The man who provided today’s boxing stars with the spark, Dingko Singh died on Thursday at the age of 42 after a four-year long battle with cancer

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By Avishek Roy and Rutvick Mehta, New Delhi, Mumbai

UPDATED ON JUN 10, 2021 09:56 PM IST

Vijender Singh vividly remembers that evening in 1998, when, as a boy in his early teens taking baby steps in boxing, he sat wide-eyed in front of a black-and-white TV in his home in Bhiwani, Haryana, and watched the bantamweight final of the Asian Games in Bangkok. A 19-year-old boxer called Dingko Singh was handily beating his opponent, Uzbekistan’s Timur Tulyakov.

“I kept saying, ‘Kya mara hai yaar!’, (Wow, look at that punch!)” Vijender recalled. “I can never forget that final. That very moment, I thought: if he is doing do it, why don’t I?”

Some 2,500 kilometres away from Bhiwani, Suranjoy Singh paints a similar picture, only with a bigger setting in a village in Manipur. “There were about 40-odd kids, and a TV and generator was arranged for us just to watch the fight,” said Suranjoy. “I had just started boxing and his medal showed us that we can reach the stars.”

Suranjoy went on to win an Asian Games bronze and Commonwealth Games gold in 2010, while Vijender went a step higher, clinching a bronze at the 2008 Olympics.

The man who provided them with the spark to become boxers, Dingko Singh, died on Thursday at the age of 42 after a four-year long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

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Dingko’s 1998 gold — the first Asiad gold for Indian boxing in 16 years — had an outsized impact on the sport in the country. He inspired a whole generation of boxers who then went on to put India on the global map in amateur boxing. That list includes Vijender and Suranjoy, but also six-time world champion and Olympic medallist MC Mary Kom and former world and Asian champion L Sarita Devi (who was also coached by Dingko).

Two months ago, Suranjoy, now Indian Navy’s chief boxing coach, was part of a team of coaches that took permission and travelled from Mumbai to Imphal to visit the ailing Dingko at his home. His condition was worsening— he had suffered from Covid-19 in 2020 too — but Dingko was full of life, still talking about boxing.

“I want to do something for India. When I recover, I will start coaching again,” Suranjoy recalled Dingko telling him.

India may be an emerging boxing nation now, but international achievements in the sport were few and far between in the 1990s, and Dingko’s medal was a major milestone. Dingko beat World Cup silver medallist and then World No. 3 Sontaya Wongprates of Thailand in the semi-final in his backyard before defeating Uzbek Tulyakov, who retired in the final.

“He was very passionate,” Gurbax Singh Sandhu, the long-time national boxing coach who was at the helm during the 1998 Asian Games, said. “He was a jolly person but once he lost his temper, he would listen to no one. If he believed something was wrong, he would not shy away from fighting for it — be it with me or the federation’s president. You have to handle such boxers with care.”

Like he had to be days before the Asian Games. Dingko would not have boarded the flight to Bangkok at all, he had been dropped from the Indian squad. It led to him going on a drinking spree and, as coaches close to him said, contemplate suicide. He was eventually added to the squad.

L Ibomcha Singh, the Dronacharya boxing coach from Manipur, was one of the first to get a whiff of Dingko’s feistiness.

Coaching at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal, Ibomcha spotted a kid sneaking inside the boxing hall, often hitting the punching bag or stepping into the ring. He confronted him. “Do you want to box?” he asked Dingko, getting a nod in return.

But the kid — who lost his father early and was staying in a children’s home in Imphal because his mother was struggling to make ends meet for her six children — had not even turned 10. So Ibomcha asked the boy to wait for his turn and keep practising. “From the day I told him that, he came in every morning just to watch others and practice a little himself,” Ibomcha said.

A year later, Dingko was enrolled in the centre and soon enough started to dominate the domestic circuit.

“He was very aggressive, had quick reactions and an incredible ability to hit hard. His boxing philosophy was simple: if my opponent punches me one time, I’ll hit two; if he hits two, I’ll hit three,” Ibomcha said.

After his stint in Imphal, Dingko was picked up by the Navy, which nurtured his boxing in INS, Hamla, in Mumbai, where he later took over as coach from 2009-2013. “His left hook-right cross combination would floor the best boxers,” said the Mumbai-based Jay Kowli, a boxing referee and currently the executive council member of Asian Boxing Federation.

Ibomcha got a first-hand experience of the boxing revolution in Manipur post Dingko’s 1998 exploits. “A few people aged above 35-40 came up to me saying they wanted to learn boxing. I told them it’s too late to play now. They said they didn’t want to compete; their villages didn’t have a boxing coach, so they wanted to pick up the basics of boxing and in turn teach the kids in their village and start boxing there,” Ibomcha said.

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That impact reverberated across the country, and Sarita Devi, the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist from Manipur, felt it on a larger scale. “He was such a big star. Everywhere in the state, he was felicitated. I remember one such ceremony in my village where Dingko came and I just slipped in from the crowd to meet him,” she said.

Sarita later trained under Dingko, who had moved on to coaching after a wrist injury played a part in his career not reaching greater heights post the late 90s boom.

Viren Rasquinha, the former India hockey captain, met Dingko when he was coaching Sarita just before the 2016 Olympics. Sarita was on the roster of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) of which Rasquinha is the CEO.

“When I met him, he was surprisingly mellow. But also extremely disciplined. He did not compromise on the quality of a training session, and in pushing Sarita to the limit. He was sincere, committed, strict and had a great sense of responsibility of what he was doing. He would not talk to me or even look at me till the training session was over. He wouldn’t be distracted by anything. It was typical Dingko: he wouldn’t care about anyone; all he cared about was his boxing and his training,” he said.

Over the last few years while battling his illness, Dingko persistently spoke about his wish to get back to it. “He was so tough. He would never like to talk about his illness and was very positive that he would emerge a winner. ‘I will beat cancer,’ he would tell me,” Sarita said.

“For young boxers who idolised him, like me, it’s a big shock that he won’t be around anymore,” Vijender said. “But his inspiration will never end.”