‘One of the best amateur fights ever’: Indian boxer Ashish Kumar suffers heartbreaking loss in an ‘epic’ CWG quarterfinal bout

The casual movements of the feet. An admirable looseness in the limbs. A certain cockiness on occasions where he leaned forward, hands by his sides, almost urging his opponent to take a thud. What Aaron Bowen from England did. Ashish shrugged and let his hands fly. Aaron was more composed, moving in a pattern and jabbing constructively into the final moments of the fight, when even he became as riotous as Ashish—two pairs of limbs flying around, looking for a pound of flesh to land. It was exciting, visceral – and er… fun.

Ashish Kumar lost in a split decision. It’s a feeling he must be intimate with by now, a collector of split-decision losses in international competitions. But one fine evening in Birmingham, while India was asleep, he moved to make sure his compatriots would hit the Sony Liv app to catch the morning fight.

Could he have been tighter in the first two laps? Has an old glitch surfaced? After the 2019 Asian Championships, Nieva, the high performance director, had distilled Ashish’s technique: “But lack of international experience sometimes shows. He can be too much of a fighter. Unnecessary too much fighting. His positioning and footwork can be arbitrary,” he told The Indian Express.

Too big a fighter. Seems like a great compliment to me. In the professional world, even in what is called amateur boxing matches, it is not a compliment. But for a lay watchman, that attitude made it an exciting match to witness. Ashish’s footwork wasn’t random, but occasionally his positioning was, a feeling that was accentuated by Aaron’s precise movements. Because his jabs seemed to land more. Referees did not miss.

Ashish was preparing in Ireland for the CWG. The federation has released a few videos. Indoors with a handler, alone with a punching bag, and even once on the street punching away with a handler. The Irish love their boxing, wouldn’t have minded. He has done a lot of work since he lost the Tokyo Olympics in the first round. That hurt him.

As soon as he returned from Tokyo to his hometown of Sundar Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, he had reached his boxing academy. To apologize for the loss. “I lost in the opening game, so… it was really painful… I attacked a lot, the defense wasn’t good, so that was the reason I lost,” he would say.

He has learned his lesson. His defense seemed tighter, especially when he started last night. But Aaron’s fists would find a way to break. Ashish’s counter-punches were exciting and it was very close in the end.

When he talks about this fight, we’ll know for sure, but it seems Ashish has buried his old mental vulnerability: a lack of conviction in his style. It used to hurt him.

“I’ve always played openly and aggressively. But someone would say I need to be more careful and I’d go into a shell right away. I’d lose the first round and for a referee that’s all. You might dominate the last round, but you would still lose that game, so it became a kind of mental block,” he had once told this newspaper. As he did in the 2019 Asian Championship final, he suddenly changed his game, tried something different, and his “adversary dominated me”.

As noted earlier on these pages, the lack of conviction was due in part to the competitive category. That a younger Ashish had spent a lot of time in camp to be the understudy or sparring partner for his seniors. Impatience had crept in and when he finally started competing in a category that India had provided stalwarts like Vijender Singh and Vikas Krishnan, his own near misses had left Ashish doubting himself.

The tide started to turn at the Thailand Open in 2019 when he won his first international gold. “I was extremely nervous. The thought was there whether or not I could perform. But I had been to Bangkok before. Plus, the coaches were behind me. And after I got the first win against a local boxer, I felt the nervousness was out of my system. After that I had a lot of confidence in my game and something told me I’m going to win my first international gold here.”

“I feel much more confident now. A lot lighter. Now I think, when the coaches and everyone tell me I have the talent, I don’t know why I used to be so timid,” he had said at the time.

Since then he has honed his game, knows when to combine attack with defense, and how to follow his natural instincts, and as Neiva would say after the Thailand Open victory, he knows “when to avoid fighting”.

It all came together excitingly in the CWG quarter-hour game, but it turned out not to be enough. On the edge of the margin.

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