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Spoonfeedin WOrld

Sport – In Conversation with Vijender

Aabhas Sharma

I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told/ I’ve squandered my resistance for a pocket full of mumbles/ Such are promises, all lies and jest/ Till the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that the cult classic The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel is playing on the iPod as I drive across town to Gurgaon to meet Vijender Kumar, Olympic bronze medallist and toast of the town not for his latest win at the World Boxing Championships in Rome alone, but because everyone and everything from celebrities to endorsements are wooing the 23-year-old, formerly from Bhiwani and now part of a national celebrity consciousness. That he’s easy on the eye and has an easygoing charm doesn’t hurt his image either, nor is he easily disconcerted by what the accolades and fame are throwing his way. “I am enjoying these moments,” he dimples shyly, “I’ve had to work really hard to climb the ladder of success.”

Which is why he’s happy to appear on the same chat show as Priyanka Chopra — who wouldn’t? — or walk the ramp for fashion designers, shake hands with politicians, model for brands, appear for meetings of sports federations, and now, here, in Gurgaon, take possession of a new house that signals the end of two decades of struggle. The small town boy who knew what he wanted but rarely spoke in public, and then hesitantly, is now a picture of confidence following global recognition and big-ticket deals that should ensure that, wisely invested, he doesn’t need to seek out his fortune any more.

Not that the champ is going anywhere yet. His boxing career has just taken off and is at its peak. It wasn’t always so, though. Born into a family of limited means, Vijender Kumar lived through a particularly penurious existence. Few know his father worked as a bus driver, often putting in extra hours to raise funds for his son’s passion. Vijender himself undertook odd jobs for the same reason. His elder brother Manoj, who is a soldier with the Indian Army, was his biggest inspiration, egging him on to do better.

Growing up in a village near Bhiwani, it was never clear to Vijender that he would take up boxing, or any other sport for that matter, indulgences of the rich or upper middle classes really. The Bhiwani Boxing Club is known to be a nursery for boxers, and when Vijender enrolled here, it was soon evident that he had potential. “Everything is of international standard,” he says, “all of us boxers trained there,” the others including Jitender Kumar, Akhil Kumar and Dinesh Singh, fellow pugilists with whom he shares both excellent camaraderie as well as “healthy rivalry”.

According to him, Bhiwani Boxing Club is not just the best training academy in the country but, perhaps, the continent as well. It was from here he got off to an early start, participating in national, state, even district level competitions on a regular basis. In 2003, when he first won his national level championship, Vijender had arrived — at least in the eyes of his coach. “It was then I knew that I could fight, and fight well,” he recalls.

With little media attention on boxing, his exploits remained largely unsung till his selection in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where his performance hardly covered him in glory. But what it did do was open his eyes to the international platform of boxing and raise his confidence about competing with the best. “That experience proved excellent for me,” there’s a change in his tone at the mere mention of Beijing.

Already, he divides his life into BB and AB — Before Beijing and After Beijing. While he recognised the enormity of his achievement, he says, he was caught by surprise at the nature of the reception the nation laid out for him. “I was always confident of doing well at the Olympics,” he says, “I wasn’t surprised [by my win].” But the bronze he held in his palm was something the country believed belonged to them collectively, and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Vijender, a frenzy he is happy to enjoy, including the brand endorsements that are becoming part and parcel of any sports celebrity. Nor is he easily distracted by either the wealth or the adulation.“My focus always has been on boxing and will continue to remain so,” he says simply.

But isn’t he making far too many appearances in the glamour industry? While it’s not unusual to see him walk the ramp, he’s also been appearing on a lot of TV shows. In fact, he’s all set to host the desi version of The Contenders too. While Indian cricketers face a lot of flak for gaining unnecessary mileage by endorsements and appearances on the small — and big — screens, doesn’t Vijender fear a backlash of sorts? “No,” he retorts, “why should I be afraid? I don’t let anything hamper my performance.”

He might be revelling in the attention, but his proudest moment, he says, was when he went to Rashtrapati Bhawan to collect the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award — the highest honour for an Indian athlete — from the President. As for the rest, Vijender grins and says it gives him the opportunity to connect with his fans. He is probably the only Indian boxer to have a legion of fans — both male and female. Nor is he uncomfortable talking about his past, though he insists on not making too much of it either. When it was brought up at a chat show on which he was a guest along with actor Priyanka Chopra, that he was once part of a security posse at a rally in which she had participated, he refused to make too much of it. “I grew up the hard way,” he acknowledges, “that’s all there is to it.” He says that he doesn’t have much of a life apart from boxing. True, he makes appearances on ramps and chat shows, but at home he likes to spend time with his family, especially when his brother is in town. Talking about his family, he says that he now wants to give them a comfortable life — something they deserve — he says.

What about his spends? Designer clothes or fancy cars, for example? Vijender says that he loves the simple life. “I’d rather spend my money for the future of my family,” he adds.

Just back from Rome, Vijender has mixed feelings about his performance there. Though he bagged a bronze, he confesses that he could have done much better. Because expectations from him now run high, people keep a close tab on how he performs in each bout. He admits that his fans in India were disappointed when he returned without a gold. But it’s this pressure that eggs him to fight harder, he says. “Earlier, when there were zero expectations, I did my best. Now, I know that the entire nation is watching me. I have to work even harder.”

For now, he is extremely kicked about the multi-million dollar World Series of Boxing planned on the lines of cricket’s Indian Premier League, with city-based franchisees. “It shows that boxing has come a long way,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice. But it’s the London Olympics which is his ultimate target, where he hopes to leave his indelible imprint on not just Indian but international level sport. With two years to go, he might be having fun chatting up celebrities or mingling with the stars, but that hasn’t put any distance between his hands and his gloves.

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade/ And he carries the reminders/ Of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame/ ‘I’m leaving, I’m leaving’/ But the fighter still remains

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September 26, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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