Vijender Singh: From Bhiwani to Beijing and beyond
The wait seemed to last forever. While India had seen a number of boxers make it to the Olympics, none returned with a medal. Until 2008.
At the Beijing Olympics, a tall and lanky pugilist blessed with long arms rewrote the script for Indian boxing.
Vijender Singh - a man who had defied the odds and done the unthinkable throughout his career - won India's first-ever medal in boxing at the Games.
His bronze medal in the middleweight division gave the sport in India a huge shot in the arm with MC Mary Kom's bronze at London 2012 further enhancing its profile.
Born into a middle-class Jat family in sports-crazy Haryana, it was no surprise that Vijender was drawn towards boxing.
Seeing his elder brother Manoj, a talented boxer himself, go through his routine and at times measure his steps shadow boxing at home, the young Viju too wanted to take up the gloves as soon as he could.
While the elder brother would train at the Vaish University boxing academy, the younger one would accompany him in the hope of learning a thing or two about the sport.
Manoj would make the most of the opportunity at the academy to reach the National level and use those credentials to get into the Indian Army under the sports quota to further his boxing aspirations, while the young Viju continued his dedicated work at the academy.
Several outstation military deployments forced Manoj to give up on his sporting dreams, but his little brother was soon seriously contemplating becoming a boxer.
Back home, conditions were far from ideal with father Mahipal Singh’s day job as a driver with Haryana Roadways barely covering his sons' education as well as boxing classes.
But he worked overtime to support his son with Vijender also taking on part-time jobs, including modelling, to fund his dream.
Though the start was not what Vijender had hoped for, the young pugilist soon made waves in Indian boxing circles with his fluid style and a ‘never-say-die’ attitude.
It was these aspects that made Vijender special. He would join the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Centre in Bhiwani - the nursery of Indian boxing - in 1997.
He won the Junior National title and then went on to claim gold at the Senior National Championships whilst still a teenager.
His performances saw Vijender called up to the squad for the 2003 Afro-Asian Games.
And though many, including chief coach GS Sandhu, questioned the move, the young Viju replied in the only way he knew by winning a silver medal at the Games before setting his sights on bigger targets in his career.
The Olympic dream
Following his success at domestic level, Vijender soon became a permanent fixture in the Indian boxing circuit.
But the journey ahead turned out of much daunting than what he thought.
He made his Olympic debut at welterweight (69kg) at Athens 2004 but returned empty-handed after a below-par show.
He reached the semi-finals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games but some poor decision-making saw him go down to South Africa's Bongani Mwelase and have the settle for bronze.
That led him to move up a weight class to middleweight (75 kg).
At the 2006 Asian Games, Vijender had to be content with another bronze after his semi-final loss to Kazakhstan's reigning Olympic champion Bakhtiyar Artayev.
That defeat lit a fire in Vijender.
He learnt his lessons from that fight and came back stronger to defeat Artayev at the AIBA President’s tournament just ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
That win spurred the Indian pugilist to go the distance in China too.
A talented, mature and much more experienced Vijender faced the challenge head-on as he made his way through the early rounds to make the semi-finals, thus assuring India their first Olympic medal in the ring.
Up against Cuba's Emilio Correa in his last-four bout, Vijender threw everything at his opponent.
But the Cuban stood tall and won on points before falling to future world middleweight champion James DeGale of Great Britain in the final.
After returning home with India’s first-ever Olympic medal in boxing, Vijender soon became the toast of the nation.
In a year that saw Abhinav Bindra win India’s first Olympic gold in an individual event, the Haryana boxer also made the headlines.
Vijender used the limelight to establish himself as the face of Indian boxing in the coming years.
With senior pros like Akhil Kumar and MC Mary Kom for company, he has help the sport gain prominence among young Indians.
Though Vijender continued his amateur career, participating in the 2012 London Olympics and a string of other tournaments, he found it difficult to build on the Beijing performance in the years ahead.
Just ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, he switched to the professional circuit, signing a multi-year contract with Queensberry Promotions through IOS Sports and Entertainment.
A man who idolised legends like Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, and promoter Don King in his early days, Vijender has so far enjoyed a stellar start to his pro career.
With an 11-0 record and a will capable of shaking even the best in the business, Vijender appears to have what it takes to rise through the ranks and perhaps become India's first world professional boxing champion.