Other Sports

Bring on the punch: Manju Rani’s journey has just begun

Supported unwaveringly by a single mother and a dedicated mentor, the young boxer is a worthy successor to Mary Kom

At 19, Manju Rani is the toast of Rithal. She is also India’s lone silver medallist from the recent Boxing World Championships and a worthy successor to the legend of Mary Kom, fighting in the same 48 kg category that the latter made her own throughout her career before switching.

Ms. Rani, though, has done it all without a legitimate boxing coach. What she has had is the backing of a single mother despite all odds and societal opposition, and Saheb Singh Narwal, a hockey and kabaddi player who is “uncle” to a dozen girls training under him in Rohtak. Mr. Narwal has been the driving force in Ms. Rani’s life and her fledgling career inside the ring.

Having lost her father, a Border Security Force personnel, to liver cancer in 2010, Ms. Rani’s boxing journey has been one of not giving up. And when she did, a couple a years ago, Mr. Narwal kept his faith in the diminutive girl when she herself had none.

Never quit

“Nothing was working out for me — I was not in the national camp and was losing even in district meets. I was not getting any chance in Haryana but uncle [Mr. Narwal] motivated me to continue. He did not allow me to quit. He knew I could do well,” Ms. Rani told The Hindu.

Even before she moved to boxing in 2013, Ms. Rani was into active sports. She played kabaddi but switched to an individual sport for better opportunities.

“Initially, after papa [her father] died, people used to tell my mother ‘ladki ko kahan boxing mein dal rahe ho, chot lagi to shadi kaun karega?’ (Why are you sending her for boxing? Who will marry her if she gets hurt?’) Before his death also, I used to run for fitness but he was not in favour of it. When he got worse, I stopped all sports. But after his death, my mother decided she won’t stop me from my dreams,” an emotional Ms. Rani explained.

Through all this, her mother Ishwanti Devi, and Mr. Narwal, remained firmly in her corner, regardless of financial constraints. In fact, it was financial pressures that saw Ms. Rani move in with Mr. Narwal as a part of his family. His own children, Anshu and Ankit, are also in the national reckoning, with Mr. Ankit in Ireland as a member of the national youth team.

Ishwanti Devi admitted to being nervous during Manju’s final bout — streamed live on a projector in her house on the outskirts of Rohtak — and credits Mr. Narwal for all that her daughter has managed so far. “If she had won, everyone would have been happier. But this is also good, she now has a path. In 2012, I trusted Narwal and he did everything,” she said.

Baby steps

It all began when the Haryana government issued the SPAT (Sports and Physical Aptitude Test) scholarship programme and 22 of Mr. Narwal’s 45 trainees won it. As per the government policy, they sent a coach to provide them with formal coaching, and in the case of Rithal, it was Sube Singh Beniwal, a boxing instructor.

“I had no clue about boxing. It seemed dangerous and I was worried the players would get injured if I taught anything wrong,” Mr. Narwal recalled. The solution was to first learn himself before imparting training to youngsters, including Ms. Rani.

“I went to Bhiwani, where there are a lot of boxing academies, and also watched boxing videos. Sab dhoke ka game hai — you have to trick the opponent into thinking you are going to punch somewhere but instead you have to hit somewhere else. When they are punching, you have to dodge that,” Mr. Narwal explained.

The simplistic breakdown of a complex sport has worked. Ms. Rani’s biggest weapon is supposed to be her feint and side-stepping — her ability to move sideways when under attack and then punch back from a different angle — and her intelligence in the ring to attack or defend as required.

Giant leap

After a loss in the 2017 Rohtak District Championships, Mr. Narwal finally managed to contact the youth national team coach Amanpreet Kaur, who advised them to move to Punjab instead.

Their luck turned and Ms. Rani won gold at the 2019 National Championships, made it to the national camp, and began winning internationally, including a silver at the Strandja Memorial and a bronze at Thailand Open and India Open. Her journey has only begun.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 2:32:09 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/bring-on-the-punch-manju-ranis-journey-has-just-begun/article29716064.ece

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