World C’shipPresence And Five Wins Promise New Era

Saparamadu shortly after his win by a knock out

LET the final outcome be told first: none of Sri Lanka’s ten boxers managed a medal at last week’s 28-nation Asian Elite Championships, in Tashkent – and there’s nothing uncommon about that. In fact, no boxer since 1967, when the event went by the name of Asian Boxing Championships, has emulated the deeds of H K Karunaratne and H M Marzook, gold and bronze medallists respectively.

So the failure last week in the Uzbekistan capital really is a story half-century old: i.e. being medal-less since 1967. And that’s depressing. But then not half as depressing as it has been since 2015, the last time when a Sri Lankan boxer, let alone win a medal, failed to win an international bout. The boxers hadn’t figured in international contests last year, but from 2013 or thereabouts through to 2015 all our boxers (bar Gayan Jayaweera’s solitary win at the 2015 President’s Cup meet in Djakarta) didn’t live to fight a second night of any international contest, eliminated as they were in their respective first fights.

Recent history of our boxing being so dispiriting, providentially, news from Tashkent  give reason to believe past’s wretched failures are over and more hopeful times are ahead, albeit there’s no medal to show for such cheery expectation. But there was one achievement in Tashkent that was as heartening as winning a medal: Slimline BC’s light welter weight Dinidu Saparamadu’s success in qualifying for this year’s World Championships, in Aug-Sept in Hamburg. His feat is remarkable, deserving of a champagne toast.

The World Championships is no common-or-garden event. It is considered only second to the Olympics, in prestige and importance. Held biennially between two Olympics, the one held in the year prior to an Olympics provides a credible preview of the next Games’ medal prospects. It is fair to say that a World Championships medal is the next most valued metal after an Olympic medal; the intensity and quality of the two major competitions, though, are pretty much alike. Prior to 2015, participation in the World Championships was unconditional; all AIBA-member countries were entitled to field teams. Since 2015, however, only those finishing in the top six of each of the weight classes in the respective continental trials are entitled to compete in the global event. Saparamadu finished fifth-best in the light welter class in Tashkent and thus won the right to presence at the World Championships. For a better appreciation of Saparamadu’s feat last week one has to refer to our own history in the World Championships.

We fielded a team for the first time in 2007 and since figured consecutively till the 2013 championships. In the four championships during that nine-year period, a total of ten Sri Lankan boxers competed – and all, bar Anuradha Rathnayake, didn’t survive beyond the opening night. Incidentally, it was in the 2007 event, in Chicago, that Rathnayake qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; he won two of his three fights in the ‘worlds’ to clinch one of the six slots for Beijing Olympic.

The list of ten Sri Lankan World Championships representatives include the redoubtable Manju Wanniarachchi and Kamal Sameera, both of who went to the 2007 World competition with their career records, at that point in time, unspoilt by any defeat in domestic competitions. Saparamadu’s World Championships qualification in Tashkent deserves greater credit. Unlike the ten Sri Lankans before him who didn’t have to qualify, the 25-year-old Pannala Central alumnus right to presence at the next World Championships didn’t come gratis; he had to fight his way to be among the top six in his weight class against Asia’s cream. And in finishing fifth, he became only the second Sri Lankan boxer in recent history to win an international bout by a knockout; the first was Wanniarachchi in the 2007 dual contest against Tanzania in Colombo.  In Tashkent, the bout was barely 40 seconds old when southpaw Saparamadu let fly a crunching left hook to his Iraqi opponent’s chin, a punch that sent the latter to the floor and kept him there for the full count. In his next bout the Sri Lankan was outpointed by a Mongolian, who went on to win bronze. Saparamadu’s third fight was to decide the fifth qualifier for the World Championships, but his Chinese-Taipei opponent conceded a walkover, leaving the Sri Lankan to prepare to take on the world.

Tashkent provided three other reasons why the ABA can be hopeful of a new dawning, following three-four years of darkness in which all of its representatives, except one, was sent packing home on the opening night of international meets. This time round though, three other boxers survived their respective first fights but were put out on the next night. Yet, that won’t take away ABA’s smiles – after all, three first-round wins is far better than countless one-night stands.  Light-fly Thiwanka Ranasinghe, winner last month in the 16-nation international contest in Paris, won his first bout convincingly against a Malaysian, but in his next bout was unfortunate to confront Rio Olympic gold medallist, Dusmatov Hasenbhoy, of host country Uzbekistan. Ranasinghe wasn’t overawed by his opponent’s reputation and relentlessly carried the fight to the Uzbek, which wasn’t quite the right choice of strategy against the world’s no.1 light-fly, thought ABA officials present in Tashkent.

The judges voted unanimously in favour of the Uzbek, but Ranasinghe’s performance was anything but a disgrace. The popular belief was that, given a more cordial draw that prevented Ranasinghe from a second-round meeting with the eventual gold medallist, the Hela BC boxer might not have been far from a medal. “I think the defeat will leave him (Ranasinnghe) much wiser,’’ said an official.

Fly weight Ranjiva Bandara and Light weight Gayan Jayaweera, both 26 years, too won a fight each. Soldier Bandara outpointed his opponent from Tajikistan, but in his next encounter was defeated by a Filipino, who won bronze; Slimline BC’s Gayan Jayaweera overcame his Bhutanese opponent on the opening night, but next night was outpointed by a Mongolian, the eventual bronze medallist.

Sri Lanka’s final tally at Tashkent: four boxers collectively won five fights; six boxers didn’t win any; unranked in 2015, we finished 13th in the Asian rankings. It might not be an exemplary record, but set alongside successive years of first-round eliminations, the Tashkent posting is… well, an oasis in an endless desert.

For more reasons than one the Tashkent achievement is commendable. It should not be forgotten the team departed virtually unprepared. The national pool had been disbanded for much of last year and the national coach from Cuba had gone back home. In fact, the ten-man team might not have been in Tashkent at all, but for nominated president, Dian Gomes’ desire to jump-start ABA’s international campaign program, forsaken over the past 14 months or so by some officials choosing to shift resources and emphasis to domestic competitions at the expense of achieving international goals.

It is ironical that a team that was as good as hustled into a Tashkent-bound flight and told to go fight the cream of Asian boxers should return home with a far more impressive record than the better-prepared teams of recent years.  “For more than a decade our boxers figured in at least six overseas meets annually – and such frequency, I believe, led them to taking international participation for granted,’’ said Lt. Col (ret.) Hemantha Weerasinghe, Secretary of Hela BC. “(But) fourteen months without overseas competition – and they realised foreign exposure can’t be assumed. My own feeling is: they fought (in Tashkent) as if their next trip to an international ring depended on what they did here and now.’’ That attitude is in stark contrast to the presumptuousness of old. It would be to the next ABA committee’s benefit to establish this new attitude as its guiding principle – i.e. a boxer is only as good as his last fight.

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