How Vijender Singh made Mumbai stand still

It was hard to miss. One of the bigger ones was just outside Vijender’s hotel. He found the scenery with his fight poster ideal to share on his Twitter handle, a teaser for the biggest night of his professional career.

As August 5 came closer, there were plenty more billboards, TV adverts and newspaper pages that were consumed in promoting ‘Batteground Asia’. People became curious, tickets sales increased and got their Saturday night scheduled around the main event.

It was the first time a Vijender fight was taking place in Mumbai, ‘the next step’ as IOS Promotions CEO and MD Neerav Tomar said. Despite it being a vibrant city, not many could forecast what the vibe would be like at the NSCI Dome in Worli.

Having seen plenty of live cricket games, a few Tennis matches and a sole Mumbai City FC game, I was looking forward to seeing how a fight sport felt live. I’m of the opinion that everyone should (or must) watch a game at the venue, at least once. It’s very easy to sit on a couch or a bar stool and curse somebody for not putting in maximum effort. During one of my local train rides, I saw a guy watching an India vs Australia Test on his mobile and shouting at Ravindra Jadeja to run faster at the boundary. The person in question was on his second vada-pav (The irony of it all). Unless you’ve seen an AB de Villiers dive, Ben Stokes chase the ball, Ajinkya Rahane’s sharp hands at slip, the might of a Stan Wawrinka forehand or Pat Cummins’ pace live in person, you’ll never completely understand sport.

Getting back to Saturday, there were plenty at the Dome for the undercard fights, but there was a lack of enthusiasm. I do partially blame the venue, as there was no music in-between rounds to get the crowd going and the PA system was slightly distorted. It took a while for the crowd inside to get into the groove. The loose comments like kheechke maar or kya kar raha hai started flowing. A plus for the fight-card was the ‘India vs World’ narrative. People had no dilemma in deciding whom to cheer for.

The noise level went up as Akhil Kumar  – a former Olympian, Gold medalist at the 2008 Commonwealth games and Arjuna award winner i.e a known quantity made his way to the ring. The fight was not spectacular –  an easy victory for the 36-year-old pro debutant, earning a TKO victory over Australian Ty Gilchrist after the second round.

Neeraj Goyat’s fight turned out to be the perfect preface for the main event. Yes, he beat Allan Tanada of Philippines by unanimous decision to retain his WBC Asia-Pacific welterweight title, but it was the manner in which he did it which delighted everyone. Keeping his guard down, taunting his opponent, rallying up the crowd in-between rounds – while not ideal in a bout, played a part in getting the audience’s applause. A colleague of mine was complaining about his style, but Neeraj played his part and worked the crowd. His antics (probably coupled by the alcohol kicking in) made the atmosphere, as ‘The Rock’ would say, electrifying.

A big break followed before the main event. Understandably so, as some of the big names in the country made their way into the Dome. Randeep Hooda, Dino Morea, Neha Dhupia, Baba Ramdev and plenty more were already present. Amitabh Bachchan and his son Abhisheik, protected by security and bombarded by fans, made their way ring-side. While there were plenty of big names missing, which you’d hope to be there at the fight (given that it’s Mumbai), it didn’t matter to the bigger picture.

Once the fight started, they were one among the thousands behind the red corner. I’m pretty sure their voices were also a part of the roar after they heard the word ‘red’ when the result was being announced. The rest of what Charu Sharma said was drowned in the eruption. Apart from Zulpikar and his team, the entire arena got what they came for.

 

It was certainly not Vijender’s best fight, but it by far was his toughest. The veteran’s superior game-plan catering to his reach advantage got the job done. He was aided by the point deduction for the low blow, a questionable non-ruling of a knockdown and ‘home’ advantage. Vijender was bruised, bloodied and shaken, but he got his hands raised and two titles in the end.

The 32-year-old may be the only Indian that is turning heads in the boxing world, but he’s the right man to take the sport forward in the country and represent the nation in the boxing world. He knows how to promote himself, choose the right words in interviews which translate into headlines increasing his popularity. His dig at his opponent (Chinese maal zyada nahi chalte) may not be in good taste, but certainly connects with the masses. When asked whether the hostility at the Indo-China border was at the back of his mind heading into the fight, he replied that it’s not just on his but the entire nation’s, steering clear of giving the media a headline or a hashtag. His gesture to return the belt to the 22-year-old as a message of peace certainly did make headlines, even around the world. When you’ve been in the limelight for nearly a decade, you know the ‘script’, and Vijender abides by it.

As far as the city is concerned, it now has bragging rights of being part of the biggest boxing event this country has seen, possibly pivotal in changing the landscape of the sport. While hosting the cricket team’s victorious 2011 World Cup finale is the city’s greatest sporting memory, ‘Battleground Asia’ will be among the illustrious ones.

As far as whether the crowd enjoyed the event, I think this particular fan video speaks for the lot! (Headphones recommended)


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(Akhil Nair is the sub editor and sports writer at The Ring Side View. You can follow him on Facebook Here & Tweets @akhiln)

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