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‘If I fight again I’ll beat him for sure...I won’t make the same mistakes again’
Tête à tête

Pigeons and sparrows try crossbreeding by the fountain facing the entrance of The Maurya in Delhi. Inside the hotel lobby, the sound of water thrums from a corner, playing second fiddle to Kenny G — resident saxophonist of all Indian five-stars. Heels clatter, a sari flutters and the long-awaited call comes. “Mr Kumar will be with you in five minutes,” says an over made-up, over-pleasant, over-smiling, draped mannequin of a front desk lady. Luckily, the man of the moment is down soon, manager in tow.

Dressed in casual jeans and a tucked out white shirt, the Beijing Olympic bronze medallist in the middleweight boxing category, Vijender Kumar, cuts a woozy, rest-deprived figure. A side profile reveals a sculpted jaw and fading vestiges of puberty that no amount of Soframycin — or knock out punches — can wish away.

“I haven’t had much sleep since I’ve come back,” mumbles the 22-year-old in Hindi, before adding in English with a thick cowbelt inflection, “but I am loving every moment.” And why not?

Last week, Kumar signed up to become brand ambassador — “Youth Icon” — of insurance company Bajaj Allianz. And that was less than 48 hours after arriving from China to tremendous fanfare. Was the boxer doing the math of the endorsement on the flight back? “No, no,” he laughs. But he won’t give us figures on how much he is going to earn.

The beefy, six-foot frame is topped with a thick mop of jet-black hair. His eyes, smile and voice are courteous. But for all the talk of his ruggedly macho looks and slightly cocky demeanour, the man betrays the impression of a boy next door. Little wonder that not many in the hotel lobby recognise him. Most, in fact, are busy watching India play Pakistan on a wide plasma TV screen 10 feet away.

Another draped mannequin offers us water and raises a matronly eyebrow to check if we are behaving ourselves. “Growing up in Bhiwani was very happy. My parents did everything, supported me all the way,” says Kumar. His father, Mahipal Singh Beniwal, is an employee of Haryana Roadways, and his mother is a home-maker. Kumar holds a bachelor’s degree from Vaish College in Bhiwani, Haryana. He has also done modelling part time, but maintains “boxing is and always has been my first priority.”

Kumar’s brother Manoj, who is in the Indian Army and is also a boxer, was the in-house inspiration-cum-sparring partner for the future Olympian. Apart from boxing gloves, kid brother Vijender would get tips on moves, planning and execution. But his punches and counter punches were really honed by coach Jagdish Singh of the now famous Bhiwani Boxing Club which produced four of the five Indian pugilists in the Indian contingent in Beijing. Kumar’s favourite fighters are Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya.

Unlike other sporty young boys who like to field a bat before moving on to any other game, Kumar was into boxing from the time he was a child. “My hometown was always famous for boxing. And I always liked rough and tough sports,” he says.

Zaheer Khan suddenly emerges on the screen, looking down at Kumar from Colombo. Arms akimbo, the fast bowler is mouthing something and staring like a Bollywood baddie at a Sri Lankan batsman who has just pasted him. We ignore cricket, and get back to Kumar. So how was Beijing?

“I’m well travelled now. I’ve been to the UK, the US. I went for the last Olympics to Athens (where he lost in the first round of the welterweight category) and I’d been to Beijing a few times. Lekin is bar Beijing mein kaafi mazaa ayaa (but this time Beijing was fun),” he says. Small town boy? Hah, take that, he seems to say.

Meanwhile, Zaheer Khan gets clobbered for another boundary. Two shifty guys in the lobby, MBA types, motion one of the mannequins to raise the volume. The raised eyebrow returns and peace prevails. Does Kumar — who has been critical of cricket’s exalted status — believe the game gets too much attention to the detriment of other sports? “We should do more for other sports and people are doing more,” is all Kumar has to say.

Distracted from the ado, he turns his head but comes back to the next question. When did he start believing that he could win an Olympic medal? And from where does his confidence of winning the gold in the London Olympics come — a declaration he has made more than once to the press?

“In 2003, I became all-India youth boxing champion. I beat a good boxer (Hari Krishna) to get there. I got real confidence and belief in myself then. I thought, if I can beat him, I can beat anyone. I turned from a junior to senior boxer when I became the all-India champion.” Earlier, he had won the silver medals in his first and second sub-junior national competition in 2001 and 2002. He got picked for competitions and further training in countries such as Cuba.

Beijing is still too close, and Kumar hasn’t yet started thinking about the London Olympics. “It’s still four years away. I want to concentrate on more immediate things at hand. My next target is winning at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.”

We get him back to his semi-final loss to the eventual silver medal winner, Cuban boxer Emilio Correa Bayeaux. He may have given his best, but wasn’t he outsmarted, if not outplayed, by perhaps a far superior boxer? This one gets his goat. “Semi-final was a slow bout, Bayeaux wasn’t attacking. We’re both counter attacking boxers. We didn’t attack each other too much, thinking we may get trapped and give away points,” says Vijender. And then he adds after a short pause, “If I fight him again I’ll beat him for sure. I’m absolutely ready and I won’t make the same mistakes again.”

Zaheer & Co. get muted as talk turns to chattier things. Did Kumar miss home food while in Beijing? “Yes and no,” is his quick answer.

Yes, because he absolutely loves gharelu dal and rice, and no because he’s an ardent non-vegetarian. Boxers need protein and carbohydrates, Kumar explains. “But I absolutely love desi ghee aur doodh,” he says.

Outside of taking on opponents in the ring, Kumar enjoys movies. He flatly refuses to give his opinion on Bipasha Basu’s offer for a date. “She spoke to Akhil Kumar, not me,” he retorts. His favourite films are Chak De! India and the Hollywood Rocky series “where Stallone has boxed superbly.” A confirmed bathroom singer, Kumar enjoys Punjabi folk music — “it’s different from bhangra,” he points out — and his pick among crooners is Kailash Kher. Though he admits to browsing through books at night, reading seriously is a habit he’s just beginning to cultivate.

One mannequin breaks in just as Kumar’s manager says he has only five more minutes for us. This one has a gentleman behind her. “Can we please get a photo clicked of Mr Kumar for our hotel records?” We bark out a three-in-one “No!”

Looking at his confidence, we wonder if he has ever felt nervous before a fight. “Oh, yes. Not the semi-final, but the quarter-final (against Carlos Gongora of Ecuador). That’s when I was really nervous, as that was the fight which decided whether I’d get a medal or not.” A little bit of nervousness, Kumar says, is good for a boxer. “Your moves become sharper,” he says. He also does meditation and breathing exercises every evening to maintain an all-out positive mental state.

Time’s up, calls his manager. Zaheer Khan & Co. troop out obediently, as if on the manager’s cue. The front desk ladies, now aware of the medallist in their presence, turn into a horde of hushed, admiring fans. The man and his Man Friday dash into a Mitsubishi Lancer. The pigeons and the sparrows flutter on by the fountain, watching the big bird take off.

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