Francis Cheka was all fluff. The pre-fight talk fell flat as Vijender Singh rolled in a right, rattling the Tanzanian, as the referee decided to close down the bout giving the Indian an eighth straight win and the 2008 Beijing Olympic bronze medalist retained his WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight title. What was surprising was the Tanzanian’s non-aggressive approach, hardly coming out of a crouch, to size up Vijender and take his chances. Reach is an important ingredient in boxing, but intent works up more victories than plain waiting. Especially against a boxer like Vijender, one has to adapt technically and be willing to create openings to land some solid blows.
The Thyagraj Stadium is no Madison Square Garden, but it reverberated with a sound that could have unsettled any challenger. Crowds had started building up a couple of hours before the fight and by the time Vijender’s bout came, it rocked and heaved like a powerful beast. Sushil Kumar, Vijender’s teammate at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was there and so was Yogeshwar Dutt, setting the tone with ‘nervousness is not something you associate with Vijender.’
Cheka’s statements before the bout had raised expectations. In fact, his pre-bout verbal volleys were more potent than the wild swings he had at Vijender’s torso. “Vijender’s Olympic medal is nothing,” said Cheka at the weighing in, a few days before the bout. “I am a World Champion and inter-continental champion. Vijender will know why I am a world champion. I feel sorry India has picked Vijender to fight me. India will be ashamed on Saturday.” Cheka’s interpreter was more shocked than Vijender himself. Pro-Boxing has liberties that raise temperature levels with no guarantees that the boxers deliver what they promise.
So focused were Vijender’s fans that they missed Cheka walk into the ring, do an African sway, and then have his corner say something as the Tanzanian held up his face for petroleum jelly to be applied. Vijender is the kind of a boxer who would go for upper-cuts, and through a bout, slowly dismantle you. The Haryanvi is never in a rush and usually takes his time to batter the opponent into submission. Even Sushil, who was asked what he admired about Vijender as a boxer before the bout in a ringside interview said, “He is very technical but he would win by a knock-out.”
The best entry was reserved for Vijender as the crowd screamed – ‘Viii-Jenn-Derrr, Vii-Jenn-Derr’ – as the ring girls escorted Vijender onto a ramp and he walked through up to the ring. The hoodie was removed as Vijender’s impressive Manchester-trained physique was revealed to the crowd, who promptly increased the decibel levels. In many ways, Pro-Boxing had arrived in India, especially in the capital. Vijender was in black and orange, feet clad in red high-top red Nikes. Cheka who seemed to have gone quiet at the other end, was in green and white.
The Tanzanian national anthem began with a few Tanzanians in the crowd getting into the mood. The Indian anthem had the crowds singing along. This was a fight they had been waiting for and nationalistic fervor added to the occasion. Saina Nehwal, who reached the quarterfinals at the Beijing Olympics when Vijender picked up a bronze, tweeted: “We know you can do it once again. Don’t show any mercy!”
Both the boxers were in their corners as their men bellowed last-second instructions. The referee waited in the middle of the ring before calling them and saying, “I have told you the rules of the fight. Hope you follow them.” Cheka kept looking at Vijender in a stare that had death written all over it. It was time for the boxers to extort some fear as the fans screamed for the fight to begin. At the bell, the boxers didn’t charge in but circled each a few feet from each other. Vijender, enjoying a height advantage 183 to Cheka’s 179 still had his guard on as the African crouched low, trying to find an opening. They circled like birds of prey – for the screaming fans at the Thyagraj stadium, there was only one prey – Cheka.
Cheka had won 32 of the 43 bouts in his career. Experience was on his side, even though he had never won outside the African continent. Home was a good 5780 kms away. And when the first right hook landed on Cheka, home at Morogoro must have seemed a long way off. The second round began as the mist cleared around Cheka’s head. Shaking his head he came into the middle of the ring and began his crouch, a slightly unorthodox approach when fighting an opponent known for his reach and safety-first tactics. Vijender kept circling him as his corner yelled ‘go in.’ Cheka swung and missed, Vijender deftly stepping away before coming in with another right to the African’s head before Cheka thought it prudent to go into a clinch. The crowd bayed – VIIJEENDEERR.
Something told Vijender before the start of the third round that Cheka isn’t going to come out and trade punches or relax his guard. The Indian squared his impressive shoulders, took a step forward and landed a right to the face, just above the jaw. Cheka’s gum shield was loose and in that moment for a micro-second, the African tottered. Vijender pointed to the referee; most thought he was pointing to the loose gum shield. The referee took one look at Cheka and declared the fight over. The fans hadn’t even settled down and the African who promised so much through his words was ready to fly back. Vijender’s pre-fight prediction “I will put him down with one punch” had come true.
In fact, going back to the changing room was more of a challenge. Vijender had to wade through the crowd; some held onto him, touched him and one fan hugged and didn’t let go till he was forcibly pried out.
After the bout, Vijender said, “I did fall for all that Cheka was saying in the media. A few people in my group did ask me to be careful. But after the first round, I had his measure and then I sorted him out.” In fact, in the middle of the second round, after landing one straight to the face, Vijender did a bit of show-boating, one leg tucked behind the other as he gleefully smiled at Cheka. The crowd roared.
It was Vijender’s eighth consecutive win in professional boxing and second at home; also his seventh knockout in eight bouts. “Two months of training in Manchester has done me good,” said the Indian champion, “I am happy and I believe in punch-power.”
Vijender dedicated his win to the martyred Indian soldiers. His next bout and opponent should be up in six months’ time, probably taking place in China or Dubai. The word ‘biopic’ was thrown in as Vijender smiled. “I keep on repeating ‘Picture abhi baaki hain mere dost’. It’s not the end for me right now, and when I retire that would be the time for a biopic to be made on me. So, I don’t think so, it’s the right time as I haven’t ended my career now.”
First Published On : Dec 18, 2016 09:56 IST