Rolling With The Punches
Even cancer could not take the fight out of Indian boxing champion Ngangom Dingko SinghBy Rosy Jose
In 1997, he won the King’s Cup at Bangkok, Thailand, and was declared the best boxer of the meet. In 1998, he created history by winning gold in the 54kg bantamweight category, thus ending India’s 16-year wait (after Kaur Singh in 1982) for an Asian Games boxing victory. He defeated world no. 3 Wong Prages Sontaya from Thailand (semifinal) and world no. 5, Uzbekistan’s Timur Tulyakov, in the final match. The recipient of the prestigious Arjuna award (1998) and the Padma Shree (2013), Ngangom Dingko Singh has inspired an entire generation of Manipuri boxers who have gone on to bring laurels for the country including the indomitable Mary Kom, Suranjoy Singh, Sarita Devi, and Devendro Singh.
What few know is that Singh is also a liver cancer survivor. Life is the best teacher, and Singh is proof of it. Born on January 1, 1979, in a remote village called Sekta, Imphal, Singh fought the odds right from infancy.
“Beating Cancer Is My Biggest Win Yet, It Tested Me Physically And Mentally. Doctors Said The Only Reason I Survived The Surgery Was Because I Was Otherwise Fit.”Ngangom Dingko Singh, Boxer
During this fight, Singh fractured his wrist and his hand was set in a cast. It was around this time Singh was scheduled for training in Cuba and officials urged him to take off his cast. Thus, the fracture never set perfectly. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he crashed out of the first round, and his career never quite recovered. Unlike other boxers, Singh did not go into professional boxing, joining the Indian Navy instead. After spending years in the Navy, he went back to coaching with SAI in 2013, with the intention of training the next generation of Indian boxers with the noble intention of giving back to the country the love he received.
He dreamed of producing Olympians at least by the year 2020. In August 2016, Singh started showing signs of jaundice, losing about 4kg in a month. As his condition was not improving, the city hospital referred him to The All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, where he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). He was then moved to the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences for further treatment. Doctors had to remove nearly 70 percent of his liver, after which he had to undergo 13 rounds of chemotherapy. “Beating cancer is my biggest win yet, it tested me physically and mentally,” says Singh. “Doctors said the only reason I survived the surgery was that I was otherwise fit.”
His parents could not make ends meet and were forced to give him up to an orphanage, which turned out to be his first training ground. He used to pick fights with other boys with the aim of gaining respect. In the late 80s, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) started a special induction program—Special Area Games Scheme (SAGS)—to locate and groom natural sporting talent from rural and inaccessible areas of the country. SAGS scouts were the first to spot Singh’s natural talent for boxing. Under the training of Major O P Bhatia, currently executive director of the team’s wing at SAI, Singh went on to establish himself as an exceedingly talented boxer. He caught the eye of Indian sporting officials at the age of 10 when he won the Sub Junior National Boxing Championship in 1989 at Ambala. For the next eight years, Singh was coached by the best in India. Unfortunately, his boxing career was short-lived. After the victory at the Kings Cup (1997) and the Asian Games (1998), Indian officials arranged an exhibition fight between Singh and Andhra boxer Sriramulu during the 1999 National Games in Imphal.
The treatment cost took a financial toll on Singh and his family. A government employee, he was reimbursed part of the surgery cost and hospitalization under the Central Government Health Scheme. However, the monetary help he received was meager, compared to the INR 10 lakh they needed for the treatment. SAI and the Boxing Federation of India gave the family INR 50,000 and INR 45,000. “We had to sell our house to pay for the rest of the treatment,” says Babai, Singh’s wife. “We had to stay in Delhi until the treatment was over. The children were put up in a hostel near the school so that they did not miss their classes.”
The woes of this boxing legend were brought to the limelight when Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir’s tweeted, urging the nation to help this remarkable boxer. Gambhir himself sent Singh money, and soon, 13 doctors and fellow sportsmen came forward to help him. “Sir trained me for the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, and it is my responsibility to organize some money for his treatment,” said Sarita Devi, Singh’s student, and prominent boxer. Today the family has moved to their ancestral village, which is more than an hour’s drive from Imphal, and Singh has returned to coaching at the SAI complex in Imphal. And he is finally seeing limelight again: a biopic on Singh directed by Raja Krishna Menon is set to release in April, starring Shahid Kapoor in the lead.