DELHI, India—Even as he walks around my makeshift office, the boxer moves with confident grace. He is tall and strikingly handsome, which is one reason, certainly, for his escalating celebrity, and he sits down eagerly, like he’s going to his corner after a good round, and looking forward to the next. He’s ready for the interview.
“I want to win every fight,” says Vijender Singh, India’s middleweight champion and Olympic bronze medalist. “I don’t have some big dream to become world champion. I want to go step by step. Slow and steady, win the race. I want to take each and every fight as one step. Achieve one thing, and then go for the next one… There’s a road map.”
We happen to be living in the same building and we’ve moved the interview upstairs to my place because of the noise—your standard Delhi backdrop of barking dogs, exotic birds, occasional howling monkeys, incessant honking car horns and in this case his many screaming nephews and nieces who adore him like some kind of superhero.“Is it okay if am wearing shorts?” he asks as he feels the much-wanted air-conditioning waft over him.
The boxer has a reputation for surprise. After winning the title fight against China’s number one man, Zulpikar Maimaitiali, in the dual WBO Asia Pacific Super Middleweight and WBO Oriental Super Middleweight title this August, Singh offered the belt back to China’s Maimaitiali, asking only for peace between their two countries.
It was a gesture that made headlines in much of the world, including The Guardian and The Independent in Great Britain. And it came at a time when China and India were poised for a major, very violent, and potentially disastrous confrontation, as Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project at Brookings, reported in The Daily Beast in early August.
Near the Indian/Chinese border inside Bhutan, at the infamous “Chicken Neck” a.k.a. the Siliguri Corridor, Indian and Chinese troops were positioned on either side of the tiny sliver of land that connects Assam to the rest of India. The escalation in the 60-year-long standoff was a result of the Chinese building a road from Tibet to Bhutan, and war had begun to seem all but inevitable.
“The two rival armies—China and India—face each other only yards apart,” Riedel wrote. “The media on both sides have exacerbated the tensions, but since the Chinese media are state controlled their hyperbole is especially dangerous.”
Both India and China hyped the Vijender Singh vs. Zulpikar Maimaitiali match as a fight between two nations. It fit nicely into the saber rattling narrative both countries were pushing.
“At that time you know the situation was very bad,“ said Singh. “I wanted to show them that we are neighbors.”
People in the United States were mostly oblivious to all this. They may obsess about their own sports heroes, especially when those athletes draw attention to injustice and invite the Tswitter ire of President Donald Trump. But Americans generally don’t know the names of sports stars in other parts of the world, and even if they do they don’t remember the many wars that people in India, for instance, remember all too vividly.
“My grandfather was in the army,” said Singh. (It was Singh’s grandfather, who boxed in the Indian army, who inspired Singh to take up the sport.) Singh’s older brother fought in the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999. “I know what it feels like—how families will suffer,” he said.
But today the boxer is boldly optimistic. In the weeks following his gesture to defuse the crisis, perhaps even in part because of it, the armies pulled back.
In response to Singh’s offer of the title belt Maimaitiali, who is part of China’s predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighur minority, laughingly placed his prayer cap on Vijender Singh’s head, yet another potentially controversial move in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s uber-nationalist pro-Hindia India. But Singh took the gesture in stride. The two fighters embraced.
“I had asked him before the fight, ‘Why are you wearing that cap? I need that cap.’ So when the fight was over he gave it to me,” Singh explained, grinning.
“Lot’s of people tell me, ‘you are celebrating India,’ but I don’t feel like that,” said Singh. “I am a normal man. I go around and take selfies… I belong to a small village… I don’t take the stardom to my head. It’s sports. Play it like sports. If you want to give a message through sports: it’s a peace message; it’s a good thing. So you can do it right? Don’t hesitate… Come on, man. It’s all about your society. It’s all about friendship. It’s all about peace. That’s it.”
As a fighter, Singh is lucky. Maimaitiali’s heavy punches nearly dropped him in the 9th round. Yet the 31-year-old fighter held on, made the most of his quickness, his height and his reach, and ultimately found victory over his 23-year-old opponent in the 10th round. It was a close fight. “My last three or four rounds were not good because I can do better than that. But you know everything was not going to my plan. … So I changed my game plan.” After the fight came the moment of the two fighters’ grinning photogenic embrace. Had Singh calculated the political or diplomatic effect?
“I felt like it, and I did it. It’s not preplanned. It’s not like somebody was telling me [to do it] or something like that. I feel like that because I know. I went to China some seven or eight times. I got the Olympic medal in China. They are nice people of course… What’s the problem in that? It’s a peace message and I hope they will like it.”
Vijender Singh, who is already an Indian celebrity, TV star, and model (he recently launched his own clothing line), probably knew that the move would play well. And he’s certainly aware that the easing of tensions probably had more to do with the two nations’ mutual nuclear deterrence: both are sane enough not to provoke an apocalypse.
But symbols are important, especially in the midst of the kind of media frenzy that existed in August. And this Indian boxer who idolizes the late American champ Muhammad Ali knows that in the end, the right symbols can be more powerful—and more enduring—than any blow landed in the ring.
Thomas Kapp also contributed to this article.