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Master of the ring

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L Ibomcha Singh, award-winning , has trained scores of national and international medal-winning pugilists - , being the most famous. But even more significant, says Devjyot Ghoshal, is how he has unleashed a boxing revolution in

It is 6 am. The streets are still empty and a noxious blanket of wood smoke and mist is yet to lift. Even the security paraphernalia that is standard issue in secluded Imphal, the capital of the north-eastern state of Manipur, is conspicuous by its absence. Beside a massive shed not far from , the ancient seat of the Meitei rulers of Manipur, a motley collection of young athletes has been paired and instructed to carry each other around a small pond. Some slip, others tire, but nobody quits. More drills follow until, with a final whistle blast, the group moves into the shed and quickly arranges itself into two neat lines.

There, an instructor stands commandingly and takes stock. When he talks, everybody is silent. Then, with another shrill blast of the whistle, the formation is broken and the group disperses to conduct their separate routines. Clad in a red T-shirt, white shorts and a pair of sneakers, is still clearly the biggest man in the room filled with some 40 boxers.

It isn’t merely his imposing physical presence, a throwback to the days spent sparring in the ring; 52-year-old Ibomcha, a Dronacharya awardee in 2010, is among India’s most successful boxing coaches, having trained at least 50 boxers who have worn the Tricolour in international tournaments. These names are etched all over the massive shed-like training hall of the Sports Authority of India’s Imphal centre that Ibomcha heads. The heavy hitters he had trained are today legends of Indian boxing — , , , and , four-times world champion and London 2012 Olympic medallist.

Yet, Ibomcha’s finest achievement is probably not coaching world-beating champions. Instead, it is his unshakeable commitment to the promotion of a sport that he has helped transform from a holiday hobby to an opportunity for a better life for thousands of young men and women in a violence-wracked, and often forgotten, corner of India. Maybe that is why, on a bare white board next to the boxing rings in the training hall, Ibomcha has had this written down: “Give me sincerity, I give your future.”

* * *

“I was the village buddhu (idiot),” Ibomcha says about his childhood in Suknu, a nondescript village some 70 kilometres from Imphal, where he grew up with five siblings. For all his size and strength, he has an inherent sense of humour, a quality that led him to borrow a friend’s certificate to enroll in the Indian Army’s Assam Regiment after going to Churachandpur for a football tournament in 1978. “Till then, the only time I had done boxing was when the army men from my village came back on leave. They carried the gloves with them and would teach the local kids,” he reminsces, sitting at his office in the SAI centre. Once in the Army, Ibomcha played his heart out. “I did boxing, gymnastic, hockey, football, basketball, everything. So, I didn’t get much shooting practice.” Slowly, boxing became his focus after the Assam Regiment found in him the only man capable of defeating the Gurkhas in the ring and eventually, Ibomcha made it to the top bracket of the Army’s boxing contingent.

Around 1980, however, he had given up soldiering, returning to Manipur to concentrate on his personal boxing career and promoting the sport. Yet, neither was easy. With no coaches, infrastructure or support system, Ibomcha and a couple of other enthusiasts came together to form the Manipur Amateur Boxing Association. But they couldn’t hold a tournament because there were just not enough boxers around. Boxing in Manipur had been a low-key affair, especially after a couple of boxers from Bengal had humiliated local strongmen in the mid-1950s, and a sort of informal ban on the sport had been observed since. Nonchalantly, he adds, “I was the first person to introduce modern boxing in Manipur.”

Between 1981 and 1986, Ibomcha was the state champion of Manipur, and a bronze medallist at the 1981 and 1986 Senior National Boxing Championship (in the 67 kg category) as well as the 1985 National Games. “I didn’t have a trainer or a coach. If I had that, I could’ve gone much further,” he says, pulling out a frayed copy of Walter Dean Myers’s The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. That was his bible. Such is his love for the sport that he christened his first son, Tyson, since he was born at the peak of Mike Tyson’s reign heavyweight champion

“People knew me more as a boxer then, rather than a coach. I would come running from my village to Imphal sometimes. I was mad about boxing.” Although age and prosperity have now resulted in a paunch, it is not difficult to imagine the terror he must’ve been in the ring — and some of that fire is still on display when he spars with his top boxers.

That madness ensured he was at the national camp preceding the 1986 President’s Cup in Jakarta, where he knocked out the champion, DB Gurung, twice before being selected for the squad. “That was my dream. I wanted to have India on my back.” Hours before the midnight flight, however, he was dropped from the team. “No reasons were given. I still don’t know why it happened, and didn’t even try and find out,” he says slowly, his usually lively face now stoic. “I cried a lot that night. My pillow, the bed sheets, everything was wet. The next morning I decided, I would stop competing and become a coach.”

Then, he leans back in his chair and finally adds, “Today, even if I die, I’ll be happy.”

* * *

In militancy-ridden Manipur, where proper education is scarce and a stable career, save government jobs secured with bribes, even scarcer, Ibomcha may have fathered a revolution. For young Manipuris, boxing — despite the hardship and pain — is emerging as the passport to a better life: a secure government job, apart from the monetary windfall of becoming a champion athlete. “It is a poor state and most families live below the poverty line,” he admits. “For them, to put their child into a sport means ensuring their health, character and a career. And boxing is the most lucrative”.

Maybe that is why children as young as seven come to Ibomcha to learn boxing, although he refuses to accept wards younger than 12 years because they can then compete in a few years. “Without competition, you loose interest easily,” he reasons.

Then there is also his reputation of a man of solid character, something that is on display everyday at the SAI academy. In a training session that includes M Suranjoy Singh, Flyweight Asian Games bronze medallist and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Ibomcha refuses to discriminate. Everyone, from youngest greenhorn to star, gets the same treatment. “When Mary is around, she also trains here,” he explains later, “There’s no difference, no classification.” He maintains a neat notebook where the names and other details of all students that have trained under him have been carefully noted. Some even have childhood photographs pasted next to the entries.

That emphasis on equality may be why Ibomcha has turned out world-beating pugilists, regardless of gender or background. In Manipur’s deeply-segregated society where non-Meiteis are consider lesser among equals, MC Mary Kom, probably his most decorated student, is from the marginal Kom tribe. And in boxing schools here, including at Mary Kom’s, there are probably as many strapping young girls as boys. That, says Ibomcha, goes back to the ‘Nupi Lan’, the war that Manipuri women waged against the British in 1939. “There’s a saying that in Manipur the women are always ahead of the men,” he explains, “They are more hard-working.”

It is this history of struggle and a strong work ethic, Ibomcha believes, that allows Manipuri boxers to overcome the disadvantage of height, build and reach compared to their brethren from India’s northern states. “In boxing, you need fighting spirit. To win or lose is a matter of a split second. Yes, we have a disadvantage but our blood puts us ahead. We have speed.” There are two large frames of Bir Tikendrajit and General Thangal, icons of the Manipuri martial spirit, above his chair. But the names and photographs that line the walls of Ibomcha’s SAI centre are of his star students, athletes who wouldn’t have become the fighters they are without the tough love of this soft-spoken man.

Boxers such as Suranjoy Singh, who is on leave from the Indian Navy but insists on travelling from his village to the SAI centre to train every morning with his coach of 13 years. “I think of him as equal to god. Because of him, we are what we are today,” he says, before cheekily adding, “Maybe I would have got a national medal but it would’ve been difficult to become an international medallist.”

And now that Mary Kom’s Olympics Bronze has come, Ibomcha wants an Olympic Gold. “But the mango doesn’t ripen in a day,” he says with a smile before heading back to the training hall. For the biggest man in the room, the fight continues.

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