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Against the Odds: Vijender Kumar

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Vijender Kumar trains at his boxing academy

The BBC's Against the Odds series is following athletes heading to the Olympics despite huge obstacles.

Soutik Biswas met a young boxer fighting for recognition in cricket-mad India.

Although he is a boxing champion, Vijender Kumar is an oddity in India, a virtual one-sport country where cricket is religion.

The son of a bus driver who worked overtime to pay for his coaching, Vijender is India's unsung champion boxer.

Vijender Kumar
One of five boxers representing India in Beijing
Realistic medal prospect, after win at Chemistry Cup
In action on Saturday 9 August from 0630

"My blood boils when everybody goes gaga over cricket," says the 22-year-old, one of five boxers in India's modest Olympics contingent to Beijing this summer.

Sparring in the 75kg category, the amateur boxer with rakish good looks has picked up medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and tournaments in Germany, Baku, Karachi and Scotland.

Now, he is getting into peak fighting condition for Beijing - his second Olympics outing.

'Violent or mad'

It is not easy becoming a boxer in a cricket-crazy country. "People here think boxers are violent or mad," says Vijender.

Vijender modelling for a magazine (Photo: Soutik Biswas]
Vijender has modelled for men's magazines

Boxing in India is a colonial legacy. The first club opened in the western city of Mumbai (then called Bombay) in 1925. The first national championship took place exactly a quarter of a century later.

India has several thousand amateur boxers in various weight categories. They have done their country proud in regional competitions like the Asian Games, but an Olympic medal continues to elude them.

Things began looking up in 2003 when Mohammed Ali Qamar, a boy from eastern Calcutta clinched a gold medal in the light flyweight boxing at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Three years later, in the next edition of the games in Melbourne, Vijender picked up a silver in his category.

It helps Vijender that cricket faces stiff competition in Bhiwani in northern Haryana state from where he hails.

This region of modestly well-to-do villages, lush farms, thriving liquor stalls, and a dusty, unkempt town, is also called India's "little Cuba".

The place spawns hundreds of young fighters who spar every evening at the five local boxing schools.

Here, learning to box is a passport to a secure government job and an opportunity to do something meaningful in life.

It also helps that there are some boxing idols. In the beginning it was the late Hawa Singh, who picked up two gold medals in the Asian Games and remained the national champion in his weight category for a staggering 11 consecutive years.

Three decades later, the idols are Vijender, Akhil, Jitender and Dinesh Kumar, all hailing from 'little Cuba' and headed for Beijing with stars in their eyes.

Vijender cut his teeth at the Bhiwani Boxing Club or "BBC" as his coach, Jagdish Singh, prefers to call it. He began eight years ago, inspired by his brother who boxed a fair bit before joining the army.

'No guts, no glory'

Singh opened the school with 50 students five years ago; today there are 120 of them, including a dozen girls. Most come from farming families.

'No guts, no glory', 'No pain, no gain', and 'The more you sweat, the less you bleed' are some of the guiding principles of this school, painted on the walls around the single ring.

Vijender with his father [Photo: Soutik Biswas]
I want to play at the Madison Square Garden, I want to be promoted by Don King
Vijender (with his father)
"Four of my students are off to Beijing and their chances of winning medals is very strong. This could be the best time for Indian boxing," says Jagdish, or 'Sir', as he is affectionately called by his wards.

Vijender is the one on whom he pins his hopes most, because he has a good cross, hook and uppercut and "moves well in the ring".

And the boxer himself says that if he picks up a medal in Beijing, he will take a shot at becoming India's first professional boxer.

"A promoter like Don King, a ring inside Madison Square Garden, and millions of dollars per bout. That is my dream, that is where I want to be," says Vijender, sitting in his newly built two-storey house in Kaluwas village.

Boxing has begun to pay a little in India, thanks to the increased munificence of the authorities: Vijender received substantial cash bonuses from the government for winning the Commonwealth Games and the Asian games medals.

'Fickle profession'

But it is still a fickle profession, and that is why he recently took up a job as an inspector with the Haryana police which will fetch him more than $325 a month.

As dusk falls on Bhiwani and young pugilists stream out of the boxing schools, Vijender says he's recently beaten the best amateur boxer in the world in his category in an international tournament.

"That makes me believe that this Olympics is going to be a turning point in my life," he says.

That, he says, will make his story very much like his favourite film hero, Rocky Balboa, "who came from a modest background like me and boxed his way to stardom".

And if his dream dies at Beijing, an alternative career like modelling may end up snaring him. Vijender has already modelled for two men's magazines, including the Indian edition of Maxim.

Then there are feelers from an upcoming Indian fashion show to walk the ramp.

"Modelling and walking the ramp are tougher than boxing," he says.

"But no, cricket isn't. It is just an overrated game".


Your comments on this story:

Vijender is just one such of the many unsung who strive for food even after bringing laurels to the country, I feel proud to be a part of the readership of BBC as they are doing this good work to create awareness about the courageous people of the country. I would like to wish Vijender all the best for his future endeavors and will pray to GOD that his wish of playing at Madison comes out to be true.
Sachin Srivastava, Hyderbad, India

Vijender, I wish you best of luck from all my heart. Do it mate. It's now or never, so give your best to it. Do it for lots of those who need hope, courage.
Garuav, Sheffield, Uk

Thanks BBC for bringing Vijender to limelight. Hoping to see a real life Rocky. Best wishes to Vijender
Amit, Culver City, USA

There is no doubt that the wins brought home by athletes like Vijender will rid this country of the cricket fever. With India now looking stronger in other sports like Football, Golf, F1, etc., there is no doubt the popularity of Cricket will go down in the next decade.
Pranesh Bhargava, Mumbai, India

I have been involved with the state sports in India in a minority game like yours. So I know the odds you fight against. Best of luck and I hope with all my heart that you show everyone that we dont just have rich spoilt cricketers in our country who POSE as sportsmen. But that we have genuine, talented sports men like your self.
Regina, London, Uk

If there is something I really like reading about...is about Indian sportsmen/women who are not cricketers. All the best, Vijender. Make a mark, and make it Good!

Ashutosh, Bombay, India

I'm a cricket fan, but at the same time I love the game of Boxing too. I've been following the game since the time I had a chapter to learn about the legend Mohammed Ali in my 12th grade. I keep a track of the contender series (AXN), and when Bantamweight pugilist NG Dingko Singh won Gold in Asian Games 1998, I was as proud as any other Indian. I wish Vijender all the luck and Prayers. Hard work does pay off in the end. Doesn't matter you come from a cricket mad country or not. There will be people to follow the true champion. I think boxing is a game of the one man mind body n soul, rather than 11 players. Best luck again.

Arun Aravind, Bangalore India

Good luck to you Virender, I'll be rooting for you. In a country of more than 1 billion people, it's a travesty to see that only one sport (Cricket) enjoys all the attention and glory. The rest of the sportsmen/women are left to rot. If Virender wins a medal, suddenly he'll be the darling of the country and after the celebrations die down, he'll be left to fend for himself. It's really a shame to see so much talent just do down the drain. I really wish the the government and the people gave other sports their rightful dues.
Laxman, Portland, USA

It's great the BBC does these stories on these athletes like Vijender . Of course being Indian I hope and wish him all the success both personally for him at the Olympics as as an Indian. Its a shame that cricket eats up all the money and other sports are left to rot in India, We should be a proud country of hockey players. but they are ignored to such an extent its disgusting. Shame on the Indian ministry of sport.
rahul, Berlin/Bombay

Vijender, go get it bro...I am proud of you that you have the guts to go against the system and represent the country in the greatest sporting event ever. Your hard work and determination will surely pay...so stick with it.
Anshuman, Los Angeles, USA

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