A gold medal is always welcome but for Ashish Kumar, the triumph in Thailand couldn’t have come at a better time.
The 75kg boxer from Himachal Pradesh made his breakthrough with a silver at the Asian Championships in April. Another silver followed at the India Open the month after. But while they established him as a contender in a category which has given India stars such as Vijender Singh and Vikas Krishan, the missed gold medals put Ashish in a funk of self-doubt.
Part of it was bad calls and bad luck. “At one point, I lost a string of international bouts on split decisions. And at the India Open, my semifinal opponent headbutted me and the bad cut meant I had to concede the final.”
But mostly, it’s been due to not backing himself when it counts.
On Saturday, Ashish crossed that hurdle, emerging as the lone gold medallist as India finished with eight medals at the Thailand Open. “I was extremely nervous. The thought was there whether I will be able to perform or not. But I had been in Bangkok before. Plus the coaches were behind me. And after getting the first win against a local boxer, I felt that the nervousness was out of my system. After that, I was very confident in my game and something told me I’m going to win my first international gold here.”
The first fight, incidentally, was against Aphisit Khankhokkruea, the Thai boxer who headbutted Ashish in the India Open semifinal. The Indian finished the competition with commanding 5-0 scorelines in the semifinal and final.
After the Asian Championships, Nieva, the high performance director, broke down Ashish’s technique: “His inclusion didn’t come out of nowhere. He works hard in the camp. But lack of international experience shows sometimes. He can be too much of a fighter. Unnecessarily fighting too much. His positioning and footwork can be random.”
Three months on, Nieva points out the improvements. “Ashish is so much more polished now. He uses his reach better, his ring awareness has improved,” Nieva said on Tuesday.
The biggest gain, however, has been finding that middle gear, between ‘going all out’ and ‘being too passive’. “He has figured out how to mix it up. When to follow his instincts and natural game, and when to avoid fighting.”
Next up is the World Championship in September. Ashish has already qualified for the event in Russia with a win over Railway’s Prayag Chauhan earlier this month. But he realises that his biggest competitor is currently away from the national set-up and busy calling out old rivals. Vikas Krishan, 2-0 on the professional circuit, recently called out Vijender for a showdown in November.
“Vikas bhai has represented the country so many times,” says Ashish. “I have a lot of respect for him out of the ring. But in the ring, he will be just another competitor for me now.”
Krishan, who is competing in the super welterweight category on the professional circuit, however, could drop down a weight division. “For the Worlds, we realised that he had fights scheduled, and he also needed some downtime to recover. But he will still be under consideration for Tokyo,” says Nieva. “There’s a possibility that he could drop down and compete in 69kg, since that’s his weight on the professional circuit. As far as the Olympic qualifier in January is considered, he would have to go for trials, like everybody else. We have to see what happens in the World Championships and we will take a call after that.”