Alan Hubbard

As the AIBA World Boxing Championships begin in Doha this week one illustrious name is missing. Instead he will be making boxing history in Manchester.

On Saturday night, Vijender Singh steps out at the Manchester Arena for his professional debut as part of the supporting cast to the star turns at the World Title double-header featuring British boxers Terry Flanagan and Liam Smith.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics bronze medallist begins his career in the hotly contested middleweight division and will make his debut in a four rounds bout as he completes the transition from amateur boxing to the professional code, the first Indian boxer to do so.

And back in India a TV deal with burgeoning UK boxing channel BoxNation means that millions will be watching their favourite fighting son who otherwise would be representing them in Qatar.

His surprise defection has also brought about something of a fistic revolution in India, which has now formed a professional governing body for the first time with plans to stage pro tournaments there in the near future.

Singh, who had an "honorary’" job as a part-time police officer, has taken himself away from his home in Bhiwani, a state in Haryana, and based himself in Manchester to train for this fight under renowned coach Lee Beard.

Vijender Singh has a large haul of medals in his collection
Vijender Singh has a large haul of medals in his collection ©Getty Images

Despite being India’s most successful amateur boxer in history and winning a multitude of titles, Vijender knows that he has to start again in the pro sport as he seeks to become his nation’s first ever pro world champion boxer.

His haul includes Olympic bronze at Beijing 2008, silver at the 2006 and 2014 Commonwealth Games and bronze in 2010, gold at the 2010 Asian Games and bronze in 2006 and bronze at the 2009 World Amateur Championships. He was also rated as the world’s number one middleweight in 2009.

Playing second fiddle is not exactly familiar territory to the 29-year-old from northern India - even his Bollywood debut in the drama film Fugly saw him awarded a leading role. Vijender is not your average novice pro.

Both the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award – India’s highest sporting honour – and the Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian gong – have been bestowed on the nation’s only boxing Olympic medallist. When Vijender won bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing, one Badou Jack – the Swedish-Gambian who went on to become a world pro champion and recently defeated Britain’s George Groves in a WBC super-middleweight title fight in Las Vegas – was overwhelmed by a margin of 13-2.

His standing in his homeland is probably only usurped by the other sporting stars who fend off leather at high speed – the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and co, who will always dominate the hearts and minds of a cricket-mad nation. But with nearly 1.3 million likes on his Facebook page, Vijender is hardly short of admirers as an individual sportsman.

How highly he is regarded by the Indian media was none-too subtly illustrated by the Indian Express outlet last week when Sonny Whiting was named as Vijender’s first professional opponent. "Scaffolder v Superstar" was the provocative heading for the latest news bulletin on his transfer to Manchester.

It did not come as a surprise to learn that news of this Indian takeaway by promoter Frank Warren’s organisation was not enthusiastically received by everyone in India when Vijender announced he was switching codes as well as countries at the end of June.

“It was mostly good from people who understand sport and know me and what I’m doing,” he told insidethegames. “They don’t all know about pro boxing so you get some bad comments, but overall there has been a good reaction.

"My family, my friends and my boxing coaches are all supporting me.”

A fair degree of the dissatisfaction with his decision most likely stems from the fact that he will not be flying the Indian flag at the World Championships, nor a fourth Olympics in Rio next year or future Commonwealth Games, where previously he has encountered names he could potentially become familiar with again.

In Delhi’s 2010 Commonwealth Games he defeated recent world title contender Frank Buglioni, before a controversial decision saw London 2012 bronze medallist Anthony Ogogo emerge victorious after the home fighter was twice deducted two points in the final round after building up a 3-0 lead.

His opponent on Saturday, 27-year-old Whiting, from Rochester in Kent, has a record of two wins from three fights with one knockout, and early bird Vijender has to be in the ring around tea-time to catch the TV audience in India because of the time difference.

Vijender appears pretty content with his new life as a Singh in the Manchester rain. He is adapting and embracing local culture and, while the number of Indian restaurants has not gone unnoticed, he insisted he is sticking to his high-protein fight diet for now and soon intends to sample Manchester’s passion for football.

Last weekend football-fan Vijender was Warren’s VIP box guest at the Emirates Stadium where he watched Arsenal thump Manchester United 3-0 and he finally met boyhood hero Naseem Hamed.

The British ring legend told Vijender he can become the next big Asian superstar.

Singh, left, met his hero Naseem Hamed, right, with promoter Frank Warren at Arsenal FC on Sunday
Singh, left, met his hero Naseem Hamed, right, with promoter Frank Warren at Arsenal FC on Sunday ©Frank Warren

“Naz was a massive, massive, influence on my career, he was my idol and the reason I got into boxing,” said Singh. “Professional boxing is just starting now in India and I believe that in the next few years you will begin to see some very good professional boxers coming through on the world scene.”

No doubt he also will be keeping a watchful eye on proceedings in Doha where a total of 260 boxers in weight categories from 73 countries are competing not just for medals, but for the 23 Olympic quota places for the Rio 2016 Olympics, the first of four qualifying events for male boxers.

Among them are eight members of the Great Britain squad, including the iconically-named Muhammad Ali, a young flyweight from Bury, and super-heavy Joe Joyce, who has succeeded Olympic champion Anthony Joshua.

A Londoner with a degree in fine arts, Joyce is as adept with the paintbrush and palette as he is with his punches and plans to open his own gallery one day.

All eight earned the right to compete at the World Championships by virtue of their performances at the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan and the 2015 European Championships in Samakov, Bulgaria.

Joyce and welterweight Joshua Kelly won gold and bronze respectively in Baku. The remaining six boxers were part of the best ever performance by a team from Great Britain at the European Championships when they returned from Bulgaria with six medals, including gold for Welsh lightweight Joe Cordina, silvers for Ali, light-fly Harvey Horn, bantamweight Quais Ashfaq and light-welter Pat McCormack and a bronze for light-heavy Joshua Buatsi.

Muhammad Ali of Great Britain is one of the boxers competing at Doha 2015
Muhammad Ali of Great Britain is one of the boxers competing at Doha 2015 ©Getty Images

GB did not qualify a boxer for the World Championships at middleweight or heavyweight.

The semi-finals and final stages of the tournament will be screened live on the BBC red button and the finals will also be shown live on BoxNation.

As insidethegames has exclusively revealed, Dr C K Wu has strongly indicated that he might seek a fourth term as International Boxing Association (AIBA) President as he wishes to push through further reforms in what used to be known as amateur boxing but is now professional in all but name.

I also hear on the gloved grapevine he may be limbering up for a legal fight with some of the sport’s professional bodies, who are less than enamored by what they see as an encroachment on their territory.

This is a scrap we look forward to with as much relish as Vijender Singh’s pro debut and the dust-ups in dusty Doha.