Akhil Kumar is the archetypal self-made boxer

Akhil Kumar, a real-life Rocky Balboa, disproved naysayers and perfected his glove game on a sporting journey that included a presidential accolade

His heart beats for boxing – as indeed it has since his teenage days. Staying in shape to further his professional career, mentoring young pugilists in Hisar and being a Government Observer for his chosen sport, 2006 Commonwealth Games Champion and 2008 Olympic Games Quarterfinalist Akhil Kumar has devoted his life to boxing.

Jacques Demarthon / AFP

Yet, the ace who enjoys defying disbelievers, admits that he did not understand how boxing can improve fitness until his wife, Poonam Beniwal, showed him that the most calories are burnt when boxing. “I learnt from my wife,” he says over a cup of coffee, the only indulgence he allows himself. “I have lost a dozen and more kilos from being 75kg,” he says.

He believes that today the business of fitness has become big. “Everyone knows more than their predecessors. They have a greater awareness of diet, thanks to digital media, which brings along massive benefits – and some harm as well. I used to virtually fast during the day and tuck in large dinners late at night. We didn’t have the benefit of the best advice until later,” he says.

“I understood the importance of recovery only when my fuel gauge was on ‘reserve’. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games, Heath Matthews, Director of Performance of the Mittal Champions Trust, changed my understanding of recovery. I cannot forget his contribution to my evolution,” Akhil Kumar says, having made a successful foray into pro boxing earlier this year.

Roslan Rahman / AFP

“I remember Heath made me hold a plank in Taj Hotel in Mumbai and told Manisha Malhotra that ‘Akhil is very weak’. I was upset but I understood it all later. I had no clue what massage was. Or what trigger points and deep tissues were. Heath worked tirelessly and bought into our dreams. He was emotional as well,” Akhil recalls.

He grins when he says that the word commitment is no longer associated with ‘sankalp’ (determination) but Salman Khan! But he articulates his thoughts admirably and says any sportsperson wanting to enhance commitment must understand what it is. “Trust who you are and who you are with. If I am associated with less committed people, I can’t be very committed, can I?” he asks.

“Read good books and be with good, not necessarily successful, people. Be aware of history. You can draw inspiration from anyone. Sometimes if I had not been well rested, I would request the coach to defer my sessions. But I would always complete my training and recovery,” he says, admitting quickly that he realised the value of recovery a decade late.

Yet, there have been few more flamboyant and confident Indian boxers than Akhil Kumar, him of the open guard fame. The 36-year-old, who is on a year’s leave without pay as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Haryana, is a great example of a self-made boxer, though he had his early grooming at the Sports Authority of India’s facility in Bhiwani.

“Like how everyone wants to go to the Gopichand Academy now, the SAI hostel was an attraction. It offered us a good place to stay and get food. Besides, we could watch good, senior boxers. Any sport can be learnt by watching. I watched a lot of bouts and added some elements to my boxing. I watched CDs of Sugar Ray Leonard beating Marvin Hagler and Prince Naseem Ahmed.”

The passionate son of a jail warden was among those who were swept by the craze for cricket – he was two years old when India won the World Cup in 1983 – but learnt from his elder brother that they could not afford to waste the family’s resources in pursuing the willow game. For someone who started boxing in a ring in Gurgaon and then moved to Bhiwani, he has come a long way.

The man who chose a bald look does not nurse any bitterness towards those who kept him out of the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou after he lost the Commonwealth Games quarterfinals to Louis Julie of Mauritius. Nor does he regret missing out on the 2012 Olympic Games in London because an injury prevented him from training for the qualifiers.

Akhil Kumar, who received his Arjuna Award from the then President APJ Abdul Kalam, has been influenced by the late President and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. He is thinking constantly of boxing and how it can deal with challenges presented by sport like mixed martial arts and kick boxing, muay thai and all.

He believes that India’s talent can do well in a variety of sport if it gets some basics right. As an example, he cites how most Indian coaches arm themselves with a diploma from the National Institute of Sports and pass themselves off as experts in diet, not to mention areas like isometric training and mind training. “We need to set this right on a priority basis,” he says.

With passionate thinkers like him around, it is possible that boxing and Olympic sport in India will find the energy to inspire more Indians to play sport.

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