It started with a newspaper report.
On May 2, 2015, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fought each other in what has since been dubbed the Fight of the Century. Far from that action, a teenage boy in Dhandlan, Jhajjar, read a newspaper report of the fight and was instantly fascinated.
Seven years later, Sagar Ahlawat found himself standing on the podium, winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games on Sunday after losing to England’s Orie Delicious in the close final.
As fairytale a beginning it was, Sagar’s inclination to the sport only began after he had finished school. His father, Rajesh, a farmer, believed it was his duty to support his son wanting to live this dream.
“We just supported him, Sagar worked very hard,” he told The Indian Express.
“He followed an exceptional routine of training, three times a day. In the mornings and the evenings, he would box and run. In the scorching afternoon heat when everybody would sleep, he would go out running near the canal for about 10-15 Km, tying a tire around his waist.”
All of it was a concentrated effort. Having taken an interest in the sport much later than most of his peers, Sagar needed someone to help him catch up with the competition. The Super heavyweight silver medalist at CWG 2022 would need another Super Heavyweight to take him there. And so in 2018, Rajesh Ahlawat took his son to meet with Hitesh Deshwal, a former boxer turned coach, at the Maharishi Dayanand Stadium in Jhajjhar.
“I told him (Sagar) that he would need to follow a strict regimen,” Deshwal said recalling his response to Ahlawat senior’s request of helping his son learn the game.
“Many students leave after improving their physique,” he further added. “I told him, ‘If you are serious about boxing then you are most welcome, otherwise just leave’.”
Since that exchange, Sagar has been under Deshwal’s tutelage. It didn’t take long for the coach to notice signs of a talented prospect.
“When he came to me, he weighed 77kg. The first couple of tournaments I sent him in gave me all the reassurance I needed,” Deshwal said.
“For one, he was a southpaw. He used to come to me once he was done with the practice….ask me about technique, how southpaws approach orthodox boxers? I feel it was this inquisitive nature of his that helped him progress quickly.”
With Sagar’s height stretching to 6’11”, Deshwal had him gain weight and switch to the 90kg category within a year since they first met. The move to the +92kg wouldn’t take much time either. Moving up in the weight though, meant that Sagar had fewer boxers to train with and box against given the scarcity of Indian boxers in that category. This is where his coach, a former boxer in the same category, maneuvered a desi jugaad.
“I would make three-four box against him at once,” Deshwal said. “He has a lot of capacity to take a beating. I’d make him fight them for 6-8 rounds. This helped in increasing his will power and stamina. Sometimes, it would be him against a different boxer in every round for as many as eight consecutive rounds.”
With focus on weight and explosive power, the training chart for the Super Heavyweight as curated by coach Deshwal also included Greco-Roman wrestling to help Sagar improve his hand strength and reflexes.
And so, when Sagar finally received a call up to the India camp, he was ready to be among the big leagues or as his coach put it, ‘leave everyone stunned’.
In the over-92kg trials for the 2022 Birmingham Games, the 20-year-old defeated national champion Narender as well as the first Indian Super Heavyweight boxer to participate at the Olympics, Arjun awardee Satish Kumar.
While it may have been a bolt from the blue watching a boxer without an appearance at an international event beat Satish on unanimous decision, Sagar’s three consecutive unopposed wins on his way to the CWG final proved he was made for the big bouts. And his first coach believes the boy from Jhajjar has it in him to bring India laurels in a category they haven’t been very successful in.
“In the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Paramjit Samota got the better of a taller opponent in the heavyweight category on his way to becoming champion. I was witness to that bout and have cited it as an example to Sagar, telling him how Samota fought with will power against an opponent of bigger stature. I think he will break the myth surrounding India in this weight category going forward.”
Rajesh tells us the number of people joining the family to watch their son box at the Commonwealth Games has only gone up from a few 100 in the first bout. But there is one person who hasn’t joined them for any of his bouts, not even the final.
“I cannot bear to watch it,” says Sagar’s mother, Mukesh.
She adds that once informed about the result, she catches the highlights later with everyone. Among the many things Mukesh has seen her son sacrifice to stand on the CWG podium, she talks about food with particular concern. “He doesn’t like eating meat, and only does so to fill his stomach. He likes Churma and tomato chutney,” she says.
And so, when Sagar returns home as a CWG silver medallist, there are no prizes for guessing what will be cooked at the Ahlawats’.