India wants more after Olympic boxing breakthrough

New Delhi: Wearing a tight, black vest emblazoned with the world "Invincible," Indian boxer Vijender Kumar is enjoying the glamorous life that an Olympic medal has brought him.

The handsome 23-year-old revels in the attention lavished on him since he won India their first Olympic boxing medal -- a bronze -- in Beijing last year.

Commercial endorsements and catwalk appearances, plus a possible film offer, have put him into a league of fame usually reserved for cricketers in India.

"People recognise me and ask about things," Kumar told Reuters. "Glamour is important for every sport these days. Earlier, it was there only in cricket and tennis."

Now, the middleweight is going for another first for India -- a world championship medal. He is part of a nine-member squad participating in the championships in Milan from Tuesday.

"Last time we broke the jinx in Beijing," Kumar said. "All boxers want to do that again and write their name in Indian boxing history. The confidence levels are high."

World Series

Kumar is also hoping to find more fame and money in the World Series of Boxing (WSB) due to be launched in September next year.

Joining a franchise of the professional WSB leagues will mean paying a price as participants will be barred from the Commonwealth and Asian Games. The Olympics, however, will remain open to them, the International Boxing Association (AIBA) says.

As hosts of the October 3-14 New Delhi Commonwealth Games next year, India were likely to be temporarily exempted from the Commonwealth ban, Indian boxing federation secretary general P.K. Muralidharan Raja told Reuters.

The WSB will crown individual and city-based teams as world champions after competitions across Europe, Asia and America.

"The athlete chosen in WSB will find glamour and money, like the Indian Premier League," Kumar said, referring to the multi-million-dollar cricket franchise league launched in the country in 2008.

"If a boxer gets that, the youth will follow him."

Indian boxers have not gone past the quarter-finals at previous world championships but are high on self-belief after the Beijing breakthrough.

As the world number two in the 75-kg category in the AIBA`s new rankings system, Kumar will be seeded in Milan and avoid tougher early bouts.

Number Two

Three other Indians are ranked in the top 10 of their weight divisions and Raja said the sport`s profile was growing in India.

"We want boxing to be something like cricket in the next two to three years," Raja said. "I know I`m being a bit ambitious but after cricket there is a huge gap.”

"There is place for a number two game and we want to take that."

India`s improvement in the ring is attributed to switching to a more direct punching style since the 2004 Athens Olympics, to suit the computerized scoring.

Akhil Kumar, a bantamweight quarter-finalist in Beijing, has moved up to featherweight (57kg) while flyweight (48kg) Thokchom Nanao Singh, ranked fifth by the AIBA, is a bright medal hope at the two-week championships in Italy.

Chief national coach Gurbux Sandhu said he was glad boxers from modest backgrounds were finally reaping the fruits of success.

"In India, people have started talking about boxing medals," Sandhu said. "That is a huge motivation for us.”

"My boys today are going in cars; they used to come on cycles. Nobody knew these boys; today everyone does."

Bureau Report