Boxing: Akash Kumar overcomes personal tragedy to guarantee Bronze after reaching semifinals of World Championships

Akash Kumar celebrates his victory over Yoel Finol at the 2021 AIBA World Championships. AIBA

As he returned home to Paluwas after competing at the Indian boxing nationals in Bellary a month ago, Akash Kumar was excited to see a large crowd. He assumed they had come to congratulate him. After all, it was only a couple of days before that he had won his first senior national title; and with it, confirmed a place in the Indian squad for the World championships. It was only when he came closer that he realized this was no celebratory occasion, but rather, mourners who had come to pay respects to his family. That was the moment Kumar would realise his mother, Santosh Devi, had passed away. He would later learn that the decision to keep her illness and death secret from him was hers, as she hoped to keep him focused on his boxing.

On Tuesday, perhaps a mother's wish was fulfilled.

On Tuesday, India confirmed its first medal from the 2021 AIBA World Championships, after Akash Kumar reached the semifinals of the 54kg bantamweight division in Belgrade. The 21-year-old from Paluwas village, just about a half-hour drive from the boxing town of Bhiwani, beat 2016 Olympic silver medalist Yoel Finol of Venezuela by a unanimous decision to reach the last four and assure himself of a bronze medal. Regardless of how he does in the semifinal, Kumar has already made history, becoming just the 7th Indian to win a medal at the World Championships.

However, while Kumar has gone on to make sporting headlines, it had needed his coaches and family to keep a painful secret. A month ago, as he prepared to take part at the Indian boxing nationals, he had been worried about his mother's failing health. Distracted, he trained in Pune and then travelled to Bellary. Akash's coaches and family assured him all was well even as he boxed at the national boxing championships.

This was not the case. After being diagnosed by a sudden illness, his mother had picked up an unexplained infection that grew steadily worse. However, when the doctors in Bhiwani said there was nothing they could do, she and Akash's family decided they wouldn't let him know. When Akash insisted on speaking to his mother over a video call, she tried to calm his worries.

"Mai thik hu beta. Thik ho jaungi. Tum bas medal pe dhyan do," (I'm fine, son. I'll get better - just focus on the medal.) Santosh Devi would say.

"He was very worried because he was training away from home but after his mother spoke to him he felt a lot better. That was the last time she spoke to him," recalls Bhanwar Singh.

Santosh Devi would pass away on the 14th of September, the eve of his opening bout of the Nationals. Bhanwar Singh would call Narender Rana, the coach of the Armed Services Boxing team, and the current coach of the Indian team and let him know what had happened. "The decision was made to keep his mother's death a secret from him and to let him compete with a free mind. All his coaches and teammates knew what had happened but they took the decision to keep it from him," says Bhanwar.

It was a call he didn't make lightly. Akash had already lost his father to illness when he was just eight. It was Bhanwar - his father's elder brother who had raised him as a son since then. It was to fulfil Akash's father's dream that Bhanwar had supported his boxing career.

"We have a tradition of wrestling in our family. My brother was a very good wrestler who competed in mitti dangals nationally. But back in 2008, he decided Akash, his brother and my son had to learn boxing. A few weeks after he started boxing, Vijender Singh, from Kaluwas village, just near our own, won an Olympic bronze. So that only made that craze for boxing stronger. But just a few months after they started boxing, my brother passed away. But it was to fulfill his dream that they had to become international players that I continued to support their careers," says Bhanwar.

Raising three sportspersons wasn't easy. Money was always tight as Bhanwar raised his family and that of his brother on just his wage as a car driver for a private company in Bhiwani. "I've never thought of Akash and Suraj (Akash's brother) as anything other than my own sons. They also call me papa (father). It was always hard but I made sure the children always got what they needed. Sometimes I'd take loans but it was never something that I thought I didn't need to do," he says.

All three children - who trained at the Hawa Singh Academy in Bhiwani - home of multiple international boxers -- would go on to be good boxers. Akash's brother was a multiple youth champion while his cousin would go on to get a job in the Army under the sports quota - he's currently serving in the Line of control in Ladakh.

It was Akash who was always the boxer everyone expected to do well. "He was someone who was obsessed with boxing. In Haryana, he qualified for the Army Boys Sports Company in 2014 and has represented the Armed Services since then. He competed in the Khelo India Games three times and won gold on each occasion. His next goal was to compete internationally. All of us knew that it was only if he won the national gold that he would be able to compete at the World Championships. That was why his mother and our family decided not to tell him until he returned home," says Bhanwar.

Understandably, Akash was in a state of shock when he returned to Paluwas. "It was a terrible thing to have happened to him. He understood why we hadn't told him. He didn't tell us anything, but for ten nights until he joined the national camp, he would be crying in the night," says Bhanwar.

Ahead of his competition, Bhanwar says Akash was doubly focused on his goal. "I've never seen him so clear about what he had to do. He knew he had a tough bout against the Venezuelan boxer but he was calm. I spoke to him just before the bout and told him stories of his father before some of his toughest matches and how he was able to win. That gave him a lot of confidence too," says Bhanwar.

In Tuesday's bout, Akash would be completely indifferent to the Venezuelan boxer's pedigree. He spent the first round pursuing his opponent, scoring with spearing left handed jabs and doubling with the right cross when his opponent didn't get out of the way after the first punch. A 4-1 score on the cards made the second round easier as Finol had to come to the Indian. That made it easier for Akash to catch the Olympic medalist as he stepped in. A unanimous 5-0 on the judges cards made the final round a formality as Akash was content to drop the round even while staying out of harm's way to ensure a bronze medal.

Bhanwar hopes the historic medal will ease some of the pain Akash feels of his mother's passing. "My heart really breaks for him. Both his parents wanted him to become a great name for India but both of them have passed away now. But I hope he can fulfill all their dreams. I hope he can find some happiness," says Bhanwar.

If Akash's own words are anything to go by, that may just be the case - "This medal means the world to me. I want to dedicate it to my parents. This is my first big tournament and I am extremely proud and emotional. I want to give absolutely everything to bring home the gold medal. I want to thank all my coaches and support staff who have helped me reach here."