'My only ambition was to be on TV like Dingko' - Vijender Singh

File photo: Dingko Singh, left, in action against Serguey Daniltchenko of the Ukraine at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Gary M Prior/Allsport

On the evening of December 18, 1998, people gathered around a black and white TV in Kaluwas village near Bhiwani, Haryana. They were watching a broadcast of the Asian Games, where an Indian boxer was competing in the final of the men's bantamweight division. Also watching was the then 13-year-old Vijender Singh. He was an aspiring young boxer then with modest dreams of a government job. Then he saw Dingko Singh box.

"That was one of the first times I saw a boxing bout on TV. And I saw Dingko Singh win a gold medal. We hadn't won a gold medal in a very long time. But what I remember is what a dhuandhaar (fiery) boxer he was. He was a star. At that time, my only ambition was I need to be on TV like Dingko Singh. He was the star of that Asian Games and he was certainly my inspiration," says Vijender.

Vijender would eventually go even further, becoming the first Indian boxer to win a medal at the Olympics, yet he still credits Dingko, who passed away aged 42 on Thursday after a long fight with cancer, with firing that belief that he too could pursue excellence.

At a time when Indians have been performing consistently at the world stage - regularly winning medals at the World Championships and with a record nine boxers qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, it's easy to overlook just how critical Dingko's contribution - in a fleetingly short career that peaked when he was just 19 with a gold medal at the 1998 Asian Games - was. While the Indian team has a history of performances to draw inspiration from today, 23 years ago, there was nothing to look up to.

"The last time we had had an Asian Champion was back in 1982 (Kaur Singh in the heavyweight division). After that, there was no one. Without a champion, our morale was low even in 1998," says Gurbax Sandhu, who coached the Indian team from 1993 to 2013.

"When Dingko won, it was as if a lifeline had been thrown to Indian boxing. Boxers started to think 'yes, we can compete with the best'. Dingko beat boxers who were world ranked (His opponent in the semis, Thailand's Sontaya Wongprates, was an Olympian, while his final was against Timur Tulyakov of Uzbekistan who had victories over Cuban world number 1 Font Waldemar). No one there even gave him a chance but he managed to win. Slowly our performances improved. We won World medals, Olympic medals but it was with Dingko's gold medal at the Asian Games that Indian boxing uthni shuru hui (started rising)," says Sandhu.

The fact that a boxer from Manipur was able to inspire a young boy from Haryana reflected his pan-Indian appeal within the boxing community. There's apparently a movie in the works about Dingko and its easy to see why it would be made. How could it not fail to inspire - this story of the boy from a poor village (so poor that his mother sent him to an orphanage), with quick feet and lighting fast fists, who rose to becoming the champion of Asia.

In Manipur itself though, he became more than a legend, inspiring a generation of boxers to take to the ring. "Oh my god, he was spectacular. That style was something else," Olympic bronze medalist M C Mary Kom told PTI while talking about how she excitedly queued up to watch him fight in a show bout in Manipur after he came back from the Asiad.

It wasn't just the fact that Dingko won gold, it was the manner in which he looked to dominate his opponents that endeared him to his fans. Commonwealth Games champion Suranjoy Singh was one of them. "A lot of boxers back then would take the first round slowly, then go harder the second round and then attack in the third. Dingko was the opposite. He went all out right at the start," he says.

Like Vijender in Haryana, Suranjoy too had watched the bout in Imphal on a TV powered by a gasoline generator. "What I still remember is the right cross followed by the left hook. That was his go to combination. The opponent got a standing count because of that. Can you imagine? It's the final of the Asian Games where you have the two best boxers of the tournament and one of them is so dominant," recalls Suranjoy.

Suranjoy went from being a sub-junior who trained alongside Dingko to his compatriot in the national camp and finally worked alongside him as a coach with the Navy team. "He was a god-gifted talent as a boxer. Most boxers are either attacking or counter-punchers. Dingko had the ability to punch right over the opponents punch. It would hit you twice as hard, as if it was two cars were having a head-on collision. In all my years in the Indian team and even now as a coach, I've never seen a boxer with natural ability like he had," says Suranjoy.

As much as Dingko was admired by his fans, he had his share of detractors. That was inevitable given his personality. "He had some of the hottest blood I had seen. He didn't have a filter. If he thought you were terrible, he'd say that. He'd didn't think twice about giving out a gaali (abuse) or two. I like that he was frank but many coaches hated that. But they hated it even more that he was performing. As long as he was performing, how could you tell him anything," says 2006 CWG gold medalist Akhil Kumar.

His naysayers would eventually get their chance. Dingko's career as a boxer peaked with the triumph at the Asian Games but after making the Olympics two years later (where he lost in the first round), it faded just as fast.

A wrist injury didn't help matters, as did Dingko's unflagging work ethic. "He was always someone who didn't believe in taking breaks. He came from the 'no pain no gain' belief system," recalls Suranjoy. Perhaps it was inevitable that a talent as prodigious burnt out at a time when the scientific knowledge and medical support taken for granted today was non-existent.

He eventually moved into coaching and harboured the dream of producing future Olympians -- "at least two by 2024," he told ESPN once. "He was tough as a coach. He was as tough on the trainees as he had been on himself. But he'd always be there for us if we wanted to train," says Suranjoy.

As the years passed, Dingko had further challenges to overcome - a long running battle with cancer that started in 2017 and then with COVID-19 in 2020. He had appeared to have beaten the odds just as he had two decades ago. Eventually though, they proved to be too hard.

A couple of months ago, Suranjoy had travelled to Imphal to visit Dingko. "We had known the doctors had sent him home and we knew he didn't have much time left. He was still very positive but we could see just how much he was struggling. He had lost a lot of weight. It was terrible to see him like that because we had known him as one of the physically-strongest fighters," says Suranjoy.

Suranjoy doesn't want to remember his hero and role model that way. "I will remember how he used to be. He wasn't the biggest fan of running laps. But you couldn't get him out of the ring when he was sparring. Most of us would be tired after three or four rounds. But he'd go 7, 8 and nine rounds. The rest of us would be exhausted and he'd be having fun and always be ready for more. That ring was where he belonged," says Suranjoy.