New Delhi: Professional glory across seven seas could never make up for the ignominy of being labelled a deserter in his own country, insists US-based India boxer Gurcharan Singh, who cannot wait for his homecoming under the newly-formed pro body -- the Indian Boxing Council (IBC).
Much before Beijing 2008, when Vijender Singh became India's first Olympic medallist, the Punjab-lad was in touching distance of the feat in the 2000 Sydney edition but fell short by a sudden death point in what seemed like a harsh decision by the judges.
That heartbreak left him so disillusioned that Gurcharan left for the US without informing anyone in the Indian boxing fraternity, leaving the federation, coaches and his then employers -- Indian army -- stunned.
He did make a name for himself in the US pro circuit winning 20 of his 21 bouts -- 11 of them knockout victories -- but the heavyweight boxer says he cannot forgive himself for letting down the Indian Army -- where he was Naik Subedar in the 17 Sikh Battalion.
"I feel bad about what I did to the Indian Army. They were so good to me, made me the boxer that I am and I miss my unit too. I can't even explain how it feels when I think about that. It still makes me feel very guilty," Gurcharan told PTI in an interview from New York as he geared up for a return to the country.
For quite some time after he left India, Gurcharan was called a "deserter" by the Army and even faced the prospect of departmental action on return but the 38-year-old said all those issues are now settled.
"There is no problem on that front, all that is sorted. What remains is my own sense of guilt. They took care of me, I should have handled things with them in a better way," he said.
He was all but done with his professional career in the US as well after a back injury but a call from IBC President Brig. (Retd) P K Muralidharan Raja got him up and running again.
"I had almost taken retirement because of injuries, especially a back injury. I was thinking I won't come back but then a call from Brig. Raja changed everything. I have been training for the last few months and my body feels excellent again. I can't wait to come back and fight in my own country and I am very confident of doing well," Gurcharan said.
Nicknamed 'Guru' in the US pro circuit, Gurcharan said the professional success could never really heal his spirit which was left broken by that fateful Olympic quarterfinal. "Every night, every day, it rankles because wounds to the body heal, but wounds to the soul, they never heal. It still feels like it was yesterday and the kind of stigma I lived with after that, only I know how it felt. I made money in the US, I got fame, life is good here but it can't make up for what I lost," he said.
"Nobody stood up for that injustice which happened in Sydney. I was robbed of a medal, I still maintain that. The judges robbed me and nobody from the Indian camp stood up. It shattered me, killed my confidence and nobody can understand that. I wanted to get away from all of it and that's why I came to US," he said recalling the loss to Ukraine's Andriy Fedchuk.
"I never thought that I won't be able to go back, that my federation's President (Abhey Singh Chautala at that time) would say that he won't let me come back. What else can be called a stigma?"
But looking ahead, Gurcharan said he will not just compete but also help groom the pro boxers who sign up with the IBC.
"I am so eager to be back. I won't just be fighting under IBC banner, I am going to groom the guys who sign up with them. Our boys train too much, they need to lighten up a bit," he said.
The IBC, who recently issued the license to Vijender after he turned pro, plans to kickoff its bouts in September.
"Vijender turning pro is a good thing. It's good for boxing and he would also earn some good money and money motivates you. I hope people learn from him," said Gurcharan. Talking of life away from the ring, Gurcharan signed off saying, "I have one daughter and two sons, they keep me busy. And I hope at least one of them becomes a boxer."