Delhi’s 25-year-old international boxer Anjali Tushir, who was expecting herself to be in the boxing ring, instead sat as a silent spectator at the International Boxing Association (IBA) Women’s World Boxing Championships that concluded on Sunday at the Capital’s Indira Gandhi Indoor (IGI) Sports Complex.
The promising international boxer has been part of the national camp for the past four years, so it was hard for her to believe that she missed the opportunity to wear India jersey for the premier world event held in her city.
“I was excited and happy to see the Indian boxers winning their matches. But there was a sinking feeling as I wasn’t part of the India squad,” Anjali revealed to Patriot.
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This was the second time she missed the chance to qualify for the global competition and it was largely due to the change in selection procedure brought in by Boxing Federation of India’s (BFI) newly-appointed high performance director Bernard Dunne.
Dunne did away with the old policy of final selection through competition in the national camp ahead of performances in the national championships, which cost her a place in 2022 edition of the global tournament, and instead began giving more weightage to the national championships medallists, especially those with gold and silver, which cost Anjali a place at the just-concluded event.
Anjali had won gold in the 69kg during the 2021 National Boxing Championships held in Hisar, but couldn’t make cut for the 2022 edition of the Women’s World Boxing Championships held in Istanbul, Turkey, as she lost to Assam’s Ankushita Boro during the national selection trials.
Ahead of this year’s New Delhi edition of the global competition, she failed to win a medal at the national championships and therefore couldn’t get a second chance like her opponent Ankushita had got against her last time.
Amid the roars of the crowd when the Indian boxers were inaction, Anjali could hear the palpitations of her heart louder than anything else even though she was seated in the front row.
The emotions she was experiencing were extremely difficult to explain to people around her as she was still preoccupied with the thoughts of missing out on the national team and watching the competition from the spectators’ stand.
Anjali, a hardcore boxer, has been practicing boxing for the past eight years and is well-versed with the dark underbelly of the Indian sports politics.
It was understandable that even a hardcore athlete like her could get emotional while narrating her tale of missing two back-to-back chances of competing at Women’s World Boxing Championships.
According to Anjali, despite being super fit she lost in the quarter-finals of the 69kg weight at the 2022 women’s national boxing championships held in Bhopal. The competition acted as the final selection trial for the India squad for the global competition.
“I had lodged a protest with the federation as I wasn’t satisfied with the referee’s decision but got no response,” Anjali explained.
But the BFI’s tweaked national selection policy for the 2023 World Boxing Championships giving significant weightage to gold and silver medallists, meant that chances of boxers like Anjali who didn’t perform well in the nationals, diminished when the national camp started in Patiala in December last year.
But exception to the rule was made for someone like Nitu Ghanghas, who missed the boxing nationals due to illness but was still included in the national camp. She won gold in the 48kg category at the World Boxing Championships. Overall, the Indian contingent won four gold medals in the competition. Nikhat Zareen (50kg), Lovlina Borgohain (75kg) and Saweety Boora (81kg) were the other Indians boxers to win gold medals in their respective weight categories.
“I was disappointed to have lost the quarter-finals at the 2022 national championships. There was no chance of requesting the federation to give one more chance since the new selection policy had come in place,” Anjali recalls.
The BFI had appointed Irish boxing expert Dunne as high-performance director last year in October to improve India’s medals tally in boxing at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
In the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games that were held in 2021 due to delay forced by Covid, the Indian contingent returned with just one bronze through Lovlina Borgohain in the women’s 69kg category despite fielding nine boxers, including four in the women’s group.
Before Dunne was appointed, the BFI would select, for the national camps, the top four boxers in each weight categoryat the national championships. The final selection trials for the national squad for international competitions would take place in the camp.
Dunne, however, made changes to the selection policy. He selected only the top two boxers in each of the weight categories as he believed it was better to focus on a small group of boxers for major international competitions.
“During the national camp, the boxers for the world championships were selected on the basis of overall evaluation, including day-to-day sparring and fitness,” said Bhaskar Bhatt, India women team’s chief coach. “The policy of selecting teams through trials during the camp was scrapped by Irish boxing expert.”
But Anjali, who would be present at the World Boxing Championships semi-finals and finals bouts well ahead of time, remains unfazed.
“I have recovered from setbacks and will hopefully bounce back stronger,” Anjali said.
Anjali’s rise to national contention is testament to the growth of boxing in the Capital.
According to DN Yadav, secretary of the Delhi Amateur Boxing Association (DABA), there has been a rapid rise in boxing centres across Delhi over the past six years. There were less than 10 boxing centres in Delhi in 2017, but now there are more than 40.
“I believe the 2023 Women’s World Boxing Championships will encourage enthusiastic followers of boxing to further motivate youngsters in the Capital to take up combat sport,” said DABA’s long-time sports administrator.
Despite 40 boxing training centres, Delhi’s overall performance in women’s competitions at the national level is average.
“Delhi women’s team do win two-three medals at the national level,” Anjali said, adding that when she won gold in 2021, it was Delhi’s first after a gap of more than six years.
The region around Najafgarh has the highest concentration of boxing training centres, said Yadav.
“Rural areas of Delhi attract more youngsters to combat sports like boxing,” Yadav added.
“There are as many as eight to 10 boxing centres in the Najafgarh area.”
Sangeeta Yadav, a former national boxing coach and school teacher at MCD primary school in Delhi is one of those enthusiastic people who have invested in boxing. She has started an academy in Nangloi.
“We have an indoor boxing ring and basic equipment for practice,” Sangeeta said.
“There are 30 to 40 students, including girls, at our academy. We normally charge a nominal fee of Rs 100 per student for one month.”
Sangeeta took students of her academy to watch the elite boxers up and close twice during the IBA Women’s World Boxing Championships at IGI Sports Complex.
“I wanted the youngsters to watch and learn something. We could only witness pre-quarterfinals and final matches as the majority of the boxers at our academy are appearing for their board exams,” added Sangeeta.
Kanika Dahiya, a school-going national bronze medal-winning boxer in junior group in 2022, was excited to watch the action live and get the opportunity to interact with the Indian team members.
“Watching players live is different than watching them on TV,” Kanika said.
Kanika said she closely followed the action of the players and their footwork.
“It was amazing to observe the coordination of the elite boxers during the World Boxing Championships,” said the youngster, who practices in Nangloi.
Rajesh, a former national level player, also shares his knowledge with youngsters in Dwarka, South West Delhi.
“Whenever I get time after my office hours, I guide youngsters in my area in boxing though there are no indoor hall facilities,” Rajesh said.
According to Rajesh, there should be more government-run facilities in Delhi.
“Boxing facilities at the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and National Stadium have shut down,” Rajesh added.
“There are also no job opportunities for outstanding boxers in Delhi. Even if an athlete wins medals at the national level, chances of getting a job in Delhi are bleak.”
This is the reason why a boxer like Anjali had to travel all the way to Kolkata to look for a job via sports quota at the Eastern Railways office.
“I have won medals at the national level but hardly anyone knows me in Delhi. My job application is in process and I will join the Eastern Railways shortly.”
Anjali, who has been enrolled at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) boxing training centre in Rohtak, Haryana, might have missed a chance to compete at the just-concluded Women’s World Boxing Championships, but she has set her sight on the Asian Games scheduled to be held later this year in China.
“I am training hard. If I get a chance, I will try to grab it with both hands,” Anjali said.