In New Delhi on 16 July, Vijender Singh will face his toughest challenge in the ring since turning pro a little more than a year back. He will take on Kerry Hope, a Welsh boxer now settled in Australia, and a former European Middleweight champion, for the vacant WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight title.
For Singh, the challenges are diverse: He has won all six of his pro bouts so far on TKOs (technical knockout – when a referee deems that an opponent cannot fight anymore and stops the fight), and has not had to spend much time in the ring. Only one of those fights — his fifth — went beyond the fourth round; he stopped his opponent in the fifth. Singh, who has only had to fight three-rounders in his long amateur career, will have to find out the hard way if he has the strength and endurance to last ten rounds in the ring if Hope takes him the distance in their title bout, which is a ten-round affair. This is also the first time Singh will be fighting in front of a home crowd, and that brings with it its own challenges.
“I think fighting in Delhi will be a fantastic experience,” Singh says. “I feel great when there is a lot of support for me, and I can’t imagine anywhere in the world where I will get more support than in Delhi. But it also makes things very tense, and you can only deal with that when you are there, at the fight, you can’t prepare for that kind of pressure.”
The title bout is also the first time that Singh will face a fighter of Hope’s experience and calibre — Hope has a record of 23 wins and 7 losses, and has been involved in multiple title fights. During a earlier press conference in June, Hope had dismissed Singh as an inexperienced fighter who has bitten off more than he can chew. “He is a superstar in India but all that has been said about him — Olympics, achievements, medals whatever — is all amateur stuff. I have seen it all, that stuff doesn’t faze me at all,” Hope said. “He has been pro for a year, I have been pro for 12 years. I know the crowd will be behind him but I like being the underdog.”
Hope kept throwing psychological punches after the press conference: “Vijender Singh is in deep trouble,” he said. “He is already scared of me, I saw it in his eyes. He’s fought losers so far, and I’m in a different league. He knows he’s never had to go the distance with anyone, and that he will wilt when he has to do it with me.”
Singh, new to the testosterone-rituals of trash-talking pro boxing, did not have much to say in reply — neither did he look intimidated.
“I am hoping he will come for me,” Singh said. “That’s what I like. The more aggressive he is, the more he will keep himself open, and the more danger he will be in. I like to be calm in the ring, think about my moves.”
Singh’s head trainer, Manchester man Lee Beard, was a little concerned with Singh’s fitness three weeks before the fight though. “He was not where I wanted him to be,” Beard said. “So we upped the intensity. We took him through hell, and hopefully, he’s ready now.”
Another challenge for Singh in this fight is that Hope is a southpaw. “It’s always awkward to fight left-handed fighters,” Singh said. “It can get very confusing in the ring.” Beard says that the training for the last few weeks has been focused on getting Singh ready for a southpaw—there have been minor technical changes made to address the shift in orientation.
“Vijender is very strong, and punches very hard,” Beard said, “But we are not relying on that. For us, it’s skills, skills, skills, all day long. I do believe that Singh will bring Hope down.”
If Singh wins this, he will also make his way into the top 15 of the WBO rankings, and will be a crucial step closer to challenging for a world title.