NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Vijender Singh ran a finger over his brow, mopped away a bead of sweat and calmly flicked it aside.
It is with the same nonchalance that the trailblazing Indian boxer dismissed talk of pressure and explained why it was imperative to do well at the London Olympics.
In Singh, Indian boxing has found the face to match the fists that were so essential in raising the sport’s profile in a country obsessed with both cricket and celebrity.
The middleweight bronze he won in Beijing four years ago has completely changed the nation’s perception of boxing and Singh is all too aware of how important it is for India’s pugilists to build on that success.
“Beijing did change a lot of things for us,” the pin-up boy of Indian boxing told Reuters in an interview at the sauna-like boxing hall of Delhi’s Karnail Singh Stadium.
“More sponsors stepped in and money started coming in. If we win more medals in London, I know things would become even better,” he said before flying to Kazakhstan this week for an Olympic qualifier.
“I‘m one hundred percent sure it will be better than Beijing. Sumit (Sangwan), Vikas (Krishan Yadav) and Devendro (Singh)... they all are medal prospects. These are the best crop we have and I know we’ll do well in London.”
While Yadav (welterweight) and Devendro Singh (light flyweight) are among the four Indians to have already qualified for London, Sangwan (light heavyweight), Vijender Singh and four more team mates will hope to secure their passage through the April 4-13 qualifiers in Astana.
Singh’s Beijing success has made him Indian boxing’s first real celebrity but he insists he remains the same person he was before the last Olympics.
”Of course, I could go and take a walk around Connaught Place (Delhi’s business district) without being mobbed which I cannot now.
“But honestly speaking, Beijing has not changed my life as much as some people think,” he said, sipping a sports drink.
His claim, however, is rather contradicted by the 26-year-old’s occasional appearances on television shows and catwalks, to go along with frequent sightings of him hobnobbing with Bollywood celebrities.
However, Singh has now set aside such distractions to focus on a second Olympic medal, knowing it will be a considerably tougher assignment than Beijing, where he rose from obscurity.
“We all study opponents but I suspect we forget most of it once we enter the ring,” he said.
“People have studied me before as well but that does not mean I have not won since Beijing,” said Singh, who also claimed a bronze at the 2009 world championship and was ranked world number one in the same year.
”Also, it’s not that I sit idle. I too, watch the bouts of my opponents, study them and plan with my coach.
“I don’t want to share my preparation details but I can assure all that I would not let my country down.”
Editing by John O'Brien