Madras Week

Punch and ‘parambarai’: How boxing flourished in Madras

‘Tiger’ Nat Terry was one of the most feared names in the Madras of yore. This Anglo-Indian boxer, after successful bouts all over the country, challenged one of Madras’ most popular boxers, Arunachalam, for a fight in the 1940s.

That match proved fatal for Arunachalam, as one of Terry’s fierce blows caught him unawares. He collapsed in the ring at Kannapar Thidal.

Barely three months later, Terry took on Kitheri Muthu, a rising star of Madras boxing, in one of the most celebrated duels till date. During that match, thousands of enthusiasts from across the city are said to have gathered to witness Kitheri Muthu take down Terry in an intense clash, fuelled by crowds baying for payback, on Arunachalam’s behalf.

Kitheri Muthu during a fight

Kitheri Muthu during a fight  

“It was a big deal,” recalls Kitheri Muthu’s grandson S Babu, who currently runs MKM Boxing Club in Washermanpet along with his relatives Stephen and Sebastian, “Back then, three things drew huge crowds in North Madras: political gatherings, stage plays and boxing.”

Tamil Nadu, with a rich history of martial arts like silambam (stick fighting), took to boxing thanks to the British and Anglo-Indians. While Kitheri Muthu’s father, Manicka Mudaliar, was a silambam exponent, his son took to boxing after he turned 16.

Fight clubs

The epicentre of all this was North Madras, bustling with members of the fishing community and manual labourers. Eager to beat the British at their own game, the city raised several talented boxers over the next few decades. “Based on the neighbourhoods they hailed from, they were divided into various parambarais (clan),” says Babu.

Sarpatta Parambarai, Idiyappa Naicker Parambarai and the Ellapa Chettiyar Parambarai were among the most renowned boxing clans. Kitheri Muthu, from Royapuram’s Panaimara Thotti, belonged to the well-established Sarpatta Parambarai and enjoyed as much popularity as leading film stars of that generation.

Several boxers emerged from the same parambarai, one of the most prominent among them being a fisherman named Sundar Raj, who also hailed from Royapuram. “A couple of boxing coaches saw him during a local brawl and were impressed with his confidence. They trained him, and he went on to become one of the best boxers of the Sarpatta clan,” recalls Sundara Ganesh, boxing coach and grandson of Sundar Raj.

Today, parambarais have become clubs; 30-year-old Sundara Ganesh and his father Tamil Selvan run one in Sundar Raj’s memory. With over 50 aspirants training every day, students who usually train near Marina Beach, work at making an impression at local and national tournaments.

Boxing coach Sundara Ganesh

Boxing coach Sundara Ganesh   | Photo Credit: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B

Outside the ring

If Royapuram was the epicentre of boxing in the past, other neighbourhoods soon started picking up the sport. In the Seventies, people from Perambur and other neighbourhoods headed to Royapuram to pick up boxing skills, and subsequently trained others closer home.

Ramalingam and Govindaraj are two such aspiring boxers; their family has been into the sport for five decades now. G Thyagarajan aka Thiru, former National-level boxer and currently a coach, hails from a household in which boxing is an integral part of their everyday lives. “It helps that it led to employment opportunities,” explains Thiru, who currently runs Lakshmanan Boxing Club in Perambur’s Muniappa Chetty Street, “My uncle, Jilla (Rajamani) and another relative, Selvam, got inducted in the Integral Coach Factory due to their boxing credentials. Many boxers got employment in the Railways, Army and the police force. Boxing not only taught us discipline, but also gave us a livelihood.”

Punch and ‘parambarai’: How boxing flourished in Madras

Which is why Thiru, who got into the sport in 1999, is giving back now. Apart from guiding actor Arya for the recent hit boxing movie Sarpatta Parambarai, Thiru is training 50-plus boxers, most of them in their twenties, to get to the next level. “Two things have changed the fortunes of boxing recently: Pa Ranjith’s Tamil film, and Lovlina Borgohain’s bronze medal in the recent Tokyo Olympics. Today, for the first time, I see mothers standing at 5am outside a boxing club to see their children excel in the ring.”

Like his student, S Kishan Akash from Perambur. The 16-year-old has been training for three years, and is looking at a full-time boxing career. “When I joined, I thought it will be like in films where I can send people flying, but slowly, I realised it was much tougher than that. This last year, with restrictions on going outside, has helped me practise more: I train in the ring for almost five hours every day. Someday, I’ll become an internationally-known boxer….” And if he does, Madras’ connection with boxing, from the days of fearing Anglo-Indian boxer Terry, would have come a full circle.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 2:38:40 PM |

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