Deepak Bhoria

Indian flyweight Deepak Bhoria beats world champion Zoirov to enter finals of Strandja Memorial

Deepak Bhoria

23-year-old Deepak, who got a silver medal at the 2019 Asian Championships in the 49kg category before moving up to 52 kg, showed his dominance in the opening round with straight and cross punches.

At the Strandja Memorial Tournament on Friday, Indian flyweight Deepak Bhoria defeated the reigning Olympic and world champion Shakhobidin Zoirov; a memorable upset, the blueprint of which was laid out in 2019. Bhoria remembers the copious notes taken during compatriot Amit Panghal’s 2019 world championship final loss to Zoirov.

“I remember each moment of Amit bhai’s bout against Zoirov that day and I would imagine facing him in my practice sessions,” Bhoria, who beat Zoirov 4-1 in the 52kg semifinal, tells from Sofia, Bulgaria. “To beat the Olympic and world champion today is the biggest confidence booster for me. To win against such a boxer helps you mentally as well tactically.”

The 23-year-old — who got a silver medal at the 2019 Asian Championships in the 49kg category before moving up to 52kg — showed his dominance in the opening round with straight and cross punches. That he managed to tire the Uzbek as the bout progressed also worked in the Hisar boxer’s favour. “The idea was to attack from the first round. The Uzbek boxers are good power punchers from a distance and my aim was to counter and not give him time,” explains Bhoria after the win.

Weight woes

It was in 2008 that a young Bhoria accompanied father Surinder, a home guard constable, and uncle Ravinder to the Universal Boxing Academy in Hisar. There, coach Rajesh Sheoran was left impressed by the youngster’s reaction time and range of punches after days of training.

“The day he came to train under me, I was impressed by his reaction time and accuracy. Such things came naturally to him and the only job I did was to make him master those techniques,” says Sheoran. “Financial difficulties did mean that he did not have a proper diet and I remember him being underweight for the 28-38kg categories at the junior level. Sometimes he had to drink lots of water prior to the weighing days to make weight. But his grasping power made him excel. He could display left punch and right cross punch apart from the uppercut with accuracy even at that time and it helped him grow as a boxer.”

While Bhoria would go on to become the national champion in the 49kg category in 2018 apart from winning the gold medal at the 2019 Makran Cup and the 2019 Asian Championships, his average weight would always be more than 54 Kgs. At Hisar, coach Sheoran insisted he moved up. “I have seen him losing 4-5kg prior to the events to compete in 49. Though he had success at the weight, but with his body mass increasing with age, I had a discussion with him to choose 52kg,” remembers Sheoran.

Bhoria made the shift to flyweight — a category dominated by Panghal for the last three years — but it also meant some adjustments to his game. Bhoria lost in the opening round of the Stradja Memorial last year.

“We had to work on his strength,” says national coach Jay Patil. “His speed is naturally good so we just had to focus on strength and his core fitness. Against Zoirov today, his balance did not suffer even once and it helped him to land his punches with more accuracy.”

Mastering the Uzbek

A reason behind Panghal’s close defeat to Zoirov in the Worlds final was the slow first round. On Friday, Bhoria’s mix of cross punches, straight punches and left jabs put the 5’7 Uzbek on the back foot and the Indian won the opening round 4:1. The second round saw the Uzbek tiring a little and Bhoria took advantage with another 4:1, before inching the third 3:2

“We wanted Deepak to attack from the start and when the Uzbek came closer, Deepak avoided his hooks and used combinations. The fact that Deepak is younger and can pace his rounds helped him,” says national coach Jagdeep Hooda.

India’s chief high-performance director Santiago Nieva too watched the bout after the Indian team’s training session at Bellary, Andhra Pradesh. “Deepak was always there to hit back when the Uzbek hit in the first round and in boxing terms, he showed no respect to the Olympic champion. Be it a clinching situation or on the mat, Deepak’s aggression worked for him. Apart from the straight punches and left hook, Deepak surprised him with the right punch too. I love this mentality to attack,” shared Nieva.

Comparison with Panghal

While Panghal and Bhoria have not faced each other in trials in the 52 Kg category, Nieva sees both as different boxers. The only time both the boxers faced each other in recent times was during the Inter-Services Championship in 2017 where Bhoria won against the then world championship quarter-finalist Panghal by a split 3:2 decision.Deepak BhoriaDeepak Bhoria had lost in the opening round of the Stradja Memorial last year. (Special arrangement)

“Both of them are very different boxers. While Deepak is a textbook manual style of boxer, Amit’s unconventional approach and explosiveness make him different. Against Zoirov in the world championships, Amit played him from a long distance in the opening round and while I believe Amit won the next two rounds, the opening round did hamper his chances,” says Nieva. “Amit has improved on that aspect now. Deepak meanwhile is a mix of classical and counter puncher and his good balance and footwork were on display today when the Uzbek played from distance. Deepak places himself in good positions and it helps him,” says Nieva.

Panghal — who spent a good chunk of Friday evening retweeting the headlines Bhoria made — will be India’s 52kg contender at the Tokyo Olympics. For now, Nieva is happy with Bhoria’s rise. “Well, it will be a good dilemma to have post the Olympics. Both of them have sparred together and we know what Deepak could do in the sparring against a boxer like Amit. It’s good to have such a pool,” says Nieva.

Bhoria sees Amit as a motivator, friend and inspiration. “Amit bhai has been an inspiration and I often watch him for his explosive punches and the way he comes with a combination of punches together. I understand that he became a world championship silver medallist not just in a single day. He worked hard to get to number one. I have to do the same if I have to beat him one day,” he says.