Former Commonwealth Games gold-medallist Manoj Kumar (64kg) stunned ex-Olympic bronze-medallist Evaldas Petrauskas in a fiercely-contested opening bout to enter the pre-quarterfinals of the Rio Games.
Manoj prevailed 2-1 in the hard-fought battle in which he had to hold his ground against the intense aggression displayed by Lithuanian Petrauskas in all three rounds.
A former Asian bronze-medallist, Manoj will next be up against fifth seed Uzbek Fazliddin Gaibnazarov in the pre-quarters scheduled on Sunday.
Evenly-matched on pace and agility, the two boxers were quite distinct in their attacking approach.
While Petrauskas, the London Olympics bronze winner in lightweight 60kg division, aggressively tried to engage the Indian from close range, Manoj preferred to back-peddle and hit from a distance.
At the end of the opening three minutes, it was Manoj’s tactics that found favour with the judges, who awarded the first round to the former Commonwealth Games gold-medallist on a split decision.
In the second round too, Petrauskas was the more aggressive of the two but Manoj managed to stave off the challenge by sticking to his strategy of keeping a distance and hitting occasional uppercuts to the Lithuanian’s body.
None of the boxers were willing to make any change to their strategy in the final three minutes as well although the desperate attacks launched by Petrauskas did unnerve Manoj to an extent.
The pumped up effort secured Petrauskas the final round but it was not enough to turn the bout in his favour as Manoj was adjudged the winner.
Manoj joined 7th seed Vikas Krishan (75kg) as the second Indian in the pre-quarters. Tomorrow, Shiva Thapa will open his campaign in the bantamweight (56kg) category.
Having made his second successive pre-quarters in the Olympics, Manoj said it’s his hard work that has showed him the way.
“Hard punch is not God’s gift, you’re dead if it hits your chin. It’s the result of my 20 years’ struggle that has given me the result,” Manoj said.
“Nothing is god-gifted, it’s my hard work that helped me.”
Speaking of his rival in the opening bout, Manoj said he did not go in with a set plan in the ring.
“You get height advantage but he also had powerful punches. You have to fight accordingly. There’s hardly any time to think inside the ring. I played according to his punches. I knew he would be tough,” he said.
Hailing from a boxing family in a tiny village of population about 30,000 Manoj was brought into the ring by his elder brother Rajesh Kumar.
“If Bhiwani took 11 golds the 12th one was from our family in Haryana. Bhiwani has a stronghold in boxing because of the infrastructure there but we have also proved our mettle.”
The Railways boxer further thanked the whole nation for supporting him.
“India is my family. Everyone is praying for me. Their best wishes have made me successful. We will see in the ring.
If I have ability, I will try hard in the ring, nothing else,” he said.
Lavishing praise on Manoj, national boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu said, “It was a superb performance. Beating an Olympic medallist is not easy; kudos to him.”
“He was the one to have qualified last. He represents a remote village, he’s very strong and determined, supported by a sporting family. That he was taking on an Olympic medallist did affect his mind but he put up a solid show,” he said.