This piece was published in Sportskeeda
Thirty-plus cricketers staging a national comeback may be deemed ‘not unusual stuff’, but when a boxer makes a comeback at the age of 33 for an event as big as the Asian Games, it is something out of the ordinary.
Indian boxer Akhil Kumar has clearly set a new longevity benchmark, making it to the national side for the upcoming Incheon Asian Games. The 33-year-old Haryana Police DSP is famously remembered for his win over Russia’s world champion Sergey Vodopyanov in the pre-quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, before his medal-winning march was halted in the quarterfinals.
The 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games gold-winning pugilist spoke to Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
Q Staging a comeback to the national boxing team at the age of 33 is not an often-heard-of thing. Your thoughts.
You can call it a comeback but the point is I never lost the hunger to represent my country. The upcoming Incheon Asian Games will be my first international tournament since I last featured in the 2011 Baku World Boxing Championship, where I lost in the second round. I’m training hard and looking forward to faring well. I have many well-wishers and I believe it is their prayers that have enabled me to return to the national fold.
The International Boxing Federation (AIBA) increased the upper age limit for amateur boxers from 34 to 40 last year - a move that must have sounded like music to your ears.
I was elated to know that the AIBA has increased the upper age limit to 40 years. For somebody like me I was thrilled as I could play competitive boxing for another seven years. Now not just, Asian Games, I can focus on the 2016 Rio Olympics and beyond. In terms of achievement, I have played in 2 Olympics, 2 Commonwealth Games as well as number of World Championships – I have got a lot of recognition for what I have done in the ring and finishing the Asiad on a high will be nice.
You will be fighting in the 60-kg at the upcoming Incheon Asian Games. You had fought in the bantamweight category (60-kg) for a long period, winning the gold at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games as well as reaching the quarterfinals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Do you think shifting to a new weight category will pose a big challenge?
Not really. I’m going to Incheon projecting myself a new boxer given that I’m shifting to a new weight category. I don’t care about reputations of other boxers and so don’t wish to know which boxers are going to be a threat for me. I want to take one bout at a time, and see how things pan out.
How do you assess your medal-winning chances at the Asian Games?
Well, it’s difficult to say that I will win this medal or that medal in the Asiad. All boxers will be well prepared for the event – boxers from Korea, Kazakhstan and Philippines are going to be hard to beat, but I will strive to ensure I box better than these boxers and bag a medal for my country.
Vijender Singh’s bronze at the 2008 Olympics triggered a resurgence of Indian boxing – do you think Indian boxing has been able to sustain that?
Absolutely. Indian boxing is in good health and our boxers are looked upon with a lot of respect by our opponents. Obviously, Vijender triggered a wave of popularity for the sport in the country – he recently acted in a Bollywood movie and we also have a film based on the life of MC Mary Kom, which shows boxing is making the right noises across various platforms. No sport can survive if it has no money or glamour and boxing is showing that it is a marketable brand in the country.
Haryana has churned out a slew of medal-winning boxers for the country ever since Vijender won India’s first Olympic medal. Why is that the other states are not able to replicate that?
Look, it depends on what policy the state government is adopting. The Haryana government has given immense encouragement to boxers by handing out cash awards and government jobs that athletes from the state are ‘extra’ determined to corner glory for the country. I don’t want to say anything about other states, but yes the mushrooming of boxers from Haryana can be attributed to the efforts of the state government.
Boxing runs in the Akhil Kumar family – you wife Poonam Beniwal is a former flyweight state champion and is a NIS coach at Patiala. You have a young daughter – will you like her to take up boxing?
She is just three. I won’t force anything on her and it’s her wish to pursue which sport she wants to. She does accompany me to practice sessions and wears my gloves. She also keenly follows my wife’s younger sister Preeti Beniwal, who is also a talented boxer.
You are the only Indian boxer to beat a world champion at the Olympics. You have beaten many higher ranked boxers in your playing career. Which has been your most satisfying win so far?
I will rate my win over world champion Sergey Vodopyanov of Russia in the pre-quarterfinals of the 2008 Beijing Olympics as my best career win. I was trailing 2-6, but never gave up and held him at 9-9 at the conclusion of the fourth and final round. The referee awarded the bout to me because I landed more punches than the Russian. This win is still talked about glowingly in Indian boxing circles as no Indian boxer has beaten a world champion in the Olympics.