CHANDIGARH: Six years ago, Deepak Kumar worked as a newsboy to sustain his budding boxing career and his perseverance was finally rewarded when he returned home with a silver medal after reaching the finals of one of the oldest and most prestigious events in Europe – the Strandja Memorial in Bulgaria.
Deepak’s meteoric rise to fame came after he had ousted the reigning Olympic champion Shakhobidin Zoirov 4-1 in the men’s 52 kg bout in the semifinal. The 23-year-old, however, failed to upstage two-time European championships gold medallist Daniel Asenov in the final to settle for the silver.
“The experience of playing in the Strandja Memorial Tournament was very good. The semi-final bout I had with the Olympic champion was nice, I felt ecstatic after winning that particular bout,” he told TOI, before adding that people only remember gold medallists or champions and he still longs for the yellow metal.
Was there a change in strategy technically ahead of the semifinal bout? Deepak minced no words and said he took it as his final bout.
“I took it as my final bout, the thought of being in the semifinal didn’t flash in my mind. Facing a world champion could always be intimidating but mentally I was prepared that it was my last bout of the tournament,” he said.
“I had one strategy in my mind, and that was to maintain the pressure on him. I knew he plays straight and my ploy was to keep my face away from his range as much as possible. That helped me frustrate him and keep the pressure,” he explained.
Boost for India’s bench
Deepak’s silver has no doubt strengthened India’s bench in the 52 kilogram category, which already boasts of World No.1 Amit Panghal, the Tokyo Olympics quota holder. But Deepak, a Naib Subedar in the Indian Army doesn’t feel the heat of the competition with Panghal, who also is an Army pugilist.
“Boxing can be an individual sport but you need good competition. If I have a partner as well as a competitor in Amit (Panghal), that automatically keeps both of us on the edge and brings out the best in us,” Deepak told TOI in a chat after returning to the camp at NIS, Patiala.
“He (Panghal) is also a sparring partner. Competition must always be healthy, if I rate myself as the No.1 then there is no room for improvement, but if I am second, then obviously I will keep trying to be on top,” came a matured reply from the young gun.
Like Panghal, Deepak too switched from the 49 kilogram category to the 52kg class in 2019, and the silver at the Strandja Memorial is his first major medal in the category. Deepak, who usually weighs around 53 kgs, said the switch has helped him focus on his speed and power punches rather than thinking about the weights.
“Earlier, I had to shed almost 3 kgs to take part in any event, but after switching to a higher weight category, I can focus more on strength training rather than on losing weight.”
“This was my first major tournament in the 52kg category, it’s easier to participate in the category. Also the 52kg class being an Olympic category, it was the only option for me. Technically speaking, it has helped me improve on my speed and power punches, which are my main weapons,” he added.
While the comparisons with Panghal could also give rise to a sense of rivalry between the two, Deepak clarified that he is still a work in progress and has a long way to go.
“It boosts my confidence when I am training alongside someone who is a World No.1. We normally don’t speak about the game but we share a great rapport.”
“I still see my game in the 52kg as a work in progress, there is a lot of room for improvement. This is just the beginning and the gold has boosted my confidence to put in more hard work in the coming days,” he said.
Born to a home guard father and homemaker mother, Deepak’s was like any other middle class Indian family. His parents wanted him to focus on completing his education and fetch a job, but it was his uncle’s intervention that brought him to the ring.
“They (parents) wanted me to focus on education, but my uncle had knowledge about the game and he has a friend circle who knew about this sport. My chachaji was not able to make it big in boxing as he did not get the desired guidance, so he made me aware of the sport and he told me about the benefits of boxing,” he said.
Having started boxing at the age of 11 in 2008, Deepak, however, made his mind to leave the sport midway as he couldn’t afford the expenses of diet and training. His coach Rajesh Sheoran then helped him return to the ring.
“I started boxing in 2008 then I left the sport in 2009 for some seven-eight months. In 2010, I played for Haryana in the State Championships where I was able to win a medal. In 2012, I became a state champion,” he recalled.
But following a ban on the association, Deepak hardly had any competitions to compete and keep himself in the scheme of things. In 2015, the boxer, however, decided to continue with the sport but wanted to be self-reliant for his diet and supplements.
“I always wanted to be self-reliant and help my parents. So, in my early years, I used to do the job of collection for a friend’s newspaper vending agency. No, I wasn’t a vendor myself, I just sometimes went and did the collection of payments,” he said.
“I used whatever I had earned to take care of my dietary needs,” he added.
His persistence paid off and Deepak came back with a gold medal in the 2018 senior national boxing championships before coming up with a silver medal at the 2019 Asian Boxing Championships. He had also returned with a gold medal from the 2019 Makran Cup.