In the days leading up to his professional boxing debut last week, Vikas Krishan was asked to participate in a charity event in New York, serving food to senior citizens. It was part of the time-honored tradition of bout promotion during fight week (the last few days leading up to a professional bout). For someone who is largely unknown in the USA, this was an easy way to get some public attention and perhaps even sell a few more tickets. In the professional ranks, self promotion and getting into the public eye is an art in itself. But Krishan didn't really want any part in it.
Far from hyping himself, Krishan's fight week was remarkable for the near-seclusion he kept himself in -- his phone was switched off and he ladled food on plates for cameras only grudgingly. "All I did was train and then go back to my hotel and sleep. I didn't want to do it (fight promotions). I don't like having to ask people to come and watch my fights. I don't want to tell the media, 'l'm such a great fighter.' When people hear about me, I want them to know me for my boxing skills alone," he says.
Few were questioning his skills after his debut -- a TKO win inside two rounds (out of a scheduled six) against American boxer Steven Andrade. For those who had followed his amateur boxing career, this was not much of a surprise. Having made his senior debut as an 18-year old in 2010, Krishan had put together one of the most impressive resumes of an Indian boxer, winning gold medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, apart from medalling at the Worlds.
He had been weighing the decision to turn professional ever since he had first been approached by the Top Rank boxing promotion company, following a quarterfinal-finish at the 2016 Olympics. The offer was tempting. Top Rank -- founded by Bob Arum had promoted Muhammad Ali's fights in the 1960s and has had names like Manny Pacquiao and Vasyl Lomachenko on its roster -- is one of the most prestigious boxing promotions in the world. Krishan, however, wasn't completely convinced. "I wasn't entirely sure then. I still wanted to achieve certain things in amateur boxing," he says. A medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was a priority. He also wanted to be able to compete at the 2020 Olympics. While the AIBA (the governing body for Olympic boxing) had created a path for professional boxers to earn a qualification spot for the games, Krishan wasn't sure he would be able to go down that route if he had signed with Top Rank.
Ultimately though, he got what he wanted. He won gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, and with Top Rank still interested, signed a five-year contract that will see him fight five times in 2019. On the insistence of his sponsors JSW, he also had a clause written into the contract that will allow him to make an attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics too.
Krishan, though, is still getting used to fitting in the template of professional prizefighting. "Everything is different," he says. "The gloves are smaller. We fight with 12-ounce gloves in the amateurs. Now I'm boxing with 10-ounce gloves. You can't really defend with them. They are only meant for knocking someone out."
There were other changes that Krishan had to adapt to as he underwent an eight-week-long training camp ahead of his debut. "When I boxed for the Indian national team, we were always training as a unit. You saw the others train and you took motivation from that. As a professional, you have to motivate yourself. No one is going to ask you to train. You have to push yourself," he says.
Instead of the coaches he had known over nearly a decade, Krishan now trained under Wali Moses, a former chief coach of the USA national team. He trained at the Brick City Hitters gym in the East Orange suburb of Newark, New Jersey.
"This is a new experience for me so I agreed to everything Wali told me," he says. Having competed for four years in the middleweight (75kg) division, he dropped down to the junior middleweight (69.9 kg) category for his professional debut.
His style had to be worked on too. "In the amateurs we have the habit of throwing a punch and then stepping back and lifting your fist in the air because you want the judges to note that you have landed a punch. On the first day of sparring that's what I did. Aadat ho gayi thi (It had become a habit), and Wali told me that I can't do that in the ring. In professional, you have to follow up your punches. You can't give any moment for the opponent to come back."
There was a lot of unlearning Krishan has had to do and he accepts it. Amongst the brightest stars at Brick City Hitters is 21-year Shakur Stevenson, who is an Olympic silver medallist and has amassed a 10-0 record in the professional circuit. Krishan admits he's asked the youngster for advice. "He's already got a lot more experience than me. So I always ask him if there's something I could be doing better."
One area where he won't budge though is his willingness to do promotions before a bout. "It just doesn't make sense. I don't like going for these media activities. If by doing these activities I miss a training session, it will only hurt me. And when you step inside the ring you start thinking of all the sessions you might have missed," he says.
There were no regrets going into his debut although there definitely were some nerves. "It's my debut. The hall is full and the crowd expects you to do something. And at the same time you don't want to make a mistake," he says. It's that extra bit of caution that Vikas says saw the fight ending in the second round instead of the first. "After his (Andrade's ) first punch hit my gloves, I was confident that I could deal with his power. After that I wanted to show the crowd what I had. They must have seen lakhs of Americans and Mexican boxers but they are only seeing an Indian for the first time."
That unfamiliarity extended to the TV commentators too. In clips of his bout, they seem unsure of which ring name to call him by -- Bob Arum calls him the 'Indian Marvin Hagler' (the undisputed middleweight champion and one of the great boxers of the 1980s) while Krishan prefers 'the Indian tank'. They also know little of his pedigree but sit up when they realise he once beat reigning IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence at the 2012 Olympics (the result was later overturned after it was deemed that Krishan had not been penalized for fouls he had committed during the contest).
It's clear Krishan chafes at being known through his encounter with Spence nearly six years ago. Yet he's also aware that he has a long way to go before he's identified solely on the basis of his own skills. "Most Americans only see Indians as good in studies. I want to change that perception," he says. And there's only one place where he will do that. "Sometime before my fight one journalist there asked me whether I could beat Spence now. I won't talk bad about anyone. I will only let my fists do the talking."