Feature | Boxing

Boxing secretly to qualifying for Tokyo, pugilist Pooja Rani’s journey

The Indian boxer had to overcome strong objections from her father while pursuing her dream of competing in the ring.

By Andre Pitts ·

On March 8, 2020 Pooja Rani became one of the first Indian boxers to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics after the fourth seeded pugilist’s win over Thailand’s Pornnipa Chutee in her quarter-final bout at the Asia Oceania boxing Olympic qualifiers.

Hailing from Bhiwani in Haryana, it’s not much of a surprise that Pooja Rani went on to forge a career inside the ring.

Known as ‘Mini Cuba,’ having produced pugilists like Kavita Chahal, Jitender Kumar and Olympic medallist Vijender Singh in the past, Bhiwani is considered as one of the cradles for boxing in India.

Convincing her father about life in the ring

However, unlike most of the people from the city, Pooja Rani’s father made his disapproval about her taking up boxing quite clear from the very start.

Blessed with good height and a broad frame, the pugilist was always destined to shine inside the ring. However, her first tryst with boxing came by chance.

It was only after she was selected and won silver in an inter-college competition during her college days that her interest in boxing was sparked.

That said, she was aware that her father would never agree to her stepping into a ring, forcing Pooja Rani to keep her boxing activities a secret after she had decided to join the Captain Hawa Singh Boxing Academy.

Her father – then working with the Haryana police – was adamant about her not taking up boxing due to the physical and punishing nature of the sport.

Pooja Rani, though, was steadfast in her determination to pursue it, initially hiding injuries that she had succumbed to by staying over at a friend’s place as the wounds from her clandestine training sessions healed.

Pooja Rani at the 12th South Asian Games where she bagged gold

When her father eventually did find out about her boxing, he stopped her from attending class for six months and didn’t even listen to her coach Sanjay Kumar Sheoran’s plea to let her compete.

However, Pooja Rani’s obstinance in pursuing the sport as well as her determination and success over time changed her father’s perception, converting him from a naysayer to one of her staunchest supporters now.

The turning point, in fact, came in 2009 when she won silver in the National Youth Boxing Championship, paving the way for a change in her family’s attitude towards boxing.

Since then, she has won silver at the 2012 Asian Boxing Championship, was a bronze winner at the 2014 Asian Games, has represented India in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, won a gold medal at the 12th South Asian Games and bagged another gold at the 2019 Asian Championship where she went on to face reigning world champion Wang Lina at the time.

An unfortunate twist of fate

Things were looking bright for Pooja Rani in her career, but her biggest obstacle to date was yet to come and that happened in 2016 when she severely burnt her right hand while bursting firecrackers during Diwali (Indian festival of lights).

Her recovery was perhaps the most difficult time in her career with her right hand taking six months to completely heal.

Despite the recovery of her hand, Pooja Rani was nowhere near peak fitness, prompting self-doubt with more than a year away from any sort of competition.

While throwing in the towel would be quite understandable considering the circumstance, Pooja Rani wasn’t about to have enough of that.

Watch: Pooja Rani books her place at 2020 Olympics

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Instead, she overcame the struggle and hardship by returning to the ring more determined than ever before and marked her comeback with an inspirational gold at the Asian Boxing Championships 2019.

She went on to face the reigning world champion Wang Lina in the final of the Asian Boxing Championships and beat the Chinese pugilist against all odds in what was an emotional victory.

Pooja Rani then followed that up by clinching gold after beating Australia's Caitlin Parker at the Olympic Test Event last year.

The six-time national champion, however, still had some unfinished business in international competitions, most notably when it came to securing an Olympic berth, which she had missed out on in 2016.

Mission Tokyo

Her pursuit for maiden Olympic spots hence was her main goal to work towards following her return to the ring and unsurprisingly all the hard yards she had put in to qualify for the Olympics was rewarded.

The fourth-seeded woman Indian middleweight ended up qualifying for the Tokyo Games in the same session as now three-time Olympian Vikas Krishan (69kg).

Both boxers were seen advancing to the semifinals and qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics following authoritative quarter-final wins at Olympic qualifiers in Amman, Jordan.

With the Tokyo Olympics now being postponed by a year, the three-time Asian medallist Pooja Rani will be eager to make the most of the extra time afforded to athletes by training.

She’s already overcome the disapproval of her father and severe burns to her right hand to make it to the Olympics

And while some may say that her mere participation at the Games already makes her a winner, Pooja Rani will be keen to prove otherwise, preferably with a medal to show for all her effort and struggle over the years.