For Indian boxer Pooja Rani, winning the gold medal at the 2019 Asian boxing championships in Bangkok, Thailand, has been the highlight of her career. But more than the medal itself, Pooja Rani cherishes the way she won it against all odds.
In the 81kg final - a bout she considers her best - the Indian beat China's Wang Lina, who had won the 2018 world championships in her weight class.
“I don’t think anyone expected me to win a gold medal back then. I was also coming back from an injury at the time. But beating the world champion from China to prove everyone wrong was special,” Pooja Rani told the Olympic Channel.
Interestingly, it was Pooja Rani’s first international gold medal.
The closest she had come before was at the 2012 Asian championships in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where she lost to London 2012 bronze medallist Li Jinzi – another former Chinese world champion - in the final.
So, in Bangkok, Pooja Rani had a demon from the past she needed to exorcise as well.
“It was only after winning the semi-final bout that it dawned on me that my final bout will be against a world champion boxer from China. To be honest, I wasn’t confident about my chances of winning,” Rani remembered.
Sleepless night before the final
Having watched her opponent closely before, Pooja Rani admits that she was familiar with Wang Lina’s fast counter-attacking style. But even so, coming up with a countermeasure wasn’t easy.
“I couldn’t sleep the night before the final and stayed up late visualising the bout against Lina. After the match started, I was cautious and assessed her for a while. My plan was to go on the offensive when she least expected it,” the 29-year-old Rani recollected.
“It started working and I began believing that I had a chance. I told myself ‘buckle up Pooja’ and took it from there,” she added.
Pooja Rani won the final against the then reigning world champion by a 4-1 split decision but had to wait a few agonising minutes to know the final result.
“It was like a dream. At that tournament, you only got the final decision after the bout was over. The scores weren’t revealed after every round. So, as soon as they announced that I was the winner, I was overwhelmed with joy,” Rani laughed.
Usually known for her calm and composed demeanour in the ring, Rani also let out a shriek of joy as soon as the result was announced. Pooja admitted it was very unlike her.
A career-altering confidence booster
Pooja Rani admits that she was overwhelmed with the accolades from friends, family, coaches and the fans which followed the win. However, she believes that the bout also had a lasting impact on her career, far beyond these temporary highs.
“Frankly, I never expected to beat Wang Lina. But winning the bout gave me a lot of confidence. It made me believe I could do anything,” she noted.
Strengthened by her new-found confidence, Pooja Rani qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in March last year in the 75kg, after beating Thailand’s Pornnipa Chutee in the quarter-finals of the Asia Oceania Olympic qualifiers.
For the Indian, it was the realisiation of a lifelong dream after missing out on Rio 2016.
In line to make her Olympic debut later this year, Pooja Rani will be drawing from her experience of beating Wang Lina again as she steps in the ring against some of the world’s best at Tokyo.