Dingko Singh: Trailblazer who showed the way for India’s boxing stars, dies at 42

It was Dingko’s historic gold medal at 1998 Asian Games that raised the morale of success-starved Indian boxing and went on to inspire Olympic medallists such as Vijender Singh and Mary Kom.

From an orphan who knew nothing else but boxing to becoming a role model for India’s greatest champions, Dingko Singh touched many lives. On Thursday, the 1998 Asian Games gold medallist succumbed to cancer, after a long fight, at his home in Imphal. He was 42.

It was Dingko’s historic gold medal that raised the morale of success-starved Indian boxing and went on to inspire Olympic medallists such as Vijender Singh and Mary Kom. His first coach Ibomcha Singh still remembers the nine-year-old boy who shadow-boxed with his trainees at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal.

“A trainee told me that Dingko is from the orphanage nearby. Dingko would tell me, ‘Sir, maa-baap nahin hain, humko boxing hi aata hai’,” said Ibomcha, breaking down over the phone from Imphal. “When Dingko won the Asian Games gold, there was no electricity in Imphal due to a strike. We lit candles and celebrated the whole night with the Indian flag. Dingko knew only boxing, and the country will always remember him for that.”

One of eight children, Dingko grew up in Sekta village near Imphal with his elder brother and younger sister after their father died and mother left home. The siblings took up work as farm labourers even as Dingko ended up at the orphanage. That was when he met Imbocha, and within a year, became the sub-junior national champion.

His lightning-fast reaction time and determination left boxing experts mesmerised at first sight. For former India chief coach G S Sandhu, Dingko was a “strong boxer with an unmatched reaction time”. Fellow bantamweight boxer Akhil Kumar “fell in love with the left hook”.

“After seeing Dingko throw the left hook with such speed and accuracy, it became one of my favourite punches,” said Akhil, the 2006 Commonwealth Games bantamweight champion. “I got to train with him during the Manchester CWG where he shared several tips with me.”

In 1998, Dingko ended India’s 16-year wait for the Asian Games gold medal. But the victory didn’t come easily. In Bangkok, he defeated world No. 3 Wong Sontaya and world No. 5 Timur Tulyakov in the final two bouts. The real fight, however, was to get Dingko on the flight to Bangkok.

Two days before the Indian contingent’s departure, Dingko was dropped by the Indian Olympic Association, with officials deciding that he was out of form. What followed was a mass intervention, as Sandhu, foreign coach BI Fernandez and boxing federation president Ashok Kumar Mattoo called for Dingko to be reincluded.

“I don’t know what led to IOA removing his name but it was a nervous night for all of us at (the national camp in) Patiala,” recalled Sandhu. “Some boxers saw Dingko going towards the nearby railway tracks and we scampered to locate him. We made him believe that he will go to Bangkok. I made sure that two boxers remained in his room. Such was his passion for the sport.”

Fernandez often accompanied Dingko to international competitions prior to the Asian Games.

“When I first trained him in the national camp, I was surprised by the speed of his punches. It was not normal for an Indian boxer and I would often joke with him that it’s good for the opponents but not for the sparring coach,” said the Cuban coach. “Once in Cuba, he beat a top-five Mongolian boxer. Afterwards, more than 100 kids lined up to take his autograph. For him, it was like winning a medal.”

After retirement, Dingko served as the Indian Navy’s boxing coach for more than five years before resigning due to illness and joining SAI Imphal. Suronjoy Singh, the 2010 Commonwealth Games champion who works as a coach with the Navy, says Dingko was his idol.

“I met him as a kid after the Sydney Olympics, and he made sure he met every single kid at the stadium at Imphal. As a coach, he was aggressive and would ask trainees to train with the other hand if one hand was injured. But then, he would also let many boxers from Manipur and other states stay at his Mumbai home during Navy trials,” Suronjoy said.

Soon, however, Dingko’s biggest battles were outside the ring.

In 2017, when doctors confirmed the cancer diagnosis of 2016, wife Babai Ngangom did not have the heart to break the news to Dingko. And last year, Dingko tested positive for Covid after returning to Imphal from Delhi, where he was undergoing treatment for liver cancer.

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