"Fear his fire. Fear his fervour. Fear his fist. Bow to the devil!"
That was the message that played on the big screens as Vijender Singh made a slow, calculated, swagger-filled entrance for his big fight, with 'Singh is King' playing in the background. The crowd at the Thyagaraja Sports Complex, near full capacity, were captivated. This was the fight they were waiting for all evening. Almost every cellphone in the stadium was pointed at Vijender, their screens and flash lighting up the stadium. Chants of "Vijender! Vijender!" almost brought the roof down. This was the fight the crowd were waiting for, the nation was waiting for. India's most popular boxer was back in India for a fight after six long years.
And he did not disappoint. Vijender Singh was taken the distance for the first time in his professional career by Kerry Hope but he punched his way to what he and his promoters hope is the first of many belts.
The win did not come easy. When Vijender came flying out of the blocks in the first round, it seemed like a seventh knockout win was on the cards. But Kerry Hope, just as it was predicted before big fight, proved to be a tough nut to crack. The 34-year-old veteran, with the experience of 30 professional bouts, was determined to hang in.
He knew Vijender would be under pressure the longer the fight went. After all, Vijender was an amateur all his life, where bouts last for three rounds. He knocked out opponents in his first six bouts. The longest he had fought was when he took five rounds to knock out Matiouze Royer his fifth bout. And add to this all the travel in the days leading up to this fight -- he was in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi promoting the bout -- Hope's biggest hope was to make Vijender stay in the ring as long as possible.
But the man from Bhiwani showed he was ready for it. For the first time in his short professional career, Vijender showed he can go the distance. He showed he can play the waiting game. Even as the crowd went silent in frustration for a bit in the fifth round -- the first time one could actually hear what Hope's trainer was yelling from his corner -- Vijender did not lose his composure. After swinging and missing in the early stages, Hope was landing more punches. There were 'oooohs' from crowd, who were otherwise cheering even when Vijender missed his punches. For the first, and maybe the only time in the evening, there was a sense that he was struggling.
But in the sixth round, arguably the round that clinched the fight for Vijender, the boy from Bhiwani came out with all his might, landed three perfectly-timed right hooks that got the crowd roaring. The "Singh is King" chants soon followed. The swag was back in his footing as he went back to his corner.
At the end of the fight, as is customary in bouts that go the distance, both the fighters were celebrating. But after a few agonising minutes of waiting, the decision was announced.
India had a new boxing champion. Undisputed, unanimous.
"This belt means a lot of things. It is all about hard work, dedication and it is all about my country. It is just the beginning," said Vijender after the win.
After all the build-up to the big fight, defeat was not an option for Vijender. That showed in his calculated, even conservative approach in taking Hope down. It's a sporting cliche, but on the night, simply getting the win mattered more than how he got there. Where he goes from here will become more clear in the coming days. There have been murmurs of a fight against Amir Khan -- the India-Pakistan angle is too lucrative for the promoters to not consider it. His promoter, Francis Warren, talked up the chances of that happening after the fight as well before saying a shot at the commonwealth title is more likely.
But for now, Vijender must savour this win. It has taken him a year of hard work away from home, in Manchester, to get his homecoming gift. In his own words, and his trainer's, it was by no means an easy path to glory. Hours of running on the tracks of the Manchester City stadium, days of sparring and months of building his endurance came to fruiton in front of a raucous crowd on Saturday night.
The promoters promised a night to remember and Vijender gave his fans exactly that.