For the last few years, Minakshi would see boxers from her academy – the likes of Jyoti Gulia, Monika, Shiksha Narwal – return with medals from international tournaments. Back home in her village, Rurki in Rohtak, Haryana, people made snide remarks at her progress. “My parents were always very supportive,” said Minakshi. “But some villagers would say, ‘See all the other girls are winning medals. You just go to events for time pass and return empty handed. Girls shouldn’t go out roaming like that.’”
In November, the 21-year-old, who goes by her first name only, replied with a silver medal on her Asian Championships debut. Playing only her second senior international event, Minakshi outpunched Olympian Irish Magno 4-1 in the 52-kg quarterfinal of the ASBC Asian Elite Boxing Championships. She then defeated 2021 bronze medalist Lutsaikhan Altantsetseg of Mongolia by a unanimous 5-0 verdict, but went down 1-4 to Japan’s Kinoshita Rinka 1-4 in the final on November 11.
“This is the best result for me so far,” she said. “But I know I have to work a lot harder.”
Though no one in her family is remotely connected to sport, Minakshi didn’t have to travel too far from home for inspiration. About 400 mteres from her small house stood the Shahid Batun Singh Stadium. She would see some of her school mates go there for training and started accompanying them.
A modest venue, the stadium has been a breeding ground for young boxers for the last 10 years.
“We started a boxing centre at the stadium 10 years ago,” said her childhood coach Vijay Hooda. “Around 80-90 girls, from eight states, train at the centre. Most of the girls come from poor backgrounds and we help them with food, gear, accommodation as much as we can. The centre has already produced 10 boxers who have represented India at international competitions.”
Hooda said the women boxers have given a new identity to their village, earlier known more as a hub for drugs and addicts.
Minakshi had first arrived at the centre — a coy, underweight girl — aged just 12. Her father, Shri Krishan, an auto-rickshaw driver, was the sole earner in the family of six. Minakshi is the youngest of four children and despite the financial crunch, her father was keen that she continue in boxing.
“If I earned ₹200 from driving the auto in a day, I would keep ₹100 for Minakshi’s diet,” said Shri Krishan. Minakshi’s boxing basics were built on a diet mainly of milk, fruits and daal. “Later on, I started working in farms in the morning and would drive the auto till 10 at night. Her mother also helped out. We have a few buffaloes at home, she would go and sell the milk in the village,” he adds.
At the centre, Minakshi would share gloves, procured by the coach, with about half a dozen boxers.
“She took a little longer than the rest to learn the basics,” said coach Hooda. “But she has always been diligent. Since she stays so close to the centre she trains thrice, almost nine hours, a day. She improved a lot once she started sparring with the senior, more experienced boxers here.”
The women boxers of Rurki, bound by their struggles and their love for boxing, pushed each other to greater heights. In 2017, Narwal won bronze at the Asian Championships. In 2021, Gulia upstaged two-time world champion Nazym Kyzaiby of Kazakhstan at the Strandja Memorial Boxing Tournament.
“We support each other a lot,” said Minakshi. “When someone wins a medal, it motivates the rest to train more.”
A former junior national champion, Minakshi has started making a mark at the senior level as well. She won silver (lost to Nikhat Zareen in the final) at last year’s national championships and won gold at 2022 National Games in October. The aggressive boxers currently ranked No 2 in India in the 52-kg category; a weight class currently owned by world champion Zareen.
“It is going to be very difficult for me to break through,” admitted Minakshi, a final year Bachelor of Arts (BA) student. “There is a lot of competition in India in that weight category. Nikhat didi has just won the World Championships (in May 2022), so obviously everyone looks up to her. She is by far the smartest boxer I have come across. I have to work even harder to compete with her.”
With a medal on her continental championships debut, Minakshi has come out fighting.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai