Asian Championships: Will Amit Panghal be third time lucky against Uzbek nemesis?

Amit Panghal — India’s strongest Olympic medal hope in men’s boxing — will take on reigning Olympic and world champion Shakhobidin Zoirov in the 52kg final.

For Amit Panghal, the Asian Championships gold medal bout on Monday might well be the Olympic dress rehearsal.

Defending champion Panghal — India’s strongest Olympic medal hope in men’s boxing — will take on reigning Olympic and World champion Shakhobidin Zoirov in the 52kg final. With the two flyweight contenders expected to meet in Tokyo next, this is the chance for Panghal to get one over his Uzbek nemesis, who has defeated the Indian twice, including in the final of the 2019 World Championships.

“We know Zoirov really well,” Indian boxing’s High Performance Director Santiago Nieva tells The Indian Express from Dubai. “He is one of the top candidates for the Olympic medal, along with Amit. The experience of fighting him twice tells us a little bit about what strategy to use, but every bout is different. At this stage, you have to be prepared for things that you have to adapt for. Zoirov is at a very good level but he wasn’t unbeatable in 2019 and he is not unbeatable now.”

At the moment, Asia houses several flyweight contenders. There’s Chinese Hu Jianguan, Rio Olympics bronze medallist, who beat Panghal en route the gold at the Asian Qualifiers last year. Also, Thailand’s exciting prospect Thitisan Panmod, who defeated Zoirov at the same event. There’s Kazakh Saken Bibossinov, whom Panghal beat last week in a 2019 Worlds semifinal rematch. But Panghal vs Zoirov is the rivalry to follow in the division.

Recent history

Panghal’s first clash with Zoirov came during a dream run that began in 2018, that brought a Commonwealth Games silver and an Asiad gold. Those medals, however, came as a light flyweight. And once the 49kg category was scrapped from the Olympics, Panghal moved up to 52kg and clinched the 2019 Asian Championships gold and a historic silver at the Worlds, where he lost 0-5 to Zoirov. The key to that loss lies in Panghal’s strategy and stature as a flyweight.

As a 5’2 flyweight, Panghal is a man punching above his weight and height. The Rohtak boy has proven to be a threat to most taller opponents by keeping a distance and looking for openings. If the Asian Championships gold was about cutting in for quick combinations and lunging out, the Worlds silver run was due to Panghal controlling the distance and waiting to counter. Against aggressive, high-pressure opponents, the strategy has worked.

But Zoirov likes to take his time too. The 52kg gold medallist in Rio is a true flyweight — four inches taller with a better build. He is also flashier — guard often chest high if not lower, crisp combinations and timely clinches — an attribute sharpened by his foray into professional boxing. Zoirov won three pro bouts in 2019 before returning to Uzbekistan’s aid after Indians vanquished their previous bogeyman Hasanboy Dusmatov.

“The difference between professional and amateur boxing is that amateur boxing requires more technical skills and more speed in strikes so it’s more difficult, in my opinion,” Zoirov told the Olympic Channel in 2019. “For now, my motivation is to become a two-time Olympic champion – the first from Uzbekistan.”

Strategic side

In the first round of their Worlds final, Panghal kept waiting for an opening. Zoirov, cautious but active, won the round and eventually the contest.

After the fight, Panghal discussed his “slow starts” with this paper.

“I might have to change it a little,” he had said. “In the main bouts, against strong countries, I lose the first round. I cover the points in the later rounds, but the impression from the first round stays in the second as well. I think we would have to switch it up a little. Attack from the first round and continue till the last round.”

Their second meeting was last month at the Governor’s Cup in Russia. There were calibrations to complete for Panghal and confidence to draw from fellow flyweight Deepak Bhoria, who had beaten Zoirov at the Strandja Cup in February. As promised, Panghal came into the fight a more aggressive boxer. Step-in jabs and overhand lefts landed flush on the Uzbek’s face in the first round. Zoirov countered and the bout was more of a slugfest. The result, however, was the same: a 5-0 ruling in Zoirov’s favour, with two judges giving all three rounds to him.

There has been disappointment over the unanimous decisions. After the Worlds final, Panghal had said, “scoreline could’ve been 3-2. But giving him so much confidence with a 5-0 verdict wasn’t right.” Monday is a chance to settle scores.

“Just because Zoirov lost one bout (to Deepak) doesn’t mean he’s down. Same goes for Amit,” says Nieva. “Amit is beating top-quality opponents. In amateur boxing when you compete so many times, you will always lose at some point. Not everybody is (Vasyl) Lomachenko or Felix Savon. We are confident in Amit’s abilities and we know it’s going to be a tough bout.”

Others in action

Shiva Thapa (64kg) and Sanjeet (91kg), who failed to make the cut for the Olympics, will aim for gold at the Asian Championships. Two-time Olympian Thapa, who became the joint-most successful male boxer in the Championships with five consecutive medals, will face Asian Games silver medallist Mongolia’s Baatarsukh Chinzorig. Sanjeet will fight Rio Olympics silver medallist Vassiliy Levit of Kazakhstan, who is chasing his fourth gold medal at the event.

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