The image at the final bell said it all: Amit Panghal, silver medallist at the 2019 World championships and Asian Games gold medallist and top seed in Tokyo, sunk in his corner, head low, his abdomen heaving as he sucked in oxygen, He'd just been forced to run from corner to corner by Colombia's Yuberjen Martinez in the final minute of a round he knew he had to win to stay in the Olympics.
It was a disappointing end to the bout, but perhaps not a surprise. Just a couple of months ago, in the Indian team's training camp in Assisi, Panghal had sparred four times with Martinez, a silver medallist in Rio - and that was an indication that today's bout would not be easy.
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What went wrong for India's most successful boxer in the last Olympic cycle? Here are a few reasons.
This wasn't Panghal's first bout against the Colombian boxer. Just a couple of months ago, in the Indian team's training camp in Assisi, Panghal had sparred four times with Martinez. According to coaches present there, the first bout itself went badly. "Amit got absolutely dominated that first time. The Colombian has really heavy punches and pehle minute mein usko khada kar diya (he had him rocked within the first minute). No one goes into a sparring session at a hundred percent so it was a bit surprising that the Colombian was so far in front," says a witness at that session. Indeed by the time the Indian team saw their draws in Tokyo, there were already a few downcast eyes seeing that Panghal, despite being the top seed, had drawn Martinez right up front.
While that sparring session might have delivered a few blows to Panghal's confidence, his coaches might have hoped for a better result in Tokyo. The session in Assisi was on a, 18-foot a side ring (training rings are often smaller to force boxers to deal with pressure) in contrast to the 20-foot a side square used at the Olympics. Panghal, in theory, had a chance to use his superior speed and movement to sidestep the Colombian. And if there were fears he wouldn't be able to handle the Colombian's pace, he only had to remember how he had arguably beaten a world class boxer like Shakobdin Zoirov just a couple of months before, in the finals of the Asian Championships.
In that fight, he had learned to stay in the pocket, count on his superior movement to evade punches aimed at his head and use his own accuracy to land punches on the counter. Panghal did that in the first round. The Colombian pressed forward and Panghal slipped and weaved and landed blows of his own. One lead straight left in the 50th second of the first round, was particularly telling. But while Panghal was landing the eye-catching punches early on, the Colombian was putting money in the bank for later.
In the flurry right after Panghal's left fist jerked his head back, Martinez had pressured him into a corner and ripped in several unanswered punches to his body, digging in a left hook dug to Amit's right, abdomen - right above his liver. Martinez would pursue this tactic right through the first round.
He'd stick to it even when getting tagged by Panghal. "We knew what kind of boxer Martinez was. But we were confident that since Amit is much quicker than him he could throw more combinations in close and then slip away. Amit did that in the first round. It wasn't as if he was only getting hit," says Santiago Nieva, India's high performance director. But the Colombian's ability to soak up punishment and dish out more was a challenge. "That sort of opponent who walks through every punch you throw is very fatiguing to face. You lose confidence in your jab because you can see it makes no difference to him," says DS Yadav, a coach with the Indian team. Indeed you could hear coach Kutappa in Panghal's corner yell "Maar ke side jaa. (Hit and move to the side)" in the last minute of the first round, but the Indian rather than looking to jab first to make an opening and then build on his punches, was hoping to simply get lucky with a single punch and get away.
"Our tactic against Martinez was not to stand and trade with him, it was to throw one or two punches and then move away. That's what we had to do today but Amit wasn't able to throw his jab enough especially in round 2 and 3. It's something that seems clear in hindsight but in the ring, he wasn't able to do that," says Nieva.
While a lot of expectations had been built on Panghal's performance against Zoirov, the Colombian ramped up his pressure to another level. Panghal had been working on his endurance over the last year. "He probably has the most endurance in the camp. It wasn't a lack of conditioning that hurt him in the last couple of rounds," says Yadav. "Someone like Zoirov mostly targets your face. He'll put a lot of pressure but then he'll slow down to get his own energy back. The Colombian doesn't even give that to you. He won't give you a chance to breathe. You keep waiting for him to take a break but he doesn't so you are defending on the back-foot for the entire contest. He's always pulling you underwater. That is mentally very exhausting," says Yadav.
"If you have good technique, it's sometimes easier to constantly punch at a target for three rounds. But if you are constantly defending, taking punches on the arms while covering up and not throwing yourself, it is very frustrating and tiring," says Nieva.
But while he was struggling mentally, it was the very real threat of getting touched up on the inside that kept Panghal backpedalling constantly. "It's easy to say you should always step forward until you are hit in the solar plexus. At that point, when you are hurt, it's nearly impossible to keep fighting," says Yadav.