Siaha, May 15, 2019: The chief inspiration for a teenage Nutlai Lalbiakkima to become a global boxing sensation and rank among India’s best hopes for a medal at the 2020 Olympics was not a champion boxer like Manny Pacquiao. It wasn’t a great Indian athlete like Sachin Tendulkar either. It was a singer.
A boy named St. Lalthuthaa from Lalbiakkima’s neighborhood won the Mizo Idol singing competition in 2011. He was greeted with a massive crowd upon his return to the town of Siaha, in India’s northeastern state of Mizoram, where the district council awarded him with a house and permanent job as a music instructor. A precocious fighter, Lalbiakkima told himself: “If I succeed in sports, I could get a government job, lift my family out of poverty and finally build a house that I’ve always dreamt of.”
The pint-size boxer would soon leave home, at age 15, with 500 rupees (about $7) in his pocket, to pursue a career with his fists. Seven years later, he would defeat the world’s No. 1 light flyweight boxer. Now 23, he’s still worried about holding a steady job. It all goes back to where he came from.
Born in 1996 in a small village, Lalbiakkima is the oldest of three children. His father, Nutlai Zomawia, 53, and mother, Zothanpuii Khawlhring, 43, cultivated a piece of land in the forest and lived in a hut they had built. When Lalbiakkima was 2, their hut burned down, and the family moved to town.
Boxing didn’t require expensive equipment, and when Lalbiakkima won a gold medal in an interdistrict boxing competition organized by the government-backed PYKAA program, he was hooked. He would practice in the morning, then skip school to rest at a friend’s house so he could have enough energy for more boxing practice in the evenings.
While Lalbiakkima was a sharp student who also nurtures a passion for dancing and rapping, he always saw sports as his ticket to “a better life.” His math teacher encouraged him to play soccer, but his family couldn’t afford cleats. At the time, his father drove a truck, and his mother sold vegetables around the city. A few years later, they managed to get a stall at one of Siaha’s markets, where they started selling fish and chicken. His dad fell seriously ill in 2012 and can no longer work, but his mom still runs the shop.
Finally, in 2011, he convinced his parents to let him ditch his studies for boxing once and for all. He moved about 12 hours away to Mara House hostel in Zotlang, Aizawl, with 500 rupees, which was all his father could spare.
It was there that Lalbiakkima met Vulthavunga, the coach who shaped him. The coach praises the star pupil as “brave, obedient and a hardworking player” who doesn’t need extra supervision. “Even in the lightweight category, he is the smallest, be it national or international level,” Vulthavunga says of the 5-foot-1 fighter. “Despite his size, his courage and hard work have helped him reach where he is today.”
Ask Lalbiakkima about his discipline and he talks of his willpower. “I shared a room with addicts and alcoholics, but I was never tempted to try those habits,” he says of his days at the Mara House hostel. “When my mates would start their habits in the room, I would sleep outside in the corridor.”
It paid off as Lalbiakkima started gaining steam on the regional boxing scene. His first real payday came at age 18 in Mizoram’s famous Pro-fight Championship, winning 40,000 rupees ($575) in cash and bagging a few sponsorships. But the win did not result in a government job, a common reward for top athletes in India. He told his mother that if he did not find consistent success by age 21, he would return to help with the market stall.
He got his break at the Senior National Boxing Championship in February 2015 at Nagpur, where he won the bronze medal and was invited to join the Indian Navy by its boxing coach, Badal Sarkar. With regular training in Mumbai, that post brought stability. The President’s Cup last year in Astana, Kazakhstan, brought Lalbiakkima fame.
His opponent in the quarterfinals was Hasanboy Dusmatov, the Olympic gold medalist and No. 1 boxer in the world in the light flyweight (108-pound) weight class at the time. The bout started with both boxers measuring each other’s reach and defense, but soon Lalbiakkima was landing a neat series of punches to Dustamov’s head and body while deflecting the champion’s advances. Having watched Dusmatov’s fights, Lalbiakkima responded to his moves with “speed, counterpunches and well-judged guard,” he told the media after defeating the Uzbek pugilist. Lalbiakkima’s first international tournament would end with a bronze medal after he fell in the semis, but he was already a hero in India.
The success — including a bronze in Russia a couple of months later — brought him an offer from professional boxing agency MTK Global, which manages the likes of Tyson Fury, Carl Frampton and David Price. Lalbiakkima says the agency offered him a contract for six fights per year. It meant a pathway to qualify for title shots within eight fights, and earnings starting from about $14,300 per bout.
But he’s not keen to quit his secure Navy job. Lalbiakkima’s mother says she’s still worried about him earning a steady income. That’s why his focus has shifted to a job in the Mizoram state government, which would allow Lalbiakkima to pursue a pro career — and his dream of earning the World Boxing Championship title within five years. F. Lalnienga, senior vice president of the Mizoram Boxing Association, says his group will request a spot in government or on the Mizoram police force for its star boxer.
India boasts few Olympic medals in its history — the only individual gold came in men’s shooting in 2008 — but it did come home with boxing bronzes in 2008 (Vijender Singh) and 2012 (Mary Kom). Lalbiakkima’s spot on the Tokyo 2020 team is by no means assured: He was not selected in the first batch attending National Camp, a key steppingstone to the Olympic team. Though he has moved up to 114 pounds, Asian Games 2018 champion Amit Pangal is considered a prime competitor for Lalbiakkima. But Lalbiakkima’s coach Vulthavunga remains confident. “There is a very high chance that he will be selected,” he says.
To get there, he will continue to work tirelessly, just as his parents did — with a heavy dose of thrift. Lalbiakkima lives on just $150 per month, out of his roughly $430 salary. He gives 10 percent away to the Pentecostal Christian Church. The rest he’s saving toward his dream house.