A religious fervour for pugilism

CHENNAI AND boxing are inseparable. There is a sudden surge of activity in this sport, which has a rich history and tradition in the State. Now, a group of young office-bearers of the Tamil Nadu State Amateur Boxing Association (TNSABA) has given the amateur section a big boost by staging national and State-level events regularly.

The old guards have gone, and the faithful followers of the game are happy that they are able to see men and women trade punches in the city rings. Perhaps their only grouse is that there are no more no-holds-barred professional bouts that made them go bonkers over weekends in the 1950s and 60s.

In fact, professional boxing continued in the city till the early 1970s at the Kannappar Thidal and the Nehru Stadium ground and then faded, as the young, talented pugilists were recruited by some institutions such as the Southern Railway and the Integral Coach Factory.

This generation of boxing fans is accustomed to seeing only well organised and referee-controlled amateur fights. They may not be aware that Chennai, the then Madras, was the only major professional boxing centre in the country. Only two family members, with distinct names, were involved in money-fetching bouts. They were the main attraction and the other fights were to create the right climax for the main events. There was such a fantastic response from the crowd that some political parties, it was alleged, tried to generate funds through pro bouts by promoting them indirectly.

There were bettings, quarrels and even bloody exchanges among their fans after the verdicts, which created constant trouble for the law enforcing authorities in the city. It was because of this violent and negative background that even lawful amateur bouts were treated with contempt by the police for some time. Later on, some of the police officers themselves became the office-bearers of TNSABA, and the amateur sport has gained more respect.

Pro boxing fetched substantial money for the pugilists who courted poverty from their childhood. But sometimes, they had to pay a heavy price — their lives, in order to earn a few rupees. Arunachalam, a popular pugilist, died in the ring and his funeral procession looked like a political rally. Such was the following for the game, particularly in north Chennai. There were also famous names like Dilli Babu and Nat Terry who had a huge fan following.

Normally, Mumbai used to be the trendsetter in any sport. But for pro boxing, Chennai had been the torchbearer. It was only in the 1980s that P.K. Kuka tried to lay a foundation for professionalism in the sport by starting the Indian Boxing Commission in Mumbai. But it did not last long. It is difficult to sustain it in India. Some internationals like Dharmender Singh Yadav, Devarajan, bronze medallist in the World championship, and Rajkumar turned pro and tried their hand at professional bouts in London. But they hardly achieved anything. "Pro boxing is too strong for our boys. By turning pro they only ruin their amateur career," said Railway coach Devan, who has trained some of the best amateur fighters in the country. But the `death' of professional competitions paved the way for the surge of amateur boxing in Chennai.

A religious fervour for pugilism

The State itself is a fertile ground for producing top class fighters, particularly in the lightweight categories. Pugilists with compact body structure from Tamil Nadu have done extremely well in international competitions. Some of them might not have trained here for long, but they have all joined the boys' battalion in the Madras Engineering Group, Bangalore, and became medal winners. Starting from Munuswamy Venu, Arjuna awardee, who reached the quarterfinals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, a rare feat by an Indian, Amaldas, Xavier, Narayanan, Manoharan, Jayaram, Devanand and Devarajan, there has been a continuous flow of class punchers.

If pro boxing flourished in north Chennai for about four decades, it is the YMCA College ring that has played a crucial role in promoting amateur fighters from the 1970s. Till that period, there was not much of amateur stuff in Tamil Nadu. It was the late H. Mohanakrishnan, a Physical Director with the P.S. High School, Mylapore, who worked hard to turn the focus on amateurism at a time when there was lack of financial resources or sponsorship for the sport. He also brought the State under the wing of the Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) and was the senior Vice President of IABF till his death.

Mohanakrishnan was ever thankful to the YMCA College administration in general, and Major Victor, an ardent lover of boxing, in particular. Now the sport is moving out to the districts under the present set of office-bearers, headed by the president P.W.C. Davidar, IAS. This time there was an overwhelming response for the State senior novices championship, and the officials found it difficult to complete about 300 bouts in a short period. A.K. Karunakaran, Secretary, TNSABA, said that he was very happy about the response from the districts, but should plan the events better next time. Even women's boxing has taken wing.

More training centres are coming up in the districts, and the State officials are happy about the growing base. The State Association is also planning to have its own ground and training complex. But Chennai will ever remain as `the leading centre' of boxing in the country. The YMCA College ring will continue to play its role in providing a platform for great achievers like Devarajan.


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