Long time followers of professional boxing will tell you that the weigh in and face off before a big fight is almost as exciting as the action that unfolds in the ring. It gets the adrenaline going. Onlookers realise that the boxers don't mean what they say most of the time, that it is all part of the package. (Unless it's Tyson Fury and Wladimir Klitschko, where sexism, homophobia and cheating were just some of the topics that were covered, in one of the craziest face-offs in the history of face-offs.) There is confetti, loud cheering, and staring contests that last longer than the time it takes to make instant noodles.
Well, the first big face-off in India was nothing like that. Vijender Singh's big title fight in New Delhi had a whimper of a prelude. The event started fashionably late. The organisers were scampering around most of the time trying to get a light-fixture fixed or taking care of the assembled media. The air-conditioner inside the hall was not fully functional -- it is not often during a Delhi summer that you think you'd rather be outside in the heat than inside a building.
The undercard fighters (boxers contesting the smaller fights leading up to the main event) looked positively confused on the stage with Charu Sharma, presenter of the show, egging people to get closer -- some boxers had a face-off, standing four or five feet apart. Even Vijender's face-off with Kerry Hope was as mild as it could be. The post face-off trash talk was playful banter at best. There was no confetti. There was no audience to cheer. And it was the famous track from 'Rocky', blaring in the speakers, on an infinite loop. Of course.
But one thing stood out from the event -- how everyone who got a chance to say something on the stage referred to tonight's fight as a watershed moment in Indian boxing. How this is anything unlike India has seen before. How this could usher in a new era. And it is difficult to argue with that sentiment. The event, if anything, was merely an indication of how new the concept of pro-boxing is in India.
Vijender put it perfectly when he said this fight was not just about him. It is about the exposure for budding boxers in India, some of who will be fighting before what is expected to be a packed audience at the Thyagaraja Sports Complex. "I want boxers in India to know there is a career waiting for them," he said. He got the biggest cheer from the assembled crowd when he made a plea to his friends to stop asking for free passes, because that is not going to help Indian boxing.
And this is where the outcome of tonight's fight becomes crucial. The face off did not set anyone's pulse racing but Vijender simply has to win his title bout to kick-start this new era. Singh has to be king of the ring.
The title fight in itself promises to be interesting with Hope by far the most accomplished pro-boxer Vijender has faced in his career so far. The 34-year-old Australian southpaw has a 23-7 record and held the European middleweight title in 2012 when he was still representing Wales. He has pedigree. He has the experience.
Vijender starts as an outright favourite. Coming in to the fight with an unbeaten record, the boy from Bhiwani, Haryana will be fighting in India after a gap of six long years. The 5000-odd seating capacity of the stadium is expected to be fully occupied and along with that comes pressure -- the pressure to not let his country down. As he and his team repeatedly insisted, it's a question of when, not if, that Vijender will win his first title.
Francis Warren, Vijender's high-profile promoter, told ScoopWhoop on the sidelines of the event that he has not even considered the consequences of Vijender losing against Hope.
At stake is a top 15 ranking in the WBO world super middleweight ratings. It promises to be a fascinating evening. And despite the hiccups in the lead up to the fight, the hype has been created. Expectations have been set. The country will be watching as it's most famous boxer takes to the ring for, arguably, the biggest fight of his life. A win does not guarantee that professional boxing is going to take off in India big time.
But defeat is simply not an option.