On the verge of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, how prepared is India for an Olympic medal in boxing?
When the International Boxing Association (AIBA) increased the Olympic flyweight category from 49kg to 52kg for the Tokyo Games, India’s Amit Panghal was touted to be the worst affected. At 5’2”, Panghal is not the tallest boxer around, and the new rule would mean taking on taller and stronger athletes. Any boxer who moves up from the 49kg to the 52kg, mathematically, has to give up around 6% advantage in bone and muscle mass – a huge gap at the top level. The ones who were naturally closer to the flyweight category had a huge advantage over boxers like Panghal in the new category, but this hardly fazed the 24-year old boxer.
Relying on speed and quick reflexes, the Amit Panghal quickly adjusted his game and learned the trick of countering the taller boxers. In the World Championships last year, his ploy was simple – landing a number of punches upfront as he needed lesser space to punch once he was inside his rivals’ range.
However, this strategy did not work against boxers who had their guard up against him, and so he unleashed a pocketful of tricks when facing them. Panghal would land a deceptive blow before quickly changing levels to make his opponent commit to a punch. Once they did, he quickly stepped and countered, using his movement to evade their punch and hit them back first instead.
‘We know the difficulty of being the smaller guy. But if you are a larger guy, Amit has a bigger area to hit. When Amit boxes, he makes himself as small as he can. He’s never coming straight at you and he’s always moving and coming from different angles. He makes himself as small a target as possible and is just so difficult to catch,’ national coach Santiago Nieva had stated.
While this is not the best of techniques, it does require adequate courage, which the Indian displayed in abundance as he became the first boxer from the nation to win a silver medal at the boxing World Championships. The victory sealed his spot for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Qualifiers that will be held in March in Jordan.
What are Panglal’s chances for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
If Panghal’s recent form, which started with a gold medal at the Strandzha Cup in Sofia in 2018, is anything to go by, he emerges as the country’s biggest medal hope in the sport for the 2020 Summer Games.
A Commonwealth Games silver followed in the light flyweight category after the Strandzha Cup feat, which was converted to gold in the Asian Games held in Jakarta in 2018, also in light flyweight category. He shifted to the 52kg flyweight division after AIBA’s ruling, and pitched in with strong performances, winning gold at the Asian Championships in Bangkok last year, before the historical silver at the World Championships.
Despite the struggles that he had to face, he soon became the world No. 1 in his category, and will enter the competition with the aim of sealing his Olympics berth.
However, the weaknesses in his armoury can in no way be ignored. In the finals of the World Championships, Panghal went down 0-5 to Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan, and what was evident in the game was his inability to negate his lack of height and reach against his taller opponent. He also needs to add more power and endurance to his game, and while his balance against the taller rivals has been perfected, his overhead shots is something that needs work as well. To improve these drawbacks, Panghal has taken to sparring with taller boxers in the National camps, and has also introduced fruits and liquids into his daily nutrition so that he does not tire out easily.
With well-defined strengths and a determination to wipe out the weaknesses despite the natural disadvantages, Panghal’s confidence and his self-belief holds him in good stead as he eyes, first the Olympics and then a medal at the Games. However, the results in a boxing competition have always been decided by the path of the draws, and once again, the match-ups in his journey will determine how far he can go.
Panghal’s competition and boxers to watch for at the Games
His biggest competitors will be Shakhobidin Zoirov, his nemesis in 2019’s World Championships and a former Olympic champion in the light-weight division; Rio Olympic flyweight bronze medal winner Hu Jianguan; Saken Bibossinov, who gave Panghal a tough fight in the World Championships semis that the Indian won 3-2; and Kharkhuu Enkhmandakh of Mongolia, who triumphed over Panghal in the quarterfinals of the Military Games 5-0 in October 2019.
However, despite the challenges, Panghal emerges as a top contender to bag a medal, and while a gold may seem a tough task considering his natural drawbacks (he is the shortest boxer in his weight category), a bronze or even a silver cannot and should not be ruled out.
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