At men's world championship, boxing seeks a fresh start

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The international boxing body (AIBA) has gone all out to promote the men’s world championships in Belgrade, Serbia, starting on Sunday, as a fresh beginning for the sport. A glitzy opening ceremony, hefty prize money for the first time, beautifully designed medals, commemorative belts and white gloves instead of red and blue are part of AIBA’s effort towards a new start. 

But the most important thing that will be put to test is the promise of fair results, especially after an independent probe recently exposed the worst kept secret of world boxing — of bouts being manipulated at the Rio Olympics. 

Though the new regime under president Umar Kremlev set up the probe of the much-criticised Rio Olympics’ competition with independent expert Richard McLaren as head, AIBA remains suspended from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for issues related to its governance, finances and refereeing and judging. A task force appointed by the IOC oversaw the competition at the Tokyo Olympics. 

Slow in implementing crucial reforms, AIBA was pulled up by IOC last month. In its latest communication to AIBA on September 14, IOC stated its “deepest concerns and reiterated its previous position regarding the place of boxing in the programme of the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and future editions of the Olympic Games.” 

The world championships therefore assume significance for AIBA to put in place best practices in refereeing and judging bouts. A new rigorous selection criteria has been introduced for referees and judges with background checks being carried out by McLaren’s team. 

“We owe it to all our athletes to do everything in our power to secure a safe, controlled, and fair environment for them to demonstrate the results of years of training. Their job is to put on a fight in the ring, our job is to make sure it is judged and assessed fairly. Therefore, our officials have to be trusted with taking good care of our boxers and their winning chances,” said AIBA secretary-general Istvan Kovacs. 

India’s young brigade

The world championships will also be a new start for Indian boxers. The previous edition saw India return with two medals. Amit Panghal became the first Indian male boxer to make the final and won silver medal in the flyweight (52kg) division. Manish Kaushik bagged bronze in lightweight (63kg). They were among five Indians who had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. But the campaign in Tokyo was disappointing and barring Satish in superheavyweight (+91kg), none progressed beyond the opening round.

Under India’s High Performance Director Santiago Nieva, the boxers had taken impressive strides in the run up to the Olympics but faltered in Tokyo. Nieva will be in charge for the world championships but it is expected to be his last assignment. 

The Boxing Federation of India (BFI) has termed as dismal the performance of the India contingent in Tokyo with one medal – Lovlina Borgohain – coming from nine (five male and four female) boxers. It wants to change coaching and support staff for the new Olympic cycle. Women’s high performance director Rafaelle Bergamasco’s contract has not been extended. Services chief coach Narendra Rana was appointed men’s team head coach and former internationals L Devendro Singh and Suranjoy Singh made part of the national team staff. 

“The performance of our men’s team in the Tokyo Olympics was really below par,” said former international and selector  Venkatesan Devarajan, winner of a World Cup bronze in 1994. “This was not expected, especially since we had such a long preparation for Tokyo. Everyone was hoping for at least one or two medals from the men’s team. I felt their fitness levels were also not up to world standard.” 

“BFI has taken a good decision to bring quality Indian coaches like Devendro and Suranjoy into the setup. They are committed and have played at the top level in the world,” said Devarajan. 

Devarajan also lauded BFI’s decision to give more weightage to national championships. For the world meet, no trials were held and winners of the senior national championships in September were selected. None of the five male boxers in Tokyo competed at the national championships. Some were recovering from injuries while others took a break. 

In their absence, a new line-up has emerged for the competition where weight divisions have been increased to 13 from the usual 10. Deepak Bhoria (51kg), so far in Panghal’s shadow, Rohit Mor (57kg), Varinder Singh (60kg), Nishant Dev (69), Lakshya (86kg), Sanjeet (91kg), will be eager to make a mark. For Bhoria it will be a big opportunity. Earlier this year, he beat reigning world and Rio Olympic champion Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan at the Strandja Memorial in Sofia. 

Delhi teenager Mor was a surprise winner at the national championships in the crowded 57kg category. He upset Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Mohammad Hussamuddin to stake his claim in Belgrade. Lakshya upset seasoned Sumit Sangwan and Dev stunned Strandja Memorial bronze medallist Naveen Boora. 

Reigning Asian Championships gold medallist Sanjeet, who beat 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist Vassiliy Levit of Kazakhstan in March, will also get a good opportunity to prove his mettle. So will Shiva Thapa. Thapa may not be among the new brigade but won the light welterweight division at the national meet where his nemesis Kaushik was absent. 

Prize money 

For the first time AIBA will reward medallists with a prize purse. The prize fund has been set at $ 2.6 million. Gold medallists will receive $100,000, silver $50,000, and bronze $25,000. Around 650 boxers from 105 countries will participate. The purse will be the same for the Women’s World Championships in Istanbul in December. 

The official gloves of the championships will change colour: white with coloured AIBA logos will replace red and blue. “White gloves will symbolise the fresh start, fairness and transparency of our major events. We will do our utmost to ensure a fair chance for everyone,’ said Kremlev. 

The India squad: Govind Sahani (48kg), Deepak Kumar (51kg), Akash (54kg), Rohit Mor (57kg), Varinder Singh (60kg), Shiva Thapa (63.5kg), Akash (67kg), Nishant Dev(71kg), Sumit (75kg), Sachin Kumar (80kg), Lakshya (86kg), Sanjeet (92kg) and Narender (+92kg).

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