“Sub-junior nationals. Junior world championships. Asian Games. Rio Olympic qualifiers. Asian Championships. The quarterfinal exits had been bothering me since 2008. Of course, people started making fun of me and my style. ‘He’s nothing. He will never win a medal.’”
For Gaurav Bidhuri, the bronze medal at the Boxing World Championships comes as vindication. Not just to “shut all those talking s**t about me” or to do his father Dharmendra (a boxer who had his own string of quarterfinal defeats in the 90s) proud, but to remind himself that he belongs in the ring. “There have been phases where I felt very demotivated. But this medal has raised my confidence for the future, to look at the Asian Games and ultimately Olympics,” says Bidhuri, the fourth Indian to win a medal at the Worlds after Vijender Singh, Vikas Krishan and Shiva Thapa.
But while Vijender had an Olympic bronze and Krishan and Thapa were Asian gold medallists before their medals at the Worlds, Bidhuri hadn’t won a gold at national level. In fact, the 24-year-old only made it to the World Championships when another boxer pulled out.
“I lost the quarterfinal at the Asian Championships in May and didn’t qualify for the Worlds. Later, I was in France, training with the team when people started congratulating me. I checked online and realised that I had been given a wildcard,” Bidhuri said. “It had been a long-time goal to qualify for the championships. But I had to talk to my coaches first.”
Bidhuri, who has been suffering from a back injury for a few months, consulted coach Santiago Nieva and physio Gaurav Ahluwalia to ensure that active competition didn’t hamper his recovery.
“We worked out a plan and decided to go ahead. They both prepared me for every single fight,” said Bidhuri. “Our physio would treat my injury and get me back in shape while the coach would give me the video analysis and homework for the next opponent.”
The Boxing Federation of India (BFI) has roped in physio Ahluwalia and Nieva — India’s first foreign coach since BI Fernandez.
“He is a wonderful coach. He has implemented so many new things. We have a video analysis session in the week, which we never had before. There’s a WhatsApp group where all these videos are posted. The training has changed too. We train clean and jerk in the weightlifting hall,” says Bidhuri.
“But as a person, he’s wonderful as well. He will give us space but remain approachable. So we can discuss things with him. He’s optimistic and is always planning to get things better instead of criticising what all is wrong.”
The coach likes the wards too, although he’s not entirely satisfied with their performance.
“One should never be satisfied,” says Nieva. “I am happy with the medal but I wanted this to be India’s biggest haul. But winning medals at Worlds is not simple. What happened with Shiva (the 60kg boxer couldn’t compete due to food poisoning) was unfortunate but I think our boxers stepped up their game. Gaurav took his game to a different level. All three of his wins were big, especially the one over Ukraine’s Mykola Butsenko.”
Nieva, who parted ways with the Swedish men’s team after the Rio Olympics, speaks highly of India’s potential but believes it is largely untapped. “When I signed up, I knew India had talent. The boxers are very similar all over the world. But you need to build a structure around the boxers. You train with dated methods, you will not get results. That’s something I saw with India. You need a training philosophy.”
The 42-year-old is doing his part.
“Boxing as a sport is very behind (sic) on terms of sports science. Some of the training techniques, drills the sport uses are 20, 40 even 60 years old. Having been a boxer myself, I realise all the things I suffered. So, I look at other more advanced sports such as swimming, athletics, weightlifting etc and include that.”
“The video analysis is tailored to each boxer. It’s much easier to show them where they are going wrong instead of telling them about it,” adds Nieva. “Boxers like Bidhuri, who have been around for a while, now have the tools to set themselves apart.”
Bidhuri, with his funky hairdos, already knows a thing or two about setting himself apart. “This has been an addiction since school. In school, my parents scolded me and teachers made me stand outside. I give myself a new hairstyle at every event. One cut here, one cut there. It’s my way of staying unique. So at tournaments like the Worlds, people will identify me and say, ‘that’s the Indian boxer, Gaurav Bidhuri.’”