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Nitu Ghangas carving her place, one punch at a time

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Driving from the national capital to Bhiwani provides a throwback of sorts. The yawning land patches where protesting farmers camped for 18 months lie buried under the relentless city traffic. The buzzing toll booths that doubled as police outposts, the pristine mustard fields on either side of NH9, the industrious women tending to the fields, the eager SUVs whizzing by. Moments pass in a time-lapse.

The sprawling highway merges into dusty bylanes of Dhanana village as seamlessly as the breezy morning melts into the stifling afternoon heat. There may even be an odd mirage at a distance, but there’s nothing deceptive about Nitu Ghangas’ growing stature in Indian boxing. You know it the moment you mention her. Ask for ‘the girl who boxes’ or simply ‘Nitu boxer’, and with wide eyes and puffed chests, the lolling men and shrieking kids point at the spacious house at the end of a winding bylane.

The impoverished living room is a patchwork of Nitu’s medals and gear, and greeting visitors first-up is a punching bag that hangs proudly from the ceiling, in the centre of the room. Fair to say, it’s the centre of Nitu’s life too.

“This is all I have. It is my everything,” she laughs. The 21-year-old, in fact, is a giggle-a-minute riot. “You know, I once drove a car straight into a stationary tractor. I am a disaster behind the wheels,” she goes, completely out of context, before breaking into another hysterical cackle.

Joining BBC

Growing up, Nitu was a fairly unremarkable child, sharp at studies but listlessly going through her classes. Then, one day, her father Jai Bhagwan took her to Jagdish Kumar, founder of the famed Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC).

Jagdish took a good look at the scrawny kid and asked her to gear up. “She looked quite frail, to be honest. I don’t send kids back without giving them a fair trial, so I asked her to get in the ring.”

Unaware of the nuances of stance and positions, Nitu took a wild swing that thudded in Jagdish’s pad. The coach was impressed. “I won’t say it was the most powerful punch I had seen, but it was a hard punch. Plus, she was a natural southpaw.” The journey began.

“It was May 2, 2012. How can I forget?” says Nitu. “I felt I found a purpose. I came home happy. I began looking forward to evenings so that I could train.”

For all the commitment to her craft, Nitu’s foray into boxing was an accident. Over a decade back, Jai Bhagwan once accompanied Manoj Kumar, father of Sakshi Chaudhary, another talented boxer from Bhiwani, to a badminton academy in Chandigarh. The facility inducted only under-10 athletes, and Sakshi was overage by a few months. So, they were turned back.

The decision to check out Bhiwani’s boxing academy was reached on the bus journey back home, “just to have a look.” Once there, Jai Bhagwan and Kumar were fascinated by the sport and decided to introduce their girls to it.

Nitu Ghangas with her family(HT photo/Sanchit Khanna)

Unsurprisingly, there was resistance at home. “You know how people used to react to girls taking up outdoor sports in Haryana. Things are very different now but a decade back, people objected to me putting Nitu in a boxing academy. Even I had my reservations, but when I saw Nitu happy, I was convinced.”

That meant Jai Bhagwan, who works as a ‘bill messenger’ in Haryana Legislative Assembly, had to squeeze time for his daughter. It was a gargantuan task, considering he was posted in Chandigarh, about 270km away. Jai Bhagwan’s attendance at the office began to dwindle, and one day in 2015, he simply stopped going to work. A three-year leave without pay period followed.

“My family, especially my elder brother and wife were aghast. They said I was ruining the family, but I was adamant. I knew Nitu needed me,” he says, currently serving a suspension from work.

The 52-year-old doesn’t recall the last time he received his full salary. “Not more than four times in seven years, I think. But that’s a small price to pay for my child’s future. I have devoted my life to Nitu and her boxing,” says Jai Bhagwan, who has turned to farming on his four-acre farmland.

Nitu’s grooming at BBC lasted five years before she was called to the national youth camp. Jagdish drilled in her the virtues intrinsic to the famed academy. “I can’t remember Nitu being late for a session, ever. Even when it rained heavily, she and Jai Bhagwan would be waiting for me at the gates,” says Jagdish.

For Nitu, impressing Jagdish was like baptism of fire. “First few months were brutal. I was soundly thrashed in the ring. No mercy. My body broke, my bones ached, but my spirit survived. I was determined to make a name for myself,” she recalls.

Nitu training with her coach Jagdish(HT photo/Sanchit Khanna)
Nitu training with her coach Jagdish(HT photo/Sanchit Khanna)

The inspiration was right there. The walls of BBC are adorned by giant posters of boxing stars that the academy has thrown up. Beijing bronze medallist Vijender Singh is ubiquitous, and the likes of Kavita Chahal and Vikas Krishan Yadav occupy prime real estate.

Jagdish’s criterion was simple: become an Olympian or a world championships medallist, and there’ll be a framed picture on the wall. “I always wanted my poster there. The space was filling up really fast, and I wondered that by the time I am good enough to get there, there’ll be no place left.”

She chugged along, carving her place, one punch at a time. Challenges arrived in the form of self-doubts and potent opponents, chief among the latter being Jyoti Gulia. A fearless puncher, Gulia beat Nitu at the Haryana State Championships in 2013 and 2014, besides overpowering her in numerous practice bouts.

Nitu finally had her revenge at the State Championships final in 2015, ending Gulia’s stranglehold over her. “She was getting into my head a bit,” she says of Gulia. “I don’t remember losing to her thereafter. That was a big turning point in my career as it gave me a lot of self-belief.”

The accident

Nitu’s young career seemed primed to take off before a freak incident almost ended her dream. Then 15, Nitu failed to control her two-wheeler near her house and rammed into a stationary tractor, injuring her pelvic bone.

“I was in tremendous pain. At first, nobody paid any attention, but then came a stage when I could not turn to my right,” she remembers. Unmindful, Nitu participated in the school national championship in 2015 and boxed through the pain to win gold.

At the academy, she was too scared to ask for a break from Jagdish. “I was petrified. I thought he would think I was making excuses.” So, Nitu carried on, often weeping and writhing through her training sessions.”

Eventually, the pain became too much to handle, and an X-ray revealed a hairline fracture in the left hip. Two months of physiotherapy followed at Delhi’s Safdarjang Hospital, during which Nitu continued to train her upper body at home.

By 2016, she was fit to hit the ring again and claimed a bronze at school national championships. The same year, she was selected for the National Boxing Academy in Rohtak.

A gold at the youth world championships in Guwahati arrived in 2017, prompting coach Jagdish to put Nitu’s picture on one of the walls at his academy. An early dream realised, Nitu defended her title in Budapest in 2018. Big league beckoned, but Nitu’s march was cut short by another injury, this time to her left wrist.

Shoulder injury

A natural southpaw, she began punching from her right hand, and was good enough to win the Haryana State Championship in April, 2019. However, the unusual strain on her right hand soon took its toll.

“I fought four bouts in tremendous pain. My right hand was not used to that kind of load,” she says.

By October 2019, her right shoulder gave way. A Grade 2 tear due to overload was diagnosed. “In hindsight, that was a stupid mistake on my part. I never stopped training and continued to pop painkillers and fight. But when you are a young, upcoming boxer eager to make a mark, you end up stretching the limit too far.”

That injury forced Nitu out of national camp, and a few months later, Covid-19 struck. Out of camp and worried for her career, she began training at home.

“I was in a very dark place, honestly. I thought of giving up boxing. I could never think straight. Then, as my shoulder healed, I slowly began to train at home. Later, my father would sneak me to the academy during the lockdown.”

Big fight in Sofia

Gradually, power returned to her punches, as did top finishes and state and national championships (2021). The Strandja Memorial gold in Bulgaria came in early March, firmly establishing her claim to the big league.

A day before her big fight in Sofia, Nitu wandered into a boxing arena, a stone’s throw from the venue of her final. The rings were buzzing with ousted pugilists going about their routines, but in her mind’s eye, Nitu was watching her younger self tame a home favourite, in front of a pulsating crowd, to win her maiden international gold five years back.

That Balkan International title was Nitu’s first major success at the youth level, and she wanted to feed off happy memories. “It all came rushing back,” she recalls. “I remembered the raucous home crowd, the thrill of beating a local girl, and the distinct feel of the sense of belonging.”

Next day, she beat Italy’s youth world championships bronze medallist Erika Prisciandro 5-0. Back in Bhiwani, Jai Bhagwan threw a huge party. “I have never felt prouder. People around call her ‘the girl who boxes’. It’s a wonderful identity that she has earned,” he says.

She went on to win the world championships trials held in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium, before losing to 2019 world silver medallist Manju Rani at the Asian Games trials (51 kg). Slightly better scheduling and Nitu believes she could have set up a final against an in-form Nikhat Zareen for the continental event.

“There was hardly a two-day gap between the two trials. To recover from a bout and make weight for the higher category in such a short time frame is not easy. I did that by having lots of water, but the body had no strength.

“I won my first bout at the Asiad trials, but it took a lot out of me. I was a sitting duck to Manju who was way more powerful. It would have been great to be able to make it to the Asian Games, but I can take solace from the fact that I gave it my all. Perhaps it wasn’t my day.”

The lower weight classes (48-51kgs), in fact, are usually ultra-competitive with a steady stream of younger, faster boxers trooping in. Alongside Nitu, boxers such as Nikhat, Jyoti Gulia, Manju, and MC Mary Kom make the division very challenging. The Commonwealth Games trials, expected in June, are likely to be spicy.

“I don’t get overawed by big names anymore. I am ready to fight,” she giggles.

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