Pooja Rani | Photo: Getty Images
Tokyo: In a thoroughly disappointing day for Indian boxing, Pooja Rani (75kg) joined world number one Amit Panghal (52kg) in exiting the Olympic Games after an underwhelming performance, going down 0-5 in her quarterfinal bout against China's Li Qian here on Saturday.
Qian, who is a former world champion and a Rio Olympics bronze-medallist, thoroughly outpunched Rani in the quarterfinals, quite literally taking away her belief with a clinical performance.
This was after Panghal bowed out with a stunning 1-4 loss to Rio Games silver-medallist Yuberjen Martinez, beaten by the Colombian's relentless attacks and pace in a draining pre-quarterfinal bout.
Rani looked clueless in the ring after showing some spark in the opening round. Qian was ruthless in her counter-hitting every time the debutante Indian tried to launch an offensive, striking straight and clean to assert her dominance.
Even the waiting game didn't work for Rani, whose fragile defence was easily penetrated by the top-class Chinese boxer, who is now assured of her second Olympic medal.
Earlier Panghal, who was also making his debut in the Games and was seeded top, fizzled out after a good start.
One of India's strongest medal contenders, Panghal was put under pressure by the sprightly Colombian in the opening round itself but the pre-bout favourite ensured that he connected better to claim the first three minutes 4-1.
"They have sparred with each other. In some of them Amit was better than today but in others, it was similar to what happened today. It wasn't a total surprise because we had seen that this guy is very dangerous," Indian Boxing's High Performance Director Santiago Nieva said after the bout.
Martinez's pace should have set alarm bells ringing in the Indian corner despite Panghal bagging the first round because the Pan-American champion upped the ante in the second round, working relentlessly on Panghal's body with his uppercuts.
Panghal found it tough to respond and Martinez's persistence brought him level with the top star.
"We knew what to expect but our hope was that Amit would stand up better in the last two rounds," Nieva added.
Martinez made sure that there was no let up in the intensity in the final three minutes as well and Panghal ended up being on the defensive for the most part.
"He didn't have the strength to move, so he stayed inside. Then (eventually) he didn't have the strength to respond also and he became passive. There the Colombian scored a lot of points," Nieva said.
"Against no other opponent, I have seen Amit so tired. It's not just him, in the Italy camp we also had Deepak, who is also a world-class boxer, and he also could not stop him. We were facing a very high-calibre boxer," he added referring to Asian silver-medallist Deepak Kumar, who was there with the Olympic-bound group for sparring.
Despite this loss, the 25-year-old Panghal remains one of the best-performing Indian boxers in recent times, having secured a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games, followed by an unparalleled silver medal at the world championships in 2019.
The diminutive Army man is also a three-time Asian medallist, securing a medal every time he has been at the continental showpiece. It is in fact the first major setback that the youngster has endured since a breakthrough 2017, when he first burst into the scene.
Martinez won the light flyweight silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and will turn professional after the Tokyo Games.
"This is a big step for me in my aim to win the gold medal. He was the top seed and a great competitor, a fantastic fighter, but I was very well-prepared for this fight," Martinez said after the bout.
"I am in the quarterfinals now but I know I will have to be at my best if I want the gold medal. That is what I am here for," he added.
His parents, who follow the pacifism-supporting Anglican church, were against him taking up the sport but eventually came around to support his ambitions.
On Friday, Lovlina Borgohain (69kg) became the first Indian boxer to secure a medal at the ongoing Games after advancing to the semifinals. She defeated former world champion Nien-Chin Chen of Chinese Taipei in her quarterfinal bout.