‘One of the best amateur fights ever’: Indian boxer Ashish Kumar suffers heartbreaking loss in an ‘epic’ CWG quarterfinal bout

The nonchalant jives of the feet. An admirable looseness in the limbs. A certain cockiness on occasions where he would lean forward, hands down by his side, almost egging his opponent to take a pop. Which England’s Aaron Bowen did. Ashish would shrug back, and let his hands fly. Aaron more controlled, moving around in a pattern, jabbing constructively until in the final moments of the fight, when even he got as unhinged as Ashish – two pairs of limbs flying around, looking for a pound of flesh to land. It was thrilling, visceral – and is … fun.

In a split decision verdict, Ashish Kumar lost. It’s a feeling he must be intimate with by now, a collector of split-decision losses in international competitions. But on a lovely Birmingham night, when India was asleep, he stared to ensure his countrymen would hit the Sony Liv app to catch the bout in the morning.

Could he have been tighter in the first two rounds? Did an old fault resurface? After the 2019 Asian Championships, Nieva, the high performance director, had distilled Ashish’s technique: “But lack of international experience shows sometimes. He can be too much of a fighter. Unnecessarily fighting too much. His positioning and footwork can be random,” he had told The Indian Express.

Too much of a fighter. Seems like one heck of a compliment. In the professional world, even in what’s called amateur boxing bouts, it isn’t a compliment. But to a lay watcher, that attitude is what made it a thrilling bout to witness. Ashish’s footwork wasn’t random but occasionally his positioning was, a feeling accentuated by Aaron’s precise movements. For his jabs did seem to land more. Referees didn’t miss.

Ashish was prepping in Ireland, before the CWG. The federation put out a few videos. Indoors with a handler, alone with a punching bag, and even once on a street punching away with a handler. The Irish love their boxing, wouldn’t have minded. He has done a lot of work, ever since he lost the Tokyo Olympics in the first round. That hurt him.

As soon as he returned from Tokyo to his hometown Sundar Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, he had hit his boxing academy. To apologize for the loss. “”I lost in the opening bout so…it was really painful…I was very attacking, the defense wasn’t good, so that was the reason I lost,” he would say.

He did learn his lesson. His defense seemed tighter, especially when he started off last night. But Aaron’s fists would find a way to breach. Ashish’s counterpunches were thrilling and it was mighty close in the end.

When he speaks about this bout we will know for sure but it did seem that Ashish has buried his old mental frailty: a lack of conviction in his style. It used to hurt him in the past.

“I have always played openly and aggressively. But somebody would tell me to be more cautious and I would straightaway go into a shell. I’d lose the first round and for a referee, that’s it. You might dominate the last round but you’d still lose that match. So it became sort of a mental block,” he had once told this newspaper. Like he did in the 2019 Asian Championship final. Suddenly, he switched his game, trying something different, and his “opponent dominated me”.

As noted on these pages before, the lack of conviction was partly because of the competitive category. That a younger Ashish had spent a lot of time in camp busy being the understudy or sparring partner for his seniors. An impatience had crept in and when he eventually started to compete, in a category which had given India stalwarts like Vijender singh and Vikas Krishnan, his own near-misses had made Ashish doubt himself.

The tide began to turn at the Thailand Open in 2019, when he won his first international gold. “I was extremely nervous. The thought was there whether I will be able to perform or not. But I had been to Bangkok before. Plus the coaches were behind me. And after getting the first win against a local boxer, I felt that the nervousness was out of my system. After that, I was very confident in my game and something told me I’m going to win my first international gold here.”

“I feel a lot more assured now. A lot lighter. Now I think, when the coaches and everyone is telling me that I have the talent, I don’t know why I used to be so timid,” he had said then.

Since then he has tightened his game, knows when to mix attack with defense, and how to follow his natural instincts and as Neiva would say after the Thailand Open triumph, he knows “when to avoid fighting”.

It all came along thrillingly together in the CWG quarters bout but it didn’t prove enough. By the barest of the margins.


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