As a 10-year-old, I was probably too busy watching Power Rangers and stuffing my face full of custard creams. Dylan ‘The Natural’ Cheema, on the other hand, was training for and competing in Kickboxing bouts, on his way to becoming a world champion. His best friend Amarjeet’s dad, who Dylan affectionately refers to as ‘Uncle’ (a term of endearment for elders within the community), was a Kickboxing instructor. “Amarjeet says ‘come down and give it a try’.” That’s where it all started. “I enjoyed the grit. I enjoyed making people miss.”
And so began a 15-year journey that would culminate in Dylan walking out to a packed hometown crowd at Coventry’s SkyDome Arena in April, literally flying the flag of his culture for all to see. Having scaled the heights of the Kickboxing scene, Cheema has only just dipped his toe into the Boxing world, but the splash he made was enough to send ripples up and down the UK. The Sky Sports BOXXER series was coming to Coventry and Dylan knew he had to be a part of it. “I just said to my manager ‘we’ve got to get on this show in some capacity’,” he says.
The opportunity presented was the next step in Dylan’s professional career. A huge step, in fact. The lights, the stage, the cameras and a captive audience. This was a chance to represent the Sikh and Punjabi community, on a mammoth stage. “When we had a media day at Sky, I knew I had the opportunity to represent and showcase [who we are] on a different platform.” You’ve only got to follow Dylan on Instagram to realise how important his Sikh faith and heritage is to him. Here was his opportunity to make some noise and boy did he do that. For each of his three fights on the night, Dylan and his team were accompanied to the ring by a set of Dhol players. The Dhol is a double-sided drum instrument from the Indian subcontinent, synonymous with Punjabi culture. “Uncle’s been having the lads walk out with the Dhol [in Kickboxing] since back in the late 90s. When we had the [BOXXER] announcement, before we accepted the fight, I said ‘we need Sky to understand that we’re walking out with the Dhol. That IS going to happen’. It was just all about being me.” For Dylan though, it’s not just about the here and now. It’s about what he might be able to do for those who see him as a representation of themselves. “I get to keep on representing. Then, when someone new comes along, I can give [Sky Sports] a little nudge and say ‘look, you’ve got another talent here. You need to look at him, or her’.”
There are 3 different generations in the Cheema household, which I think just epitomises how close Dylan is to his family and his culture. “There’s 11 of us.” Dylan’s parents were nothing but encouraging. “When I started, we didn’t know it was going to get so serious.” The joy and the success meant he would continue training and competing through his adolescence, but this posed a challenge. Education and exams. My research into the lack of British South Asian representation in domestic county cricket led me to the ECB’s South Asian Engagement Action Plan, which found that “the cultural importance placed on education and career development in South Asian communities is very high, creating a challenge to retaining talented young South Asian players, particularly between the ages of 16-18.”[i] Even though this research is specific to summer sports, particularly cricket, Dylan’s Kickboxing career was put on ice for a short while. “My dad pulled me out of Kickboxing for a year, or until I finished my GCSEs. It was probably the worst year of my life. I just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t happy. Where I wasn’t in the gym, I put that time into schoolwork but my grades didn’t get better.” For his A-Levels, Dylan was allowed back to Kickboxing under one proviso. That he kept his grades up to an acceptable level. “I went back [to training]. I still competed. My grades started getting better. It made sense. It worked for me.”
“It’s the mindset of the parents that I want to help change,” Dylan says of the opportunity he now has. “[Sport is] not a bad thing. It keeps the mind focussed.” He’s not wrong. Along with the physical benefits of exercise, sports psychologist and author Dr Josephine Perry says that research shows “school children who exercise improve their sociable behaviour, their classroom conduct, control their emotions better and perform better on school tests. It also increases their self-esteem and confidence, improves their sleep, reduces stress and anxiety and helps improve communication skills.” [ii] Perhaps this is research that should be put to South Asian parents and help change the age-old mindset that sport and education are unable to coincide with each other.
After taking the Boxing world by storm and winning the BOXXER series , on that now infamous night in Coventry (Watch Dylan's final fight of the tournament and crowning moment HERE>), Dylan has also become an exclusive BOXXER fighter, after signing on to a long-term deal with the promotion. Undefeated and full of beans, Dylan knows he cannot be complacent and also knows the responsibility he carries. “I can’t take my foot off the gas…It’s all about inspiring and paving the way for the next generation, to say that ‘you can do this, you can reach that level’. It’s not easy, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into it. You’ve just got to keep working.”
Even with the hard work and the strict diet plans, Dylan still gets to sample some of him mum’s home cooking, contrary to the belief that South Asian food is detrimental to sporting performance. Retired world champion Amir Khan was recently quoted as saying Asian diets are “appalling. It’s curries. It’s not the right diet to be a champion.”[iii] It’s safe to say Dylan doesn’t agree with Khan. He’s found a way of making it work. “I still eat chicken curry twice a week. my mum understands my diet plan. She’ll make my chicken curry separate to everyone else’s, because it’s got a little less oil in. It’s got some more peppers, tomatoes, spinach. You can eat the food. It’s just about what you put in it.”
At the time of writing this, barring any unforeseen circumstances, Dylan is due for another hometown outing on June 25th. If we get another showing like we did back in April then I want whatever Mrs Cheema is putting in those chicken curries.
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[i] Making Cricket A Game For Everyone: Engaging South Asian Communities – An ECB Action Plan 2018