender, now (2-0, 2 KOs) as a pro, enjoyed his first taste of success when boxing his way to a bronze medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games but found fame and glory two years later after becoming the first ever Indian boxer to pick up an Olympic medal, a feat he repeated at the World Amateur Championships in 2009.
Seen as a certainty for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Vijender’s decision to hang up his vest caused shock in Indian sporting circles. He has had to deal with criticism accusing him of choosing money over the honour of representing his country and even the Haryana Police Force - where Bhiwani born Vijender is a Deputy Super Intendant - expressed their consternation at his decision to punch for pay before eventually agreeing to grant him ‘extraordinary leave’ to chase his dream.
Momentum has built behind Vijender’s ambitious move and there has already been a surge of interest in professional boxing in India. His debut - which took place on the big world title bill at Manchester Arena on 10 October - attracted unprecedented attention.
Strength of mind is a prerequisite for any boxer who decides to earn their living by taking punches but Vijender’s success catapulted him to such a level of celebrity that, eventually, Bollywood came calling. To trade that life for one of anonymity in a typically British boxing gym takes real courage and poses the question ‘Why?’.
“One of my friends was managing me in the sport and he asked if I would consider professional boxing. I said ‘okay’ but that I wanted to see the full set up first. I came to the UK for 10 days for training and to see the whole set-up. After that, I said to myself, ’Yeah, I can do that, man.’ After that we spoke to Francis Warren and Lee Beard. Everything is gonna be okay. My coach, Lee, my promoter, Francis, and the trainers here are a good team. I can honestly say that,” a happy Vijender told BM during a break in his new routine.
“I fought in three Olympic Games and that’s a long time to be an amateur. This is a new opportunity. Professional boxing is not easy and a few boxers from India have already tried it but they didn’t succeed. I want to show that if I try my best, I can do better in professional boxing. We’ll see. If I’m successful it’s going to be a huge inspiration for the youth who are coming from the rural areas of India. There are so many boxers there who are amateur boxers but if I do well, they can become professional boxers, too.
“Professional boxing is a big thing in the USA and Europe. India has lots of potential in amateur boxing but we don’t have a good set up for professional boxing. If I achieve something then I can start new set-ups in Delhi, Mumbai…everywhere. People can join me.
“People have been very supportive. The negativity is always the hardest part. It’s a new thing but people will adjust slowly. Those people who understand the sport - like my friends and my family - they appreciate my decision.”
India is home to around 1.2 billion people and a large proportion of those are sports mad. The Indian Premier League generates enormous viewing figures and the numbers tuning in to the new Indian Super League football coverage show that the Indian public are open to new ideas. Vijender and his compatriot, female boxing trailblazer Mary Kom, drew gigantic crowds to their television sets for their major amateur bouts and Warren and Beard got a taste of exactly how big this new venture could be when they ventured to India on a publicity trip. A packed press conference quizzed the team and - perhaps motivated by concern for their hero - wondered whether, given Vijender’s reasonably advanced age, the whole saga is a publicity stunt aimed at exploiting the potentially huge Indian television market.
Beard is one of the most respected coaches in British boxing, but shuns the limelight, preferring his fighters to get the attention. He is extremely well connected but although he provides opportunity and expertise his fighters need to prove their commitment to the cause. The feeling is that, although the chance to oversee Vijender’s transition is an extremely exciting one, it is one he would have turned down had Vijender not impressed during a trial period in the gym.
“It was great,” Beard said of the trip to the subcontinent. “We went to Delhi and Mumbai. They made us very welcome and we did a public workout in Mumbai. He’s done very well to do what he has in the amateur system and he’s very, very highly decorated over there. He has a celebrity status and he’s done Bollywood films.
“A lot of people turned up to watch the public workout and at the press conference in Delhi, it seemed like there was hundreds of people there. We were on a stage and there was just row after row after row of people. A lot of the questions were about how Vijender will fare in the professional game with it being so brutal? They were asking about how - at 29 years old - Vijender will do. You can understand that.
“When you work with somebody you can see what’s inside them both physically and mentally. Technically, he’s very suited to the amateur game. You can see that when you watch him box and see him sparring. He’s got long arms and a great jab. He’s very strong, though. I put him through some very demanding tests in the gym and from what I’ve seen he’ll be fine. He’s very heavy-handed and strong. He has that ‘Bollywood’ look but he’s very tough. His looks are deceiving to what he’s actually like. My assistant, Haroon Headley, said that he looks moody when he gets in the ring. He changes.”
Given the type of profile Freddie Roach enjoys in the Philippines for his work with the people’s ‘National Fist’, Manny Pacquiao, maybe Beard should prepare himself for a new life as an unlikely national hero.
“I don’t know about that!” Beard laughed. “It’s never been done before, though. Vijender is the first Indian to turn pro who has this celebrity status. There’s a big thing about this. He’s opening up a big market and there’s a professional boxing commission [the Indian Boxing Council] that’s opened up because of it. It’s exciting. There’s a lot of criticism because they really wanted him to stay on for the Olympics in Rio in 2016. I understand that and Vijender understands that himself. When he was being interviewed over there he said that he’s been to three Olympic Games and won medals. He’s 29 and this is something he’s wanted to do for a while. You can’t please everybody though.
“I think over a 100 million people would watch Vijender when he fought and apparently he’s the second most watched athlete in India. Only cricket is above him. If he does well in the pro game you can imagine what that market could be like.”
Summer is long gone. Manchester can be a cold, hard and perpetually damp place in the winter, a world away from the vibrant technicolour images that India conjures up. Rather than celebrating his successes with an audience of millions, Vijender’s reward for the weeks spent plugging away in the gym and trudging around unfamiliar running routes will be a few fleeting moments of glory on an undercard. It is an unromantic picture but it is the way it has to be. Should he emerge from the trial with his determination intact, there are plans for a golden future.
“It’s amazing. I love Manchester. It’s actually nice weather [at the time of writing!] and I like the whole system and whole training set-up. Sometimes it’s tiring but its a new thing and I’ve got to work hard on my technique and endurance but I enjoy it. I love [the atmosphere in the gym]. My fellow boxers are good professionals - people like Jack [Catterall] and Adrian [Gonzalez]. There are five or six of us who train together and we talk, enjoy things, have jokes and train together.
“I first met Lee two months before [deciding to go professional] when I came here for training. I saw him work and we did some training sessions together. We did some pad work and sparring and I realised that he’s a good one. He understands me and I understand him. It’s a new team and a new beginning but I trust him.”
Vijender’s debut took place on 10 October at the Manchester Arena. With BoxNation screening the action across the UK, India’s biggest sports broadcaster, Sony Six, also picked up the rights to the bout and around 20 million fans were expected to watch the man announced as “India’s favourite boxing son” trade his first punches as a professional.
Vijender looked extremely calm and showed an impressive amount of variety for a boxer so regimented in the amateur style. He constantly mixed body punches in with straight shots and when he had his opponent, Sonny Whiting, in trouble he demonstrated the all-important coldness required to be a successful professional. A couple of nicely timed right hands brought Vijender a third round stoppage victory.
After completing his media duties with the large group of Asian journalists who filed into press row, Vijender slipped quietly into the crowd to support his gym-mates Jack Catterall and Adrian Gonzalez.
Whiting may be an honest professional but he operates at a far lower level than some of the victims on Vijender’s amateur record. During his decorated career in the unpaid ranks, Vijender beat current WBC super-middleweight champion, Badou Jack, undefeated USA Olympian Terrell Gausha and Frank Buglioni but the hoopla surrounding his professional debut was a totally new experience.
“Everything was totally new for me, I can definitely say that,” a clearly delighted Vijender told BM. “Everything from the build-up to the fight to the size of the gloves to the way of wrapping the hands. It all went well though. Yeah, I enjoyed it, man! My training is new for me, Manchester is new for me and my trainers are new for me and I’m learning every day.
“I just kept listening to my coaches Lee [Beard] and Haroon [Headley] about how I should move and what I should do. I’m just focused. I’m here for the boxing and that’s all I can concentrate on. Thank you!” and with that a beaming Vijender was off to pose for photographs with a group of adoring Indian fans.
“He’s not what he looks like,” Beard said. “If you were to come in the gym and had to choose somebody to spar having watched them shadow box, you’d probably pick Vijender but within a round you’d be wondering what you’d done. He’s very nasty in the ring. I thought he did really well.”
Editor’s note: In November, Singh knocked out Dean Gillen in one round at the National Stadium in Dublin. His third contest takes place on Saturday at Manchester Arena against Bulgarian Samet Hyuseinov and will be televised live on BoxNation in the UK.