On November 24, the legendary Mary Kom played the first bout of the finals at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in Delhi. The Indoor Stadium, the scene of the fight that would set the veteran boxer a notch beyond all her competitors, was packed to the brim- all waiting in anticipation of Mary’s magnificence. Amidst all the fanfare, a 21-year old, who was also a part of history in her own way as she competed in the finals of her debut Senior World Championships, remained largely unnoticed.
Also read: Why Mary Kom deserves the Bharat Ratna
Hers would be the fourth bout of the day.
By the time the moment arrived, Mary Kom had already won the medal that would make her the most successful international boxer at the World level- equalling her record with Cuban legend Félix Savón. It was under these circumstances that Sonia Chahal took the ring. She had a massive weight of expectations on her. She had beaten heavyweights to reach the final fighting every preemptive notion that would get her down. Opposite her was German Gabrielle Wahner- the 10th placed boxer in this particular weight category at the continental championships.
“If you ask for my honest assessment, she was a little too aggressive in the second round of the final. That’s not her natural game,” says Jagdish Singh- Dronacharya Award-winning coach who has been associated with Sonia since 2012, in conversation with The Bridge.
“Had she stayed true to herself as she had been throughout the tournament, she would have taken gold instead of silver. Maybe, playing her counter game would have been a better way to go.”
To anyone following the tournament keenly, two things about Sonia Chahal immediately stood out. The first was the deep-seated confusion she caused immediately after being named in the squad for the Worlds. For a good four days into the tournament, Sonia Chahal was always referred to as Sonia Lather. The reason being that this was a virtually unknown face that had come up in a weight category that is automatically competitive in the country given its inclusion in the Olympics. The second thing that stood out about her was her lose stance when she began most of her bouts- akin to inviting her opponent to throw in the first attack, waiting and planning for a strategic move that would enable her to win the game at the end of it.
“We had a lot of problems convincing the right people about her talent at the very beginning of her international career,” recalls Jagdish. “Her whole game, I remember, was based on counter-attacks.”
“It was a very safe way to box- zero risks,” he adds as an afterthought.
While dealing with Federation appointed people when it came evaluating her performance ahead of all major tournaments she has represented India in thus far, this was the major point that Sonia and her coach had to sell- that her boxing style, while unconventional, could be honed into something that would potentially spring a surprise on her opponents when they were least expecting it.
It was not an easy job. But for Sonia, a girl who braved dire poverty to get into boxing only because she idolized Vijender Singh from a tender age, complications were not anything out of the ordinary.
“When we met with the High-Performance Manager, Poonam Beniwal, Sonia got similar feedback on her style,” says Jagdish. “She was told that if she were to win medals at the highest level, she needed more aggression in her game while, at the same time, keeping the original essence of her style intact.”
“You can never completely change the kind of boxer you are,” Jagdish adds. “All you can do is build on your natural style and get better.”
The duo has been working together since 2012 back when Sonia was still in school. She got her first breakthrough two years later in 2014 when she bagged the Gold at the National School Games in a lower weight category.
A stroke of luck
Hailing from a family that struggles to make essential ends meet, it was the things beyond training that always held Sonia back. While Jagdish Singh did everything in his power to ensure that she actually rises to the potential that she is capable of, often things exceeded beyond that.
“Diet was a major problem for her to begin with,” says Jagdish.“Not having the means to maintain a strict diet can be a big blow for a boxer with international hopes.”
“She entered the senior circuit in 2016 and played the Nationals for the first time. Such was her prowess that she won Gold on her first attempt and even defeated international medalists on the way.”
“For the last six months, I can say with certainty that no one apart from myself was a huge fan of her style of boxing,” Jagdish adds. “They probably thought she was not worth the time or the effort because the kind of Boxing Sonia Chahal participates in- it’s unconventional.”
When one looks back at this time leading up to the Worlds, one is astounded to find out that Sonia Chahal, the potential Silver medalist, may not even have made it to the tournament had things progressed according to plan. She was the third choice among her peers in her weight category. After the first set of trials were conducted, her name was bumped up to the second position along with one other boxer.
“The boxers were sent on exposure trips- two international tournaments that came with the best of training facilities and a primary understanding of the opponents they would be facing in the World Championships,” informs Jagdish.
As fate would have it, two boxers emerged with bronze medals at the end of these international tournaments. Both Sonia Chahal and 2017 AIBA World Youth champion Shashi Chopra had the same results to back up their claim for inclusion in the squad in a very competitive group. So, this rut called for yet another round of trials which Sonia won to be eventually picked to the team.
The entire scenario teaches us one thing. In a weight class that includes top Indian boxers, be it Sonia Lather, Shashi Chopra or Arshi Khanam, all competing for the ultimate honour of representing India at the primary stages, Sonia Chahal has a monumental fight conquered even before she made her debut on the global stage. Because, for her, she had something more to prove. She had to fight for her place in the team. She also had to fight to prove that she was worthy of it.
“Even after she was selected, there was constant pressure on her to prove herself in training,” Jagdish sighs. “She was told her place in the team would be lost the minute she showed signs of slacking.”
“And then, she went on to win silver,” he says, the modest pride evident in his voice.
“Stealth,” says Jagdish after a momentary pause when asked what he considered his ward’s biggest strength to be. “She knows how to use the element of surprise wonderfully.”
“The thing about boxing is that you need to attack your opponent’s psyche as much as you attack her body,” observes Jagdish. “Sonia, as her initial stance suggests, practically invites the other boxer to take a punch at her.”
“They get over-confident, she makes her move.”
While the final rounds have been Sonia’s forte throughout the tournament, Jagdish feels a lot more work is required if they are to achieve the ultimate target of landing a place in the squad for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Boxing’s future in the multi-sporting, elite tournament may be a big question mark at the moment, but that does not interrupt preparation. In this tournament, Sonia’s debut World Championships, she has had to deal with everything- glory and controversy.
“Boxers who lose are always left with the space to complain,” says Jagdish. He was talking about the pre-quarterfinal bout where Sonia had to get past former World Champion, Stanimira Petrova of Bulgaria. The match decision went in favour of the Indian, but a huge controversy ensued propelled mainly by Petrova and her coach who alleged “corruption” on the part of the judges.
“Especially in the cases of close split verdicts, one has to expect challenges and controversies mainly because it is all so subjective,” mentions the experienced coach. “Sonia narrowly won the bout 2-3.”
“Sometimes you just need to accept the judges’ ruling until a more efficient system can be put in place,” he adds. “That is why there are five people all well-versed in the rules. If one of them makes a mistake, the ruling is not absolute.”
“See, people will keep talking,” he says. “It’s up to you how much you hear and pay attention to them.”
With eyes set on Tokyo 2020, it is clear that Sonia has tougher roads to travel. To not get stuck with the tag of being a “one-tournament wonder”, the onus is now on her and her coach to ensure that the momentum from the Worlds is kept intact until the time comes for more significant battles with higher stakes. The Bhiwani Boxing Academy, Jagdish’s school, boasts of a total of 15 international medals from various boxers across all age groups. So, it is but natural that he will be vying for more students apart from Sonia to be ready by the time decisions regarding the Tokyo 2020 team are taken.
“Ranniti,” says Jagdish. “A proper battleplan is the most important thing when you are in the ring.”
“It also takes extreme strength to stick to that plan and, at the same time, be prepared to take quick decisions based on your circumstances.”
“Sonia has merely won a battle,” he concludes. “The bigger war remains.”