The middleweight Indian boxer Pooja Rani has been impressive with her performance lately and she will enter the Tokyo Games as one of the country’s top medal hope. She booked her berth for the Summer games after recording a quarterfinal win against Pornnipa Chutee of Thailand at the Asia-Oceania Olympics qualifiers. Pooja demonstrated a commanding performance as she outclassed her Thai opponent 5-0.
Pooja Rani might have started her boxing career late, and she might have taken years to have a shot at the Olympics but a decade of experience and numerous medals certainly count for a lot.
Pooja shot to fame in 2012 after bagging a silver medal in Asian Boxing Championship. Three years later, she returned to clinch the bronze medal in the same event.
Pooja became a household name in India after winning her first gold medal at the Asian Boxing Championships in 2019 in the 81 kg category. Two years later, she again repeated the same performance in the same event in Dubai to bag her second gold medal in the Asian Championships final in Dubai.
What makes Pooja’s story even more inspiring is that she made a remarkable comeback to win back-to-back gold medal after going through a traumatic phase between 2016 and 2018. Pooja was forced to take a break from boxing between 2016 and 2018 after a devastating fire incident that caused severe burn injuries to her right hand.
For the most part of her childhood and teenage years, Pooja Rani wasn’t keen on sports, forget about the dreams of representing India in boxing and winning a medal at the Olympics.
Hailing from Bhiwani, Haryana, boxing’s cradle in India, it took 18 years for Pooja Rani to discover her love for the gruelling and punishing sport. It took time again for Pooja to convince her father about a career as a sportsperson in boxing. She was a good child and “ache bache boxing nahin khelte (good children don’t play boxing).”
Along with the sport, she also discovered the Olympics and started dreaming about being an Olympian. But once again, time became a factor as she failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Games. She was running out of time.
Now 30, she has finally made it to the Tokyo Olympics after winning a bronze medal at the 2020 Asia & Oceania qualifiers in the 75kg category. Pooja might have started her boxing career late, and she might have taken years to have a shot at the Olympics but a decade of experience and numerous medals certainly count for a lot. If she achieves glory in Tokyo, it will certainly not be a surprise.
When asked about her journey, Pooja Rani is amazed at how far she has come in the sport despite her late entry into the sport.
“Forget boxing, I had no idea about sports. In 2009 I started my graduate studies and one of my lecturers saw the potential in me. She saw that I have the height and I would be good with boxing so she took me to an inter-college tournament. I had no interest in boxing but then I went on to clinch the silver medal. I had little to no training but still managed to win a medal. That’s when I started taking the sport seriously. I saw people younger than me, little girls in the ring during the tournament and that inspired me,” Pooja said to Firstpost before departing for the Games.
At the 2008 Beijing Games, Indian boxing caused a stir with the likes of Jitender Kumar, Akhil Kumar and Vijender Singh advancing to the quarter-finals. Akhil was the most famous of the trio, having won the gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games. A man who fascinated people with his ‘open guard’ style also made an impression on a young Pooja, who had never seen him bout but only heard about his exploits.
“My first Olympic memories go back to 2008. At that time, I didn’t have any idea about boxing but everyone in my village was talking about Akhil Kumar. His status was legendary and I remember people were praising his style and aggression in the ring,” said Pooja, who’s managed by Baseline Ventures.
Akhil and Jitender lost their quarter-final bouts but Vijender qualified for the semi-final and guaranteed a bronze for India. He became the first Indian boxer to clinch an Olympic medal.
India’s boxing contingent for the Tokyo Games includes an unprecedented nine pugilists with the likes of Amit Panghal and MC Mary Kom leading the medal charge. Although the Olympics is a different ball game, the Indian boxers in the squad do not lack the experience of performing at the highest levels and they will not be intimidated at the prospect of competing against the best.
According to Pooja Rani, the confidence among the boxers is a result of participating in various events abroad as part of ‘exposure tours’, which eventually led to the rise in the standard of the sport in India.
“I feel the exposure tours arranged by BFI have been a big help. Not only for me but for others as well. I take part in the 75 kg category and there are four other boxers who are equally good. All boxers are sent to participate in different tournaments around the world. We also have regular trials. So, it’s not only one boxer but our competitors in India are also getting better. The standard in the country is improving and I think that’s why I am able to do better.”
In the 75 kg category, Pooja Rani’s main challengers will be the likes of Li Qian of China, Lauren Price of Great Britain, Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands, and Australia’s Caitlin Parker. All the boxers have been consistent performers at the big stage, winning medals at the continental and world levels. There’s a need to adapt to each opponent’s style but Pooja says developing a unique technique based on personal strengths is the best way to go about it.
“There are boxers from Europe who are physically strong. I am working with my coach on how to beat them organically. Like how I can get better than them by improving my stamina and footwork.
“Every boxer has their respective game. Sure, there’s an advantage of height in boxing but the boxer who won gold in the European qualifiers (Lauren Price), her height is 168 cm. You also have to think about beating boxers who are 185 cm (Like Fontijn who is 180 cm). You need to have a strong technique. You need to develop your game to a level where you can beat anybody,” Pooja Rani said.
The benefits of a vegetarian diet for professional athletes have been well documented in recent times. Pooja used to face difficulties in managing her weight so she changed her diet to an all-vegetarian one. But she revealed that it’s tough to follow a strict vegetarian diet because an athlete doesn’t always get the right food, especially as it becomes tougher to source it when they are on tours.
“I have my diet plan, which I follow according to the guidance of Ryan Fernando. I started focusing on having only vegetarian food in 2019 but faced a lot of problems. See, I was in Italy for almost two months and faced a lot of issues with food. I didn’t know what to do. I had given up eggs as well and was a vegetarian for one and half years but was facing problems so I was back to eating non-vegetarian food.”
Form and technique do play a part in an athlete’s quest to achieve Olympic glory but so does the pressure. Winning a medal at the Olympics is also about how an athlete performs under intense pressure. Regarding pressure and expectations, Pooja said she knows how to shut down the unnecessary noise from outside.
“No, I am not taking any pressure. Yes, there are expectations from certain quarters, like they think you can win a medal at the Olympics because you have won a medal at the Asian Championships. Abhi bas Olympic meh ek gold medal le aao (Now just win an Olympic gold medal). They don’t have any idea and they just want to talk about winning a gold medal. ‘Haan idhar gold aaya toh udhar bhi le aayegi’ (She has won the gold medal here so she can win it there as well).
“I don’t take any pressure from them. There are people around me who are aware of the task ahead and they are doing their best and so am I,” Pooja Rani said before signing off.