Boxing is at once a great sport as well as a flawed sport.
Great, because, like celebrated cricket writer Peter Roebuck once mentioned, 'All sport is boxing in another form' - boxing is where it all starts: primal, basic, no props, land punches and avoid punches. Rough, even cringe-inducingly violent to some, 'noble' to others. A game of the feet and eyes as much as it is of the fists.
India, never a boxing powerhouse, has been making rapid strides in the sport in recent times. The northeastern state of Manipur, the armed forces, Haryana and Punjab have been the traditional centres of excellence for the sport, by Indian standards. Of late, in a small way since 2002-03, and in a much bigger way since Vijender Singh’s bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games
, Haryana has emerged as the main centre. Though they didn’t win a medal in London, five of the eight Indian boxers were from Haryana.
But, while the qualification of eight boxers for the Olympics was a big deal, why not an appropriate number of medals? And why, indeed, did it look to us like some of our Indian boxers were cheated, made to lose when they had won?
At the core of the problem is the scoring system that is in place. Here’s what PKM Raja (Secretary of the Indian Boxing Federation) explained to me during the course of the research for my book on Indian boxing published recently. “As a judge, if I press the buzzer ten times, at least five have to be accepted by the other judges. If I get less than 50 per cent right, I will be warned and if I get three warnings, I would be suspended from the competition. Each button I press is like a bullet and I have to hit the target. So no judge presses the button without being 100 per cent sure. So scoring is less. Only the clearest of punches – straight punches – are assured of points.”
Elsewhere, Akhil Kumar, champion Indian boxer, told me: “Judges usually press the buzzer once or twice when a boxer connects with a combination of four-five punches. If you connect with one punch and back off, you might not get points. If you land single punches three-four times, the judges might give you a point or two.”
That’s what Sumit Sangwan did in his 81kg first round match. He didn’t lose to his opponent but to the scoring system. He landed more point punches, but didn’t land combinations. As a result, because of the ridiculous scoring rule in place, the judges didn’t award him points.
The Olympic bosses – the International Olympic Committee – have also been strangely reluctant to ever overturn results or entertain protests and complaints. From the commentators on the official broadcast channel, who called the decision “daylight robbery”, to fans and experts on Twitter
, everyone was certain that Sangwan was the winner against Yamaguchi Falcao Florentino that evening. The decision, in typical IOC style, was allowed to stand.
The only time the bosses do overturn decisions is when there are fouls committed by a boxer. If the boxer commits a foul that the referee fails to penalise during a bout, the bosses get agitated and start allotting points to the opponent. That’s what got Vikas Krishan down. Was he the better fighter on the night? Of course he was. Did he win the fight? Well, it was a close contest, and his opponent called for a review. During the review, Vikas was found to have committed a number of holding offences and once even threw out his gumshield. Holding is not a big offence, but throwing out the gumshield is. But holding assumes proportions of a bigger offence than it is if it is combined with a big offence, like the gumshield offence.
The trick, if India
are to move upwards in the amateur boxing arena, is to box smart along with boxing well. The AIBA might change the scoring system further, making it either more complicated or, hopefully, simpler. From India’s point of view, sitting back in a funk and saying ‘cheating’ and ‘robbery’ won’t help much, it won’t change anything apart from getting fans angry. The trick is to know the rules and know the idiosyncrasies of judges. The rules are the same for everyone. Whether we like it or not, we need to work around the system, because there’s no way a head-on collision will help.
(About the Contributor: Shamya Dasgupta is Senior Editor, Wisden India and author of ‘Bhiwani Junction – The Untold Story of Boxing in India’)