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Hope to punch above the weight in ‘tricky’ Tokyo qualifiers

Sep 24, 2019

Amit Panghal and Manish Kaushik have barely slept for an hour since they landed here in the wee hours of Monday following their exploits at the World Boxing Championships in Russia. With Amit winning a silver and Manish bronze, two medals at a single edition of the Worlds is the best show by the Indian male boxers in the history of the competition.

Monday was spent in felicitations, giving interviews and meeting the sports minister Kiren Rijiju before they head off to their homes in Haryana a day later.

In the midst, HT caught up with the two army men and coaches CA Kuttappa and Santiago Nieva to discuss their show at the worlds, the two Olympic qualification tournaments—Asia (February) and World (May) next year, to how they like playing PUBG in their leisure time.

Excerpts:

How satisfied are you with the result?

Kuttappa: Very happy but there is still a long way to go. We have to perform even better in the future. The next World Championships (2021) will be held in India and our target is to finish in the top-3. Next we have the Olympic qualifiers followed by the Games itself. We are preparing for everything—training, competitions. We have to do better in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (Asia) which will be very tough.

Nieva: We had the best ever result, two medals, one boxer in the final... two quarter-finalists. So the result points in the right direction. Obviously, we want more, to be gold medallists. One year from now we need to be significantly better. The Olympic qualifiers will be extremely tough. Many Asian countries are doing very well. We have to stay on top all the time and not leave anything to chance.

How many Indians do you think will make it to Tokyo 2020?

Kuttappa: I want all eight (categories). They are capable. All of them did well at the World Championships. Nobody lost in a one-sided contest. There are areas where we need to improve. We’ll work on them and will do better in upcoming competitions.

What was your reading of Panghal’s final bout?

Nieva: Special moment, of course, to be in the final. It was a tricky fight. There were not many scoring blows and small things defined each round. We improved a lot in Round 2 and the last round was totally open. We tried to make some adjustments to get more clarity, to make the difference. When the bout finished we hoped that victory will be ours but in the end they gave it to the opponent.

What did Panghal learn from the final loss against Shakhobidin Zoirov? He could face him in the Olympic qualifiers too...

Nieva: We could face him in the first bout as there’ll be no seeding in Olympic qualifiers. We have to see other variations that we can use. Amit needs to have different weapons because the bout changes—the first round is not the same as the third. We wanted more pressure... mixing little more to the body could have made the difference. I haven’t watched the (replay of the) bout. I’ll do soon. We just need to keep working on some variations, keep doing what we are which is obviously working, and then make necessary adjustments, not only against Zoirov but against any opponent.

Considering you shifted your weight category only earlier this year, how difficult were the bouts and how significant is this silver keeping in mind the Olympics?

Panghal: It was quite difficult. This was the first time I was playing the World Championships in 52kg. For that weight class, neither did I have enough power nor the reach because all the boxers I faced were taller than me. But we have been practicing for the same. This medal is very important because if our performance is good before Tokyo, we’ll fight better and go for medals.

Manish, what were your expectations?

Kaushik: I was hoping for a medal because our preparations were good. I just shifted from 60kg to 63kg, so I have a little less power but my speed is good. Other boxers have moved from 64kg to 63kg and they have more power but lack speed. That was my advantage.

All the bouts you won in Russia were unanimous verdicts...

Kaushik: I gained a lot of confidence from them. My opponents were Olympians and Asian Games medallists and I beat them 5:0. This really boosted my confidence. The World Championships had the best boxers from every country so to get a medal there gives me the confidence of performing well at the Olympics too.

Generally boxers gauge the distance to their opponents using their jab but Amit you don’t do it. How do you estimate the distance? Tell us something about your style.

Panghal: I mostly face tall boxers. Whenever they jab, I avoid it and counter-attack which hits the target 90 per cent of the time. I also practice the same way, so I have confidence that I’ll be able to hit with ease. I estimate the range when we practice. From the start, I either stay away or stay close which is advantageous for me. Either way, he’ll not be able to punch me but I will be able to punch him and earn more points.

Nieva: When you face a fast counter-puncher, which happened in the last two bouts, do not rush in because then you can get countered. There are a lot of factors, but combinations, hitting the body, staying close... Amit has a very good guard he can stay close. There must be plan A, B and C... different things that we can do. Most boxers will not be successful trying to copy Amit’s style but all coaches and boxers in India can watch Manish’s style and try to box. When they are boxing at a long distance, try to see what he does to be successful that is something we put into system for long range boxing.

Is there anything special planned for the Olympic qualifiers, any specific training or exposure trips?

Kuttappa: Our camp starts on November 10 and we have plans. Then we have the boxing league in December. We are also planning (to take part) in some competitions. But the process is the same. We have to find our mistakes, watch their videos, schedule individual practice sessions. If there is something good in an individual, we have to improve that too. If he is throwing a punch then 100 percent it should hit the target. We also have to work on attack.

Amit and Manish, from humble beginnings to medals at the Worlds, it has been quite a journey...

Panghal: My brother introduced me to boxing. Initially, I couldn’t even buy a pair of gloves with my own money. There were other family problems. Since both brothers could not box together, my brother quit and joined the army after which he took care of all my expenses—equipment, supplement, diet—he handled everything.

He told me, “Whatever you need I’ll get it for you but your practice should not get hampered. Today, it is because of him and my coach (Anil Dhankar) I have reached here. My brother bought me my first gloves. He went to every competition with me, motivated me so much that I reached the national camp and my name was being mentioned among the top boxers of the country. My coach never took any money. On the contrary, he gave me money for supplements, used to take care of my food. Many a times, when I used to be with the team, he would spend his own money to come see me fight, which motivated me.

Kaushik: My village is 10km from Bhiwani. I used to see boxers train, which inspired me to take up the sport. Then Vijender Singh won the Olympic medal in 2008. I read about it and wanted to start boxing. In the beginning there were many issues as my father was a farmer. But after I joined the army in 2016 and started earning money, my propects started getting better. Army training is also very good and the army is largely responsible for my success and I am grateful. It is because of their support that I have been able to reach this height.

What is your frame of mind before going in for a bout and also when the judges are to announce the decision?

Kaushik: Before the fight both positive and negatives thoughts cross my mind... what if I win or what if I lose. I try to go in with a positive mindset because we can do what we think. At the end of the bout, we do get to know who played how but if the bout is close then I don’t look towards the decision. I just pray to God that I win.

What do you like to do in your leisure time?

Panghal: I play video games like PUBG. We play together too. We are not mad about it though. We also watch TV, go out with friends or play volleyball. There’s not much leisure time as we get only Sundays off. Through the week, we practice, rest and follow our daily schedule.

Do administrative issues like the federation or AIBA ban affect you?

Kuttappa: No. We have to practice. Whatever happens to the federation or AIBA doesn’t matter to us.

Nieva: We have to adapt to the situation. We were at a disadvantage compared to other countries but now it is the same for every country. The World Championships previously were not Olympic qualifiers so it is not the first time. Obviously, now seeing the results we would have liked it to be Olympic qualifiers. Then we would have already qualified (laughs) but it is what it is. It is the same for everybody.

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