Amit Panghal 2.0: Butterfly + bee packs enough punch for a shot at gold in Tokyo

Amit Panghal in action during the 2018 Commonwealth Games ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Dubai, May 31. Amit Panghal is up against defending flyweight (52kg) Olympic champion Shakobidin Zoirov in the final of the Asian Championships. For all nine minutes of the bout, he is right up in Zoirov's face. He doesn't move away even when the Uzbek tries to bully him; instead, he steps in with jabs and then finishes with overhand lefts. At that close range, there's almost no way to miss; the proximity also reduces Zoirov's four-inch reach advantage.

The steadily building pressure takes its toll on Zoirov, who grows increasingly ragged in the final round. He holds on, though, and Panghal loses by the narrowest of margins (despite winning the second and third round) - his third straight defeat to Zoirov, his biggest rival at the Olympics.

To most other elite competitors, that sort of streak and this specific result would induce at least a bit of self-doubt heading into the most important tournament of them all. Panghal's response to defeat? "That by far was my best performance in the flyweight category."

"Amit should have won that bout against Zoirov," says Indian boxing's high performance director Santiago Nieva. "After that immediate disappointment wore off, we realised what the upside was. That bout showed just how much Amit has improved as a fighter over the last two years."

The confidence is not misplaced. At 5'2" and a hair under 52kg -- probably the smallest man in India's Tokyo contingent -- Panghal (26) is India's best bet to erase a 13-year medal drought in men's boxing (since Vijender Singh's bronze in Beijing). He's been India most accomplished boxer in the last Olympic cycle - he's currently the World No.1 and the top seed for his category in Tokyo, with a gold medal at the Asian Games and Asian Championships, and a silver at the Worlds in 2019.

That success is due in large part to his makeover: Over the past couple of years, Panghal has retooled his ring temperament from being a technically adept but cautious fighter to a risk-taking buzzsaw with a judge-pleasing style. Not less butterfly but certainly more bee.

Rewind further to that silver at the World Championships in Russia in 2019. It was the best result ever for an Indian male boxer at the tournament (five Indians have won bronze). What was more impressive was that Panghal had still not even completed a full year as a full-fledged flyweight. Until February of that year, he had been boxing as a light flyweight (49kg), a category in which he'd won a Commonwealth Games silver and an Asian Games gold. But even then, Panghal realised something was lacking.

Although he won the Asian Championships gold soon after switching to flyweight, he had essentially been boxing in the same style as he had in the light flyweight class. Until then, Panghal had been a distance fighter. He'd feint, throw a jab and a left cross, and then get back out of range. This had been the way he'd always boxed.

It made sense too. One of the primary rules of boxing -- which you can still hear referees say before a professional bout -- is 'protect yourself at all times'. The safest way to box is to stay out of your opponent's swinging arc until you are committed to throwing a punch of your own. It's a tactic that requires a boxer to be both an excellent judge of distance but also be fast on his feet, able to step in when the opportunity comes his way.

Panghal was an expert in this. He'd had long practice; born a premature baby, he was always among the smallest children in his village of Mayna in Haryana's Rohtak district. "He was always getting into trouble with the bigger guys," his elder brother Ajay told ESPN. "He'd always take them on. If we were flying kites, he would always steal a kite and run away. If the kids were playing marbles, he'd pick some up and dash off. The other kids would try to catch him but they never could. He was always too fast."

That speed -- fast hands and quick feet -- was useful when he started to box at the academy set up in his village by coach Amit Dhankar. "He had a natural ability to judge range and he could very quickly get in and out of range," says Dhankar. "I knew early on that he had a special talent. At first, he would box with other kids who were about as tall as him. But even when they started growing faster than him, he would continue to box with them. He used to box with (current Indian heavyweight) Sanjeet (Kumar) too."

With his natural abilities, it was little surprise to Dhankar that Panghal would go on to win the state title, and the junior national title at age 16 in 2011. Panghal boxed the same elusive way -- sacrificing flourish for accurate single shots -- when he cemented his place in the national team in 2017. It wasn't without success as he won the Commonwealth silver and Asian Games gold in 2018 in the light flyweight.

Panghal would probably have continued to box the same way but for the international boxing association, the AIBA, dropping the light flyweight division from its Olympic programme. That meant he had to move up a division, to 52kg.

Moving up a weight class isn't easy; boxers sacrifice several centimetres of reach and a little more than six percent advantage in muscle and bone mass -- a huge gap at the elite level. Hasanboy Dusmatov, the Olympic champion in the 49kg division, has all but disappeared from the international scene following the introduction of the new weight classes.

Panghal had the skill to succeed despite not making much of an adjustment to his style. Although outweighed and outreached by nearly everyone in the division, he managed to win gold at the 2019 Asian Championships and continued that streak at the 2019 Worlds before the limitations of his style finally caught up to him.

"If it looks like you are less active, it's not something judges favour. His style of fighting was perfect for guys around his height but it usually took him some time to figure out the correct range against boxers who outranged him." Santiago Nieva

Boxers in the flyweight division routinely had a four or five-inch reach advantage over Panghal, so he now had to stand further away from opponents to evade their hitting radius. Consequently, though, he had to move more while making his counter-attack. While this kept him safe, it also limited the amount of time he had to actually throw punches. It also meant that if opponents could defend the one or two-punch combination, they had time to recover their own boxing shape before Panghal made another sortie.

And it didn't look as good. "If it looks like you are less active, it's not something judges favour," says Nieva. "His style of fighting was perfect for guys around his height but it usually took him some time to figure out the correct range against boxers who outranged him. This meant he was cautious in the first round, which his opponent would end up winning. Being defensive-minded cost him in a few bouts."

Panghal also understood that. "If you see my matches in the World Championships, although I was winning, the margins were very close. In the semi-final (against Saken Bibossinov), I was winning only 3-2. I knew that I could not depend on such close margins in big tournaments," he said.

The solution was to change his entire boxing philosophy. Panghal had to become a more risk-taking fighter, put aside the sniping shots from range and let his hands go. "He had to be comfortable boxing in the mid-distance and he had to throw more punches there. That is a dangerous place to be because you don't have distance to protect you," says Dhankar.

But the advantages were obvious as well. Panghal was taking away the long reach of his opponents, forcing them to box on the same terms as he was. He could also pressure them a lot more, forcing errors they might not make otherwise.

Unlearning a lot of what he had trained for wasn't as hard as it might have been. "Amit has always been a very aggressive boxer. He's a guy who ultimately likes to punch his opponent. If he can do that, he's satisfied," says the India's chief national coach CA Kutappa.

Panghal agrees. "I've been an attacking boxer before. The only thing was that I mostly boxed at long range. It wasn't very difficult to change that mindset to stepping in close and throwing more punches."

The problem was time: With the Olympics six months away, Panghal didn't know if he could perfect his new strategy. The postponement of the Games because of the pandemic gave him the time he needed.

It wasn't just tactical changes that had to be made. "Fighting three rounds right in front of your opponent is very draining compared to staying at long range," Panghal says. "To throw more punches, I knew I had to improve my endurance. In the past, I would do three or four rounds of heavy bag work. Now I do six rounds. I've started doing long-distance running as well."

"The fact he is able to stay on his toes for the full three rounds of the match is due to athleticism. He can dodge and evade his rival and at the same time dictate the speed of the fight," says Kuttappa.

Panghal also learned to stay comfortable while constantly under threat. Staying within range doesn't mean being a stationary target and Panghal banks on his footwork and upper body movement rather than distance to cause his opponents to miss. "Right now, I'm having to stay in range of my opponents' punches but I'm very confident my movement is more than enough to slip punches. The normal instinct is to protect yourself but once I get into the flow of it, my momentum takes over. It's almost as if I am able to predict which punch the opponent is going to throw and I am ready for it," he says.

While Panghal was supremely confident in his abilities, what mattered was whether he could replicate it in the ring. His bout with Zoirov confirmed that he could. "Although I consider that bout the best of my career, the fact is I still lost. I still have to improve my endurance, I have to put even more pressure. I have to do even more," he says.

Panghal's new approach makes him unique among this generation of elite flyweights in Olympic boxing. But he isn't without precedent. Nieva compares him to Rafael Lozano, a Spanish amateur who boxed at the Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney Olympics. "Both are southpaw (left-hand dominant) boxers, short but very fast and willing to exchange punches," says Nieva. Lozano won two Olympic medals -- a bronze in 1996 and a silver in 2000.

Panghal now has the chance to emulate those achievements. Zoirov will remain one of his key rivals in Tokyo and should there be a fourth encounter, Nieva is confident which way it will go. "Amit is still a very good long-range puncher but he has added another skill to his game. Because he's maintaining that speed and intensity, he's able to pressure Zoirov constantly. It's a lot harder for someone like Zoirov to deal with," he says.

"The losses are all in the past. The only thing that matters will be how he might do in the Olympics. Right now we know just how much better Amit has become. If Amit and Zoirov meet in the Olympics, it isn't going to be close at all," says Nieva.