Vijender vs Zulpikar and the Return of Knockout Nationalism


Vijender vs Zulpikar and the Return of Knockout Nationalism

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

Once upon a time, in the distant and murky past, I used to go to a gym. It had all the usual sights you’d expect: meatheads giving themselves bedroom eyes while lifting weights in front of a mirror, creaky machines that never quite stop smelling of strangers’ sweat, and a chorus of grunts and counts of “ooooone, twwoooo” filling the air. But a place goes from being a gathering of bench-press addicts to a genuine Indian gym only when there’s a poster of Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger on the wall.

For a generation growing up watching reruns of the Rambo and Rocky films on Star Movies, stars like Stallone were demi-gods. I mean, just look at Sajid Nadiadwala or Tiger Shroff. It can’t be long before we’ll be asked to buy into the notion that Varun Dhawan, or Siddharth Malhotra, or whichever cookie-cutter starling you prefer, is the second coming of Italian Stallion. The Bharati Bull, anybody?

But what if I told you that an IRL version of Rocky IV was underway this weekend? Vijender Singh, the WBO Asia-Pacific champion and India’s pride in the boxing ring will be meeting China’s WBO Oriental champion, Zulpikar Maimaitiali in an epic Champion vs Champion bout in Mumbai today. So no need to see Anil Kapoor ham it up in Apollo Creed’s death scene, or watch Bollywood thespian Jackie Chan take on the role of Indian Rocky’s implacable foreign opponent.  

After all, India vs China today is just as big a pissing contest today as Russia vs USA was during the Cold War in the ’80s. Two global powers in their ascendancy giving each other the stink eye at international forums and rattling sabres via proxy conflicts. Uneasy times, like two colleagues who’ve had a drunken argument at an office party meeting each other at work the following day, and an accurate parallel with modern Sino-Indian relations.

Every stiff jab that Vijender hits Zulpikar with will count as reparations for 1962 and Doklam in the hearts of Indians. Zulpikar’s Chinese supporters will see his hooks and uppercuts as body blows to India’s opposition of the CPEC.

Just like Rocky and Drago stepped into the ring to do battle with the pride and glory of their respective nations riding on their shoulders, so too will Vijender and Zulpikar this Saturday. When the bell rings, audiences from the world’s two most populous nations will tune in to live vicariously through these two combatants. Every stiff jab that Vijender hits Zulpikar with will count as reparations for 1962 and Doklam in the hearts of Indians. Zulpikar’s Chinese supporters will see his hooks and uppercuts as body blows to India’s opposition of the CPEC.

In the span of a few intense rounds of boxing, fists will replace diplomacy as a vehicle for international relations. Even 30 years after the release of Rocky IV, jingoism is, in boxing terms, going the distance.

However, note to reader: Load up your flamethrowers and switch on Caps Lock, for you are about to encounter an unpopular opinion.

All my former gymbros might want to lynch me for saying this, but our man in this fight isn’t Rocky. I know we all dreamed we were Team Rocky when we were pushing 40s on the incline in that gym, yet the sad truth is when the crowd at NSCI Stadium in Worli chants for Vijender, I’ll be hearing “Drago! Drago!”

It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Drago was more machine than man, a professional boxing juggernaut who beat most of his hapless foes by knockout. He was a champion and a national hero, a jewel in the crown of the fiercely proud USSR. In the climactic final battle with Rocky, he faces his underdog challenger in Moscow, with an adoring crowd backing him. Similarly, Vijender steps into the bout undefeated. He’s stepped into the ring eight times, and won eight times. Out of those eight opponents, seven unfortunates ended up KTFO’d (Knocked THE FUCK out). Apparently, Vijender knocks out professional boxers just as easily as he beats normies in tasks on Roadies.

Meanwhile, Zulpikar is the scrappier underdog of the two. Back in his homeland, he’s the number one boxer. His record isn’t perfect like Vijender’s, but he’s fought his way to the top nonetheless. Hate it or love it, he’s the Rocky in the match. Not only is he a southpaw, it takes some serious Rocky-level intestinal fortitude to challenge Vijender in India when even Indian citizens from the North East face hostility for looking slightly oriental.

The trash-talking has begun too, in proper blockbuster fashion. Zulpikar promises he will knock Vijender out, and Vijender has responded with the same words my mom uses when buying Tupperware, “Chinese goods don’t last too long.” With this build-up, it promises to be a showstopper of a fight… a beautiful, serendipitous instance of life imitating art.

Rocky IV concludes with Rocky’s dogged intensity slowly winning the virulently hostile Moscow crowd over to his side. As the movie ends with a shot of Stallone draped in an American flag, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Rocky single-handedly ended the Cold War and repaired Russo-American relations. The crowd, impressed by the valour of the two warriors, realises that both countries can share a relationship based on mutual respect.

Things today might be a little different, and I have our doubts if the current incarnation of patriotism will allow us to cheer for a foreign champion. But if there’s one thing you can learn from any Rocky movie, it’s that you must always hope and keep fighting for the best outcome, no matter how unlikely it may seem.

Let’s get ready to rumble!