Boxing: New weight classes, fresh faces point to exciting Worlds for India

Deepak Bhoria celebrates. Boxing Federation of India

It is a fresh-faced Indian side that is participating in the 2021 AIBA world championships taking place in Belgrade, Serbia. India have never won more than 2 medals at a single tournament - that was at the 2019 edition -- and the preparation for this years' edition have been less than ideal. But with an increased number of weight categories and a diminished field in Belgrade, coaches are optimistic about the teams' hopes.

New-look squad

Of the 11 Indians competing in Belgrade, just two -- two-time Olympian Shiva Thapa and Sanjeet Kumar have any prior experience of competing at the World Championships. Of those two, only Thapa has competed in more than a single world championships. None of the four boxers who represented India at the Olympics are a part of the squad this time since they skipped the national championships in Bellary last month. Only gold medal winners of that competition earned an automatic berth for the team at the Worlds.

While the team is relatively inexperienced, there's no shortage of quality in the ranks. Thapa is a former World bronze medalist and with a relatively open draw in the men's 63.5kg division, could well become the first Indian to win multiple medals at the World championships. Sanjeet, competing at heavyweight (92kg) was a quarterfinalist at the previous edition while Deepak Bhoria (51kg) has a win over 2016 Olympic champion Shakobdin Zoirov and is a former Asian silver medalist himself.

Depleted field

The Indian team isn't the only side with relatively inexperienced faces. With the Olympics having concluded just three months ago, a lot of teams are looking to build their teams again. "This is the first World Championships since the Olympics so a lot of countries are dealing with the similar problems. Some boxers are injured. Others are demotivated. Some have turned professional. Right now we are in a little bit of a transition period. We are going to see many countries come in with a new squad as well," says high performance director Santiago Nieva. Indeed just six of the 52 medalists at the 2020 Olympics will be competing at the world Championships.

Boosted weight divisions

The reduced field will be further thinned out over 11 weight divisions. The 2019 World Championships only featured 8 weight divisions, as did the Tokyo Olympics. However, the weight classes are expected to be rejigged before the 2024 Olympics which means that the weight classes at this year's Worlds aren't even guaranteed to be the ones for the Paris Olympics.

While India is fielding a representative in every weight division, not every country is - Cuba, for instance, has sent a representative in 8 divisions only. Coaches though aren't sure whether the increase in weight divisions might make competition tougher or otherwise.

"There will be some dilution of quality," says Nieva. "In the 2015, 2017 editions there were hardly any stoppages because you only had boxers of a certain quality making their country's teams. This year I don't think everyone will have the quality," he says.

National coach Narender Rana, however, feels that the increased weight divisions might allow boxers who were limited by their weight cutting abilities to have a better chance. "In the past a lot of boxers were good but whose body weight wasn't ideal for the limited number of weight divisions. That will be less of a problem now," he says.

Lack of practice

One factor that could hurt the Indian team is that their preparation for the Worlds hasn't been ideal. The national championships in Bellary were the first competition in many months for the squad and there has only been a 10-day national camp prior to the world championships.

Coach Nieva, though, is optimistic of the team's chances. "They didn't have a very long camp but they have just taken part in a good competition (Nationals) with some good opponents. They aren't going to be at a great disadvantage compared to the other teams at the World Championships. Right now most of the opposition will not have a lot of experienced boxers either so the only factor will be the quality of the individual boxers. I think we have that quality in the squad," he says.