It's still early days in his career, but Deepak Bhoria has no shortage of believers in his potential to be the next big star of Indian boxing. This past week, the 23-year-old from Hisar won gold at the Indian nationals (51 kg) in Bellary. Not only was it his second straight title at the nationals, he didn't lose a single round over the course of the tournament, and just like 2018, he was adjudged the best boxer in the competition.
It isn't just in national competition that Bhoria's tasted success. In June this year, he beat the then reigning World and Olympic champion Shakobdin Zoirov of Uzbekistan. That's something India's mainstay at this weight over the past three years, Amit Panghal, was unable to do over three encounters.
Bhoria was unable to displace Panghal - the only Indian to have won a silver at the world championships -- from the Olympic squad, but he will have a chance to boost his claim at next month's World Championships in Belgrade. After a disappointing Olympics in which he was pummeled in the first round, Panghal didn't take part at the nationals and Bhoria's win earned him a direct place in the Indian team. A strong performance there and Bhoria could well become an obvious pick in the roster in what will be a busy 2022 calendar. "It was really important for me to win the title in the 51kg division this year. It will open the door to the Asian and Commonwealth Games next year," says Bhoria.
He allows himself to dream, if only for a bit. Bhoria is well aware just how the most carefully laid out plans can be left in disarray. After all, he is making up for lost time.
Back in 2017, the then 19-year-old had beaten Panghal in the inter-services competition to earn the right to represent what is one of the strongest teams in domestic competition at the boxing nationals in Vishakhapatnam. Bhoria was one of the favourites to win that competition and had dominated the early proceedings in his first round match before walking into a right hook from an unheralded boxer from Jammu. Knocked unconscious for the only time in his career, Bhoria suffered further as the medical rules for a concussion stated he was not permitted to box for another three months. That meant he was unable to compete at the selection trials for the national camp. In his place it was Panghal who would make that cut. Bhoria could only watch from the sidelines as Panghal went from strength to strength and sealed his place in the national team over the next few years with medals at the Commonwealth and Asian games.
"I missed out on the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games because of that loss. Because I couldn't take part in the selection trials, I missed out on a year and even after I won the national title the next year, Amit Bhai had already made his place in the squad by winning the Asian Games gold," recalls Bhoria.
Despite the disappointment, Bhoria has a philosophical take on the whole sequence of events. "My belief has always been that there are always ups and downs in your career. Der hai par andher nahi [It might take longer but it's never impossible]" he says.
Bhoria says he's always believed that the best way to deal with challenging situations is simply to put his head down and push forward. With his father drawing a meagre salary as a home guard in Haryana, as a youngster Deepak had always struggled to find the necessary funds to pursue his boxing - a sport he was introduced to by his uncle. "I've always felt I have been lucky to pursue my sport as far as I have," he says.
"When I started boxing, I didn't have money to pay the coach at the academy where I trained, but after a few days, my coach decided to train me without charging any fees. Later when I didn't have money to get the right nutrition, the juice sellers near my academy would give me juice and let me pay later," he says.
His first coach, Rajesh Sheoran, says the reason so many concessions were made for the youngster was because of the belief -- even at that early stage -- that he was made for something big. "When I first saw him, I didn't think much because he wasn't very strong but after I saw his movements, reactions, and punching technique, it almost looked that he was born to be a boxer," says Sheoran.
While there were many who believed in him, Bhoria had to wait before he could show what he was capable of. He has no medal at the junior and sub-junior levels in India because that period coincided with the time the Indian Federation was banned.
"For a long time I wondered if I should continue pursuing boxing. There didn't seem like much future in it. I thought it might be better to help my father in some way and get a job. But my coaches and my family also told me to keep trying. I knew I had to work hard one way or the other and I might as well put in that effort in the ring," he says.
Despite hitting a few speed breakers, Bhoria's career has been on the right path ever since he signed up with the Indian Army team in 2016. Although he's been in Panghal's shadow, he's made the most of the opportunities he's got, winning silver at the 2019 Asian Championships and the World military games the same year. And while he's had to wait on the sidelines for a few years and missed out on the 2020 Olympic cycle, he's looking to correct that error for the 2024 Games in Paris.
While much will depend on how he performs at the 2021 Worlds and later in the inevitable showdown against Panghal, coaches are bullish about his chances. "They are both very different fighters. Amit is smaller and very quick. Deepak is a few inches taller. He has the reach advantage and he has very good footwork so he's very sharp in sidestepping punches," says Army coach Jai Patil who has worked with both boxers.
Bhoria is a lot more careful about avoiding heavy punches now too. "I'm a lot more active than I used to be in the past. If you are always putting pressure on the opponent, they don't have that much opportunity to punch you. That's something I've learned from that knockout," he says.
It's not the easiest prospect but Bhoria is confident he can pull it off. "I don't think I've been defeated until I actually admit defeat. I've been waiting for the opportunity to step up. Now it is my time to perform," he says.