Bengaluru poured out its grief over the death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali recently, but when it comes to helping our own little Ali’s rise to success and fame, there’s precious little the city has done, condemning potential champions to a life of drudgery. Yet, there are dozens who are pursuing their passion amidst hardship, train regularly, and who might someday still hit it big.
Romeo Varnes, 31, sells egg fried rice out of a mobile eatery during the evenings and by day, you can find him manning a wholesale egg shop near his house in Cox Town. Neither his morning avatar nor his evening appearance will tell you that Romeo has won at least a dozen gold medals in state-level boxing championships. Romeo, who started training in 2000, remembers “running from Cox Town to Kanteerava Stadium to attend tournaments because I couldn’t afford a bicycle”.
Vincent Paul’s mother worked many years as a domestic help to raise him and his brother Joseph Sebastian after she lost her husband while the two were still young. While Joseph eventually took up a job with a private company to support the family, Vincent persisted in his passion, boxing, for as long as he could, winning several state-level medals and a bronze at the National Boxing Championship in 2005. Now 33, and with his dreams of achieving greater heights in the ring unfulfilled, Vincent, also a resident of Cox Town, makes a living as a fitness instructor.
“There are some 300 boxing enthusiasts in the city, ranging in age from 12 to 38, some 50 of them women, a number that has gone up especially after Mary Kom won bronze at the Olympics,” says Capt. Amaladass Isaac, chief coach for boxing at the Sports Authority of Karnataka.
Most of “Bengaluru’s Muhammad Alis” come from lower middle class families that struggle to make ends meet, yet manage to keep training, thanks to their undying passion for the sport, he says, adding “It’s not a sport for people who have been brought up to be soft-natured and in comfort. It’s for those who are rough and tough and have a ‘keep-on-fighting’ attitude”. That explains why, despite there being no overarching boxing federation in the country, there are thousands of enthusiasts.
Some 45-50 boxers train regularly at the boxing ring in the Sports Authority of Karnataka (SAK) building at Kanteerava Stadium, and there are a few other boxing clubs in the city, each with 15-20 boxers. “There is only one official boxing coach for the whole state who imparts training in Bengaluru. There are no boxing coaches in the districts, although every other sport has such coaches”, rues Capt. Isaac. And the clubs cannot organize state or national level tournaments without permission from SAK or from the Sports Authority of India (SAI). They do organize unofficial friendly matches and tournaments among themselves. “These are small, private affairs. Boxers can participate only by invitation.”
Eleven of us had a chance to meet Muhammad Ali when he came to Delhi in 1980. We had 30-40 second show bouts with him, exchanging
punches with him individually and showing off our footwork and movements. ‘The Greatest’ seemed impressed with our passion. Ali stood 6 foot 2 inches tall — even the heaviest Indian boxer came only up to his chest — and he had such grace and charisma
— Capt. Manoharan
When tournaments do take place, they suffer from bad organization, inadequate facilities. “There was not even drinking water available at the tournament, let alone the organizers giving us breakfast or lunch. We weren’t even given a banana to eat”, recalls Romeo of one tournament in the city.
“We don’t get uniform track suites or boxing accessories, from either a state boxing body or from the government. When the Karnataka state boxing team goes out, it looks all colourful because each one of us have brought along our own track suites and accessories,” says Vincent.
The absence of a boxing federation in India hurts even at the international level. “Since there’s no federation, our boys compete under the banner of IABA (International Amateur Boxing Association), which does not allow our boys to even show our national flag at Asian or other international boxing championships”, says Capt. Ganapathy Manoharan, chief coach of Youth Indian Team.
Capt. Manoharan was formerly with the Indian Army’s Madras Engineering Group (MEG), whose boxers bring in the most medals down South in a sport that’s dominated by boxers from Haryana, Punjab and Delhi. He was also one of the country’s top 11 boxers who got a chance to go to Delhi and meet Muhammad Ali when he came visiting in 1980.
“We had 30-40 second show bouts with Muhammad Ali, and all 11 of us individually exchanged punches, showed our footwork and movements to ‘The Greatest.’ He seemed impressed with our passion,” he recalls. “Ali stood 6 foot 2 inches tall, which meant the heaviest Indian boxer came only up to his chest. Watching him on TV was one thing, but in person, Ali had such grace and charisma.”
Capt. Manoharan now trains some 30-35 army cadets of the Madras Engineering Group (MEG), which has its own boxing training school in Ulsoor. Both Capt. Isaac and Capt. Manoharan are Arjuna Award winners, and the latter has also won Dronacharya Award for coaching.
Boxers from South India have participated and won laurels in international boxing tournaments at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the Mini Commonwealth Games in Australia in 1981, the recent Asian Championship in Kazakhstan and at Youth World Boxing Championships in Morocco, Mexico, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria and other places, with a rich haul between 2006 and 2014.
“Despite bringing home laurels, we are not getting much support from the Centre or state governments either for training better or by way of infrastructure and facilities. Some states are not even sure if boxing is on their sports list”, rues Capt. Manoharan.
“If the sport were given due importance, and I thought at least in Bengaluru, it would be, I would have been somebody by now,” says Romeo. One day, he hopes, his son will fulfill that dream....