Sunday, October 29, 2017

Notes from the 100th Shield

After 30 years the Boxing Club of Royal College clinched the renowned Stubbs Boxing Shield, beating last year’s champions Vidyarathna College to second place. Here’s a sketch of the Club and its history.

In Sri Lanka boxing was largely a colonial sport. It traces its origins to Ancient Greece, yes, but if we are to be more circumspect about its evolution we have to start in 1867, the year the 12 Marquess of Queensbury rules were drafted. After much wrangling from the authorities (who deemed that bare-knuckled fights were illegal and later banned movies which depicted tournaments and even individual fights) it split into two categories: amateur and professional. The 20th century pretty much saw the game at its peak, and in 1914 one of the first school teams in Sri Lanka was inaugurated along with the oldest and most renowned national schools boxing championship here, the Stubbs Shield. This year that championship was held for the 100th time, and this year that school, Royal College, won it after 30 years.

From Saturday the 7th to Tuesday the 10th of October, the 100th Stubbs Shield Championship (held at the Royal MAS Arena) saw Vidyarathna College, Horana and Sri Dheerananda Maha Vidyalaya, Kandy emerge as Runners Up and Second Runners Up respectively. Of the eight contenders from Royal six made it to the semi-finals, the most for any school at the meet, and four to the finals, wresting four gold medals in three weight categories (once for 52 kg, twice for 56 kg, once for 75 kg), two silver medals, and two bronze medals. One of them, Bhathiya Neranjana, was adjudged the Best Scientific Boxer for the entire tournament (the first time the team had won the category in 28 years), while the finals saw them wade through an Under 18 match that lasted for five rounds, all of which they squarely won. Obviously, 30 years is a long time, which is why I knew the boys from the team had a story to tell. Here’s a sketch.

Until a few years ago boxing here was for the most limited to Colombo and Kandy. It’s interesting to know that the situation has changed now, that tournaments and contenders exist and thrive outside these two cities, from the North to the South. It’s also interesting to know that, owing to how online access has widened everywhere, those who take to the sport from an early age get to learn about the icons from their field more quickly. It’s not just about Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, in other words, a point reflected in something one of the eight boxers from the Royal Stubbs team, Vimuth Dewmina, told me: “Personally I’ve always admired Ali and Tyson, but we’ve moved beyond them. We’ve always looked up to Lázaro Álvarez and Floyd Mayweather.” Vimuth’s admiration for Álvarez is intriguing but not surprising: both are left-handed, and in boxing parlance are referred to as southpaws.

How Vimuth got into boxing in the first place is intriguing as well. Having entered Royal College through the Grade Five Scholarship, he had dabbled in basketball, badminton, and athletics. A chance conversation with some friends had persuaded him to go watch the Royal-Trinity Boxing Encounter. “I would have been in Grade 7 at the time, one and a half years after I entered school. What struck me about the game was that while it superficially promoted violence and aggressiveness, it was in reality played with enough barricades for the players, with both players respecting one another despite the fact that one had to beat the other to a pulp. I would have been nervous before, but that chance visit encouraged me to try it out.”

What Vimuth hadn’t bargained for with all this, particularly when he joined the Club two years later, was the kind of strenuousness he had to put up with at practices. “We had practice sessions from 6 to 7 in the morning and from 2.30 to 4.30 in the evening, from Monday to Saturday. To say the least, I couldn’t handle it with the other activity I was engaged in, badminton. Mind you, no two sports can be more different. So after thinking about it, I let go of badminton and gave myself over completely to the boxing ring.” He was in Grade Nine at the time, and would begin to take part in national meets a little later: in order, the T. B. Jayah Memorial Shield, the L. V. Jayaweera Shield, and of course the Stubbs Shield.

Having joined it as a fully-fledged player in 2014, Vimuth saw through the Boxing Club’s most turbulent years, during which only two or three active contenders would go for tournaments. “In 2015 we ‘toured’ and practised at Pannala and won 5th place at the Stubbs Shield Tournament. The following year we practised at the Diyathalawa Training Camp, where we adapted to a colder climate and got ourselves to resolve for tougher matches. It’s that kind of resolve that we nurtured and fermented within ourselves this year, when we started warming up for the Stubbs Shield from August. For some reason the Shield was postponed to October. In the end we gave the best we had and got the best we could have.”

Vimuth isn’t alone in the Club of course, and it’s pertinent to note that the other seven players have their own stories. I noted in my article on the Royal Baseball Team that baseball has more or less inspired passion among schoolboys from outside Colombo. With respect to boxing, the split at Royal between Colombo and outside-Colombo is more even: while four of the eight players hail from places as far away and apart as Matara and Kuliyapitiya (the latter being Vimuth’s hometown), the remaining four come from the metropolis, including Dehiwela and Maradana (the latter being the Captain’s hometown). “The Stubbs Shield victory was one of several we clinched, as winners or runners up in various meets before. All of them ensured more members for the Club. Our numbers are rising. We predict they will continue to rise.”

There are other names, to reflect on and thank. “Our Coaches helped us tremendously, needless to say: Abdulla Ibunu, our Head Coach, and M. A. Jayalath and M. M. Nisthar, his Assistants. All three are from our school, as are Lakshman Amarasekara, who supplied what we needed to help us practise effectively, and of course Mr Dian Gomes, who’s been involved with boxing not just at Royal but also throughout the country. He’s the undisputed corner-man of boxing at school. His vision for our Club, so to speak, has begun to pay back, and we are reaping what he planned for us long ago. He has always backed us.”

30 years isn’t much. But then 100 years isn’t much either. What adds to victory isn’t just the length and width of defeat but the weight and scope of perseverance as well, and going by what this team of boxers have done and strived for, with their stories and their coaches and their sponsors, it’s safe to say that neither 30 nor 100 years, however long, can quite surpass their passion for the game. The Stubbs Shield victory, for me at least, therefore, should be viewed from this angle, and should be added to as the years go by. I fervently believe they will be added to. Today and tomorrow.

Photos courtesy of:

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 29 2017