Editor’s note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
New Delhi: Two-time Olympian Vikas Krishan Yadav, at 28, is a veteran in the ring. After a promising start to his career that saw him win a gold at the 2010 Youth World Championships, Vikas went on to win medals in almost all major international events – Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Asian Championships, and World Championships.
Keen to break his Olympics duck and get the only medal missing from his illustrious collection, Vikas, who competes in the 69kg division, has dabbled in professional boxing too, winning both his bouts in a brief stint in 2018. Currently locked at his Bhiwani home, the pugilist spoke to Firstpost on the science behind his brutal sport.
How did boxing happen to you?
I started boxing because of my father. He wanted me to grow into a strong, muscular man, so he got me admitted to the Bhiwani Boxing Club, which as the only boxing centre in the district. I was just 10 years old then and obviously, too young to decide for myself. Initially, I was really scared of getting hit. Getting punched was very painful, and I had no one to go to. I don’t come from a sporting family either. Gradually, I began to enjoy the sport and even encouraged some of my friends to take up boxing because it makes you mentally and physically tough.
How did you overcome your fear of getting hurt?
Credit goes to my mother. Whenever I was too tired or too hurt, my mother made sure I didn’t give up. She is a very strong-willed woman and she made sure I imbibed that quality from her. She motivated me a lot. Sometimes I used to come home bloodied and bruised, but she would never finch. Instead, she would say, ‘it’s okay to get hit, go ahead and hit back hard tomorrow.’ I don’t think many mothers have that spirit. She gave me the killer instinct that is so important for a boxer. There were so many occasions when I thought of giving up and doing something else in life, but my mother never let that happen, and I am really grateful to her for that.
That’s why I always believe that the role of family is extremely important in making a boxer. It is natural for a kid to be scared and step back with the fear of getting hit. It’s the job of family to keep the kids’ spirits up.
It took me a year to start enjoying boxing. Obviously, I used to get punched in the ring, but I felt better when I started counter-punching. Gradually, the killer instinct started to develop and I was fine.
Does one needs a certain mindset to become a boxer?
Mindset is very important, and that is something one is born with. Certain people are fighters by birth, they just don’t give up. Personally, I feel my kids are fighters too and with time, they can make a career in boxing if they want.
A lot of factors go into the making of a boxer. The biggest factor is your family. For example, if I want my kids to take up boxing, I’ll condition them gradually into the sport instead of imposing my will. I’ll develop a curiosity about the sport. Then, a child’s friend circle also influences them a lot. If they talk about football all the time, obviously they’ll follow that sport. So yes, like I said, a number of factors go into the making of a boxer but the mindset and killer instinct is something you are born with.
How does one achieve the ideal balance between weight training and skill training?
When you start, you have no clue, especially in India. The problem with us is that even the experienced boxers rely completely on the schedule prepared by their coaches. I have never seen an Indian boxer telling his coach, ‘Sir, this particular exercise is good for me and I’ll prioritise this over something else.’ We follow instructions blindly. I urge young boxers to not be blind. They should have a mind of their own. They should look at what world champions are doing. These days you get all the information online, so why not make full use of it? You must educate yourself and have a healthy discussion with your coach over what is best for you. Don’t follow anything blindly, not even my instructions. Always verify and cross-check whether whatever that is being fed to you is correct or not.
At what stage does one realise that this is where my weight training must end and skill training should begin, or how much should I lift to optimise my skills?
You must understand your body. You must know which muscles in your body are strong and which need to be worked on. Every boxer is built differently. Coaches and trainers can’t prepare customised schedule for everyone, especially in amateur boxing. In professional boxing, things are different. In my case, my personal trainer understands the strength and power of my muscles and schedules my workouts accordingly.
Roughly, it takes 7-10 years for an upstart to fully understand his body, which is when he/she must assess his/her strengths and weaknesses. Boxing is a very uncertain sport. You can be in your best physical shape and mental state but a good punch in the last second of the bout can knock you down. All your fitness and strength will be of little use. So yes, it is very important to hit that balance in training.
How have your workout habits evolved over the years?
Until recently, I never used to really keep a count of my push-ups or deadlifts. I used to train till my hands could not take the strain anymore. Then, my coach Ronald Simms at the Inspire Institute of Sports told me that the speed and power of a punch come from forearms. He also told me not to trust him blindly but figure it out on my own. So I worked on my forearm power for 15 days and I could see the difference in strength and speed. Strong forearms also help to keep your guard up and defend. Now I train my forearms more.
Training for a professional bout is different. Usually, we have a six-seven-week camp before a boxing match and a training schedule is prepared on the basis of my requirements. I usually train twice or thrice a day. Generally, morning sessions are for weights and fitness and there’s a two-hour boxing session in the evening. Sometimes I run 10 kilometres in the morning, so there’s no afternoon training to allow me to recover. It’s all very science-based and customised to my needs. Rest and recovery are equally important too. I’d say the importance of training, rest, and recovery in boxing is 33 percent each, and the remaining one percent is luck.
What about diet? Do boxers need to micromanage their diets?
Diet is an important part of our boxing, but I don’t keep track of my protein, fats, or carbohydrate intake. I guess not a single Indian athlete does that, to be honest. I prepare my diet plans in consultation with my dietitian. A boxer’s diet depends on what he or she wants to do: Whether he/she wants to cut weight, increase weight, or maintain weight. We have nutrition experts who guide us, but I use my mind too. For example, at home, my Haryanvi diet means I need to have ghee in my rotis, which is something that my dietitian won’t suggest. So I have to tamper with other meals.
Having said that, I think Indian athletes need a lot of awareness on diet. A lot of upcoming athletes do not know the basic concepts of diet and nutrition, so they must consult experts. Also, we need more qualified dietitians and nutritionists in our sports system, those who understand our tastes and dietary habits so that they can give practical guidance to our kids.
Let’s talk about equipment. What do you look for when you select your gloves? Do they have to fit perfectly, or you prefer them slightly lose?
It’s very important to have the right gloves. For me, I go for the ones that sit perfectly on my fist. If the gloves don’t fit exactly the way you want, you’ll lose a lot of power and sting in your punches. You won’t be able to hurt your opponent. When I select my gloves, I gauge how well they will fit me after I have tied my bandage, how easy they are on my fist, and how well can I hurt my opponent.
You have fought with and without a headguard. What is the difference that you could feel? A medical commission has reportedly recommended AIBA to bring back headgurads in amateur boxing. What’s your take on that?
There is an obvious difference. Headguard gives you reassurance. It gives you a feeling of safety. The punches don’t hurt as much, and the knock-out percent with a headguard is really low. You have to understand that boxing is not like any other game. It is a very dangerous sport and not everyone is capable of it. Getting punched in the face and in the head day in and day out is not a joke. It takes a big toll on our health.
A lot of boxers suffer from various brain or neurological ailments after they quit the sport – the effects are that long-lasting. Muhammad Ali, who suffered from Parkinson’s, is a classic case in point. Fractures, cuts, tears and injuries to limbs are fairly common, so that’s not an issue, but head injuries are life-threatening. Boxers generally have trouble remembering things, because they get punched in the head so hard and so often. Even I have a problem with memory. So if AIBA is contemplating a return of headguard, I am very happy.
Does height matter in the ring?
It does. It gives you a bigger reach, and also it helps you psychologically. When you see your opponent is shorter, you feel you can beat him. I experienced this difference too when I switched from 75kg to 69 kg category in amateur boxing. In the higher weight class, all my opponents were either my size or taller, whereas, in 69kg, all opponents are either shorter or are of my height, but not taller. There is an obvious advantage in the ring. But, there are exceptions too. Look at Mike Tyson; he was not very tall but he remained the undisputed world champion for a number of years.
What makes a simple punch such as jab so important in boxing? How does one increase the power and speed of jab?
Jabs are the ABC of boxing. You ought to know ABC before you spell big words, right? When you enter the ring, it’s the first punch they teach you. It’s the very basic of boxing, and there is a good reason for that. Not just attacks, jabs help to execute defensive techniques too and are used to set up a combination. I believe a fast jab is a boxer’s best friend and a slow jab is your worst enemy.
Jabs are usually used to test the opponent, but if you hit it with the correct technique, you can make jab a power shot. A properly executed jab stings hard. Most world champions possess excellent jabs. That is the reason I work extra hard on them. The only way to add power to your jab is to practice. You have to hit more jabs each day. It depends on how much effort a boxer wants to put. I hit extra 2000 jabs in practice at the end of every training session.
In India, we don’t work at jabs as much. In 2010, for the Youth World Championship, my coach Mr Chiranjeevi made me practice jabs a lot. Before leaving for the event, he told me I’ll be the champion even though a number of people doubted him. As it turned out, I returned as a world champion. So you see, jabs are so important.
How crucial is hand speed?
There’s an age-old saying in boxing that goes, ‘Speed kills power. Timing kills speed.’ So speed is more important than power because if you have pace, the opponent won’t be able to catch you. Then, there’s timing. You have to time your punches. You have to hit right when the opponent is about to hit you. You have to make sure the opponent hits you when you want him to. Speed, timing, footwork, power, all have an equal role in boxing. One of these qualities can win you a medal, and one weakness in any of these qualities can cost you a bout. Boxing is such an uncertain sport that many times you don’t even realise what won you or cost you the game.
Muhammad Ali had a famous quote – ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. How important is it to keep moving in the ring?
It is extremely important. Let’s take a shooting analogy. If you have to aim at a stationary target and shoot, it will be easy as compared to say, shooting at a moving pendulum. It’s the same in boxing. If you are rooted at one point, you are making things easier for the opponent. If you move back and forth or sideways, it will be difficult for the opponent to hit you. Footwork is important in every sport, and boxing is no different.
It must, however, be noted that your feet must be firmly on the ground when you throw a punch. If they are in the air or not properly grounded, or you are punching on the move, your punches won’t have any power because balance and strength come from a solid foundation. Imagine throwing a shotput with your feet off the ground. You won’t be able to throw it too far, isn’t it? It’s the same with punches in boxing. You must have a solid base and then rotate your core to get maximum strength.
What is your take on rope-a-dope technique, made famous by Muhammad Ali in his legendary bout against George Foreman? How effective is it and what are the risks involved?
Rope-a-dope is very hard to execute in amateur boxing and if at all a boxer does it, he/she will do it only in the third round. I tried it at the Olympic Qualifiers where I went to the rope in the third round of each bout. But before I did that I made sure I have tired out my opponent. It is very important to know when should you go to the rope. You must be 100 percent sure, because when you go to the rope, every opponent feels that you are stuck and they have you in their reach. If you lean back a bit, his punches won’t land.
It’s always a double-edged sword. The opponent will hit you really hard and you can’t step back because of the rope. Your defence has to be on point. Personally, I like this technique a lot. It shows boxing as an art form because I am making sure the opponent is missing his punches while I am hitting a hard punch back at just the opportune time.
There is a bit of groundwork involved. In the initial rounds, I suss out the opponent’s range with my range-finding jabs. I gauge how close can I let him come. Then, I try to tire him out. I also try to evade 4-5 punches to be sure. Then, in the third round, I’ll go to the corner on the ropes to execute this technique. It is something that I am really trying to perfect.
How do you decide your combination punches? Does it depend on the opponent, your mastery over certain punches, or something else?
Okay, let’s think of amateur boxing. If I want to hit a hook, and I go for it straightaway, the opponent will read it and counter it. Instead, I go for a one-two combination to set him back, and then I’ll bring out the hook. In professional boxing, the combinations are very different. Boxers hit like machines there. They just execute one combination irrespective of the opponent, but they do it non-stop. Also, their eye is quite sharp. So if they decide to hit one-two combination followed by a hook but if they see it’s not the ideal punch, they’ll hit an uppercut instead, which is to say they can change their combination anytime.
What makes hook such a potent punch, besides the obvious power it packs?
Hook is a powerful shot, but what makes it extra dangerous is that it comes from outside the opponent’s line of vision. It has a shock value because it catches the opponent off guard. However, all punches are equally important. A straight jab carries enough power and potential to hurt it executed well.
How did your stint in professional boxing help you?
It helped me understand the basic definition of boxing, which is to save yourself from the opponent’s punches and hit back hard. My earlier approach (of holding the guard up and blocking) was quite boring for me as well as for the spectators, although it has helped me win a number of international medals. Now I want to show the art of defence. I want to show how I will evade the punches instead of just holding up the guard.
Is there any difference in mindset between a professional boxer and an amateur pugilist?
Huge. They call it professional boxing for a reason. They eat, sleep and drink boxing, and they do not hesitate in hurting you. That’s the basic difference: In amateur boxing, the aim is to get points, in professional, the aim is to hurt. They train thrice as hard as amateurs. When I returned to the amateur fold, my mindset had become like that too – I did not want anyone to stretch me to three rounds. I knew I will knock out these kids pretty easily. To have that confidence and killer instinct is very important.
How long did it take for you to imbibe the mindset of professional boxing when you first moved there?
It was tough. I am yet to fully internalise that killer instinct. I think it’s a bit of a cultural thing also. In India, when you hit your opponent hard, you feel concerned for him. There is no such compassion in professional boxing. If they hit you once, they’ll come after you again and try to take you down. The North Americans are particularly born with that killer instinct. It took me time to understand that mindset and adopt it, although I am yet to fully get used to it. That’s why I want to fight a few pro bouts before the Olympics so that I have that killer edge.
Any advice you’d like to give to young boxers?
Just one: There is no substitute for hard work. Some of you will achieve success early, and some will take their time, but always remember, there are no shortcuts. Don’t fall in the trap of coaches or seniors who tell you to take a medicine or a pill to improve your strength. Just put your head down and work hard.