Lord of the ring

The Ashok is teeming with sport stars. Young and sprightly, they are all busy. Some are checking in for the official felicitation function. Some are stepping out to catch up on shopping related to the function. Everyone is super busy. But one young man has no moment to himself. He is actually the superstar among the sport stars. Humble and extremely introvert, he hardly comes across the 49kg gold medallist, a champion in the ring at the recent Asian Games held in Jakarta. Hardly. But Amit Panghal, the diminutive dynamite from Maina village in Haryana’s Rohtak district, rides tall amongst the sporting fraternity of the country.

I have a lunch rendezvous with Amit at Frontier, which is known to serve authentic North-West Frontier cuisine. The Ashok, it is said, is well liked for its superb dining facilities. The ambiance is refined and beautiful. At Frontier, you are treated to a visual performance of Chef Anish Kanswal’s tandoori specialities. The most popular dishes such as Pathar Kabab, and Kabab-e-Bannu offer succulent pieces of tender chicken enclosed in an egg wrapping. Dal Dera Ismail Khan, to be had with keema naan and pudina naan, figures among the most delicious dishes.

The staff at the Frontier lines up in silent admiration as Amit, proudly dangling the gold medal, walks in, takes his seat, and then tries soaking in the place. The gold medal bout is fresh. So are his memories of the journey to the podium, beginning from early days spent with brother Ajay, who was a boxer to be feared in the neighbourhood. “I have lived my brother’s dream. He is the reason why I became a boxer. I never thought of becoming a boxer. My coach (Anil Dhankar) pushed me. He had more confidence in me. His support has been invaluable for me. And, of course, Vijender Singh (Olympic boxing medallist). Vijender was the inspiration,” Amit smiles into the camera of my colleague.

Emotional moment

An armyman to the core, Amit saluted the National Flag at Jakarta in a fitting manner after winning the gold. At the presentation ceremony, he could not hold back his tears. “I don’t know what happened. I have heard the National Anthem so many times but I just could not hold myself back. I used to get goosebumps when hearing the National Anthem. The tears were natural. I still get emotional.”

The gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games is big. “Very big,” Amit corrects me with his infectious smile. “The boxing family was looking for glory. Vikas (Krishan) was sure to get a medal but for the cut he suffered on the eye. This medal means so much for me because 49 kg is to be removed from the schedule and I have to compete in the 52 kg category. It is going to be hard work.”

You have to strain to hear him. Amit is a calm and composed young man, sitting across the table, just the opposite of what he is in the ring – agile and swift, so nimble footed. Is he not docile for a boxer. “Most people have a wrong impression that wrestlers and boxers should be aggressive. I remain calm mostly but sometimes I do get angry, irritated. My game is more defensive and I believe in counter attack. In small weights, speed, and not strength is what matters. Agility is an essential part of boxing. I have worked on it. But I don’t have to be needlessly aggressive and anxious.”

How about lunch? The menu offers a mouth watering variety but his choice narrows down to fruit plate. “Only fruits,” asks Nishtha Chandel, who is facilitating our visit to Frontier. The kababs appear attractive. But Amit wants to avoid heavy food.

“I am not at all fussy about food. I can eat anything. I can survive without vegetarian food. I love chicken and can eat lots of it. I need to develop my strength too. I love daal and rotis as much but nothing to beat the choorma and kheer that comes from my mother’s exceptional cuisine. I can eat anything cooked by her 365 days. She is so good,” Amit pours out his respect and affection for his mother.

Idolising Ali

When Vijender was winning the Olympic medal, Amit was starting his boxing. “His Olympic medal was a boost to boxing in India. First one in Olympics. Boxers have emerged from all corners of the country thanks to him.” Talking of inspiration, Amit has grown idolising the legendary Muhammad Ali. “He was the ultimate boxer. His punching speed was frightening. For his size, he was lightening quick on his feet. No wonder he is the greatest boxing icon.”

Amit hails from a small village where wrestling is big. He reflects, “We have lots of wrestlers emerging from Haryana. But boxing is picking up. The state government is also encouraging. Girls are doing pride to the State. Phogat sisters have changed the scenario. Then Mary Kom has inspired women boxers. Now Vinesh Phogat has done the same in wrestling. She is a big wrestler. My grandfather was a wrestler. I was never attracted to it and then my brother took me to boxing.”

The fruit plate arrives. He concentrates on the kiwi fruit and slices of watermelon. He quickly gulps the orange juice. I know there are many waiting to interview Amit, whose life has changed from the time he became an Asian Games gold medallist. “I can see the change (within) yes. The world has changed. I am overwhelmed by the affection that has been bestowed upon me.”

Equanimity is key

At Jakarta, Manoj Kumar was his room-mate. “He motivated me before every bout. I have learnt a lot from the seniors. I would like aspirants to learn from the coaches and the seniors. Make the most of their experience. I would also like to tell you that sportsmen hardly lose temper. I hardly get angry. Never outside the ring. Never. But I do feel sad when I see the filth around. We should try and stay clean. And rape is a blot on our society. It has to be dealt with firmly.”

Dessert? “Not now. I am full,” Ami raises his arms. “I love sweets. Kheer and choorma is my favourite. My mother makes it the best. To lose 2 ½ kg before the final, I had to eat lots of fruits, juices (watermelon, orange, pineapple). Now there is no weight control. I eat whatever I get. I am physically tough. And I am mentally tough too.”

Amit, a Naib Subedar in Army, will soon travel to Pune, which is close to Mumbai. Meeting film legend Dharmendra is a secret desire for Amit. “I am a huge fan. My father (Vijender Singh) and Dhankar Sir are huge fans of Dharmendra. My father’s DP on Whatsapp has a Dharmendra photo. I love him. I have heard he used to be known as the He Man. I love his son (Sunny Deol). I can see his punches. They must have tremendous power. I have seen many of his movies many times. Wish I could meet Dharmendra ji.”

It is time for Amit, 22, to join a crew filming his appeal for Swachh Bharat. The hotel staff swarms him for selfies. He obliges them all. I have not seen champions so humble. He is indeed a rare commodity!

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