By Richard Hubbard
“As long as Vijender performs and gets that title, I think it will go massive”
After serving up a couple of appetizers at two of London’s finest fight venues, Sanjeev Singh Sahota is now ready to take on the role of spicy side dish when history is created in Delhi next month.
Professional boxing will be staged in India for the first time on July 16 when national treasure Vijender Singh makes his homecoming at the Thyagaraj Stadium in front of an adoring public for the first time in the paid ranks. He takes on the Aussie Kerry Hope for the Asia Pacific championship and, like all good headline acts, he needs a supporting cast, so it is step forward Sanjeev.
The 24-year-old was quick to the punch in booking a ticket to ride to the land of his fathers. First he had to land a few telling ones after introducing himself as a professional at the Copper Box at the end of April. He did just that and his Latvian opponent Nikita Gultjajevs was overwhelmed by a Sahota storm after just a single minute of the contest.
More stubborn resistance was encountered at the York Hall earlier this month, provided by the Croatian Silvije Kebet, who extended him to a full 12-minute examination.
His audition for opening night in Delhi was duly passed.
The opportunity to jump aboard the Vijender express was always likely to be in the offing if Sahota sufficiently impressed, given that the 30-year-old former Olympian has been laying the groundwork of his own professional career across England and Ireland.
The blueprint now is to transport the sport into a new territory led by an incredibly popular bill topper and a more than willing sidekick.
Boxing’s passage to India has been worked up by Francis Warren, who long ago identified the professional potential of decorated amateur Vijender. Drafting in co-stars of British-Indian decent represents logical casting for the Delhi card, but Sahota is no flag bearer of convenience.
His talent was spotted by the late, great matchmaker and manager Dean Powell when Sahota was still in his teens, but the Spanish-based youngster opted to bide his time and continue his amateur education.
“In the beginning when I first came here to train with the idea of turning pro, I was originally going to be signed by Dean Powell, so they knew me already,” explained Sahota.
“I met Francis and the day we met in a coffee shop, I’m not lying, we had that connection. It is very important, it is no good if you don’t, but we just clicked from there.
“It was in November last year we had the meeting, then he came to Spain to visit and met my mum and dad, watched me train and did things that not everyone does.
“I couldn’t have come along at a better time and he did mention back then that he was looking to do some sort of shows in India, but we didn’t know when. I was more than happy.
“Of course it a pressure, it was a huge responsibility,” he added on the onus placed on his first two fights. “Great success brings big responsibility, that’s why in the last six months I have been so dedicated to this sport.
“It is important to him (Francis), it is important to him that we win and we succeed.”
Sahota’s pro journey hit an immediate roadblock when his scheduled first night at Harrow was cancelled. It was a blow no amount of training could prepare him to absorb.
“I trained so hard and was in the car with (trainer) Lenny Butcher on the way to my last session. People had booked flights and tickets, but you know when you know something is not right? I got a phone call early in the morning to say the main event had been cancelled.
“It was my first fight and a huge thing, so it reduced me to tears. It is boxing, the bit people don’t see, the fighting is the nice part! It was out of my control and it couldn’t be helped.
“It gave me an extra three weeks to train though and I was on the money already. I was on a bigger event, having a pro debut on a big bill at the Copper Box.
“I knew the kid had two fights, one won by KO and one lost on points. I didn’t care who was in there. The second one was a lot stronger and had been the distance with most.
“I was actually looking forward to doing the four rounds because I then knew India was in place. I am lucky to have had a bit of both now and whatever comes I am ready for it.
“In the second fight I didn’t realise that I was a bit eager. Instead of maybe throwing fours and fives I should’ve been doing twos and threes, firing bigger, harder shots in and taking my time a bit more.”
Sahota suspects the sport will punch its way into the affections of the Indian public, neatly jabbing the responsibility for the projected success in the direction of the boxer with Bollywood connections.
“I think it will be huge, I honestly do. I’m representing Great Britain but, at the same time, my blood is Indian. I’m doing it for both whereas Vijender is from India. It is a big thing for me and a big pressure in just my third fight down the line.
“As long as Vijender performs and gets that title, I think it will go massive.”
Sahota himself is no stranger to being taken out of his comfort zone. At the age of 13 and an upbringing in Emerson Park, his family decamped for Murcia in Spain where the climate is more favourable to his father’s health.
He was already, unfortunately, accustomed to standing out from the crowd in his hometown before he was forced to adapt to a further challenging set of circumstances in a foreign land. Sport, in this case boxing, came to the rescue with its universal language.
“I was quite a tubby boy, a bit overweight and when I was younger I did get slightly bullied in school for my weight,” he revealed. “In the area I grew up there were not a lot of Asians there at the time and then moving to Spain was a hard move for me – moving to a different country and not speaking the language.
“When that happens for any youngster when you don’t have friends it does get lonely. I was looking forward to moving to a new country, but it was a scary move. I did one year of senior school here and then we moved to Spain and I completed there.
“Just when we moved to Spain the TV series called The Contender started and I liked it and wanted to get into boxing. Funnily enough, one of my neighbours went to a boxing gym, the one where Kiko Martinez trains.
“It is mad and I think everything must happen for a reason. I fell in love with the sport and went to the gym. One of the guys when I first went there said to me ‘you can’t box’ and that just gave me the hunger and boost to prove this person wrong.
“Boxing didn’t save me in the sense of getting me off the streets, it helped me by losing weight and giving me that bit of confidence after suffering that bit of bullying.
“It has helped me so much in life, with confidence and belief. Like I said, when I was younger I did get bullied for being overweight and where I grew up I was the only Asian kid in my school. Then in Spain, I wasn’t just the only Asian, but the only English boy in my school as well.
“So I cannot say boxing didn’t save me because it did. It got me a bit of respect, I didn’t get into fights, but it gave the confidence to stand up for myself.
“Since I started I have not stopped. I always want to keep fit and look good.”
The now super lightweight prospect was forced to do it tough as an amateur rookie in Spain’s south east, where he eventually amassed a record of 35 contests, with just four defeats and two draws, while also bringing his feet into play with some extracurricular kickboxing.
“I basically got chucked in the deep end. In Spain they viewed me as something of a journeyman, but I was a boy with no fights and in my first one they chucked me into was the Madrid championship. I won the gold medal.
“Mum didn’t like it at all at that time, dad was supportive, but every mum is scared of her child getting hurt.
“They said I was like a bullfighter over there, more of a come forward fighter, I won the regional championships out there boxing against the winner of the national title.
“It is getting big out there and there are a lot of good fighters, but they haven’t got the support like the fighters in the UK have.
“I had bus loads of supporters out there going to watch me in the amateurs. I haven’t just got a British and Indian background, I have also got people from Spain and when I made my pro debut I had people flying in for it.”
Sahota is trained by the aforementioned Lenny Butcher along with Dominic Negus out of Chingford in Essex, although training camps are now carried out in his warm weather home in Murcia.
Negus proved the pivotal figure in convincing him to try his hand as a pro, putting on hold less strenuous career options in Spain to return to the country of his birth and give boxing a bash.
“I met Dominic through a family friend when I was 17 and originally they wanted me to turn pro when I was about 18. I wasn’t ready and didn’t feel it was right as I was a bit young and wanted to get more amateur fights in.
“Since then Dominic has always believed in me and thought I could do it. All of a sudden, I got on a phone call with him and said ‘I think I want to do this’. He was behind me 100 per cent. I was involved in a family business in Spain and had to ask myself what I wanted – I chose to follow my dream.
“That is what I did and the last six months have been incredible,” he reflected, before outlining some admirable and selfless ambitions and personal objectives that don’t generally pass the lips of hungry young fighters.
But then this young man is not unfamiliar with being a bit different.
“When I am asked where I am actually from it is an interesting question for me. I could say I have Indian blood, I was born in England, but I grew up in Spain. Every country has played a major part in my life.
“I want to be a fighter inside the ring and a gentleman outside. Obviously every fighter who is passionate about the sport wants to win a world title, but it is too early days for me to say things like that. If I can just grow, one day, into some sort of role model and inspire youngsters and especially young Asians into sport, that for me would be like winning a world title.
“In the Sikh temple in Barking on Sundays they do a little training class for the kids and I go down there to help and do a bit of pad work with them. They all come and support me as well, so it is mad!”
It will involve a long trip to support him next time around, but one the BoxNation cameras will be making so they won’t miss a punch.
Sanjeev, who would like to express his gratitude to his sponsor East End Foods, has been nominated in the sports category of the British-Indian Awards. For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/British-Indian-Awards-606130719413271/