I grew up in a family of combat sports fanatics. ITV’s fight nights. Eubank. Benn. The seniors, I mean. Going over to my cousin’s house for a Prince Naseem Hamed Pay Per View was something you’d look forward to all week. Naz, as he was affectionately known, was dazzling. He was electric. Flamboyant. Suave. Brazen. Brash…and brown. It didn’t matter to me that he wasn’t Indian, or South Asian for that matter. He was a British born Yemini, but he was a brown man on my TV knocking his opponents ‘spark out’ (if you were a fan, you’ll get the reference). Over the years, Olympic silver medallist Amir Khan is perhaps the only South Asian to have scaled the heights of Naz. Ilford’s Inder Singh Bassi is a 5-time London champion and hopes to get to those same heights. Currently holding a record of 5 wins and just 1 loss, Inder hopes to become boxing's first ever Sikh world champion. “End of this year, beginning of next year, I’ll be fighting for titles,” he says.
Inder comes from a fighting family. His grandfather came to the UK, from the Indian state of Punjab, at the tender age of 16. “He used to watch Muhammad Ali,” Inder says of Major Singh Bassi. “That’s what motivated him to box. He thought ‘if [Ali] can do it, why can’t I?’” So, Major would cycle to and from a local Boxing gym to fit in evening training sessions, all whilst working full-time at Ford in Dagenham. This lit the dynamite that was to be an explosion of the Bassi boxing family. Inder’s dad and uncle entered the squared circle. Another of Inder’s uncles, Mik Bassi, is an Olympic boxing judge and took the Olympic oath on behalf of all judges during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games. “That’s a massive honour for a Punjabi man.” The torch is now with Inder and he carries it with pride. He sports the name ‘Singh,’ meaning ‘Lion,’ on the front of his shorts. It’s the title, or middle name, inherited by every Sikh boy at birth. “My motivation comes from representation. For someone to say ‘you Sikhs are good people’. I hope when they see me they see a positive role model and that I’ve performed to the best of my ability.”
It’s rare to see Sikh boxers represented among boxing’s professional ranks. A rule dictating beards must be trimmed to a specific length had previously hampered devout Sikhs from competing at amateur level, as this would be seen as a sacrilegious act. The amateur ranks naturally pave the way into professional boxing. Those that medal at the Olympics can often secure a lucrative professional contract. In 2018, a rule that had stood for 120 years was eventually overturned as a result of work conducted by the Sikh Press Association, in which Inder acted as a case study. Before then, a devout Sikh would have been denied the opportunity to box at amateur level and therefore compete at the Olympics.
Inder talks to me about a few other reasons he thinks there might be a lack of Sikh sporting talent, today. The year 1984 is one that will evoke powerful emotion amongst the Sikh community, the significance of which non-Sikhs will likely be unaware of. Events that ultimately led to the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in India, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 17,000 deaths, live strong in the memory of Sikhs all over the world today. “We lost of a lot of youth. Young boys were killed, murdered. We lost an entire generation from the 80s to the 90s. Parents would have to send [their kids] out because they didn’t want them to be killed.”
If not for the devotion and passion for boxing that his grandfather had, Inder may never have had the opportunity to ever consider boxing as a career. “I’m lucky. I’m 3rd generation. If you’re 2nd or 1st generation, leaving Punjab and settling abroad, your main concern wasn’t pursuing a hobby. You had to pay off the debts that brought you to England. Luckily enough, my family were very supportive. They helped me a lot.”
It’s these denied opportunities that Inder and the Bassi family are trying to provide others, through the work they do at their local Gurdwara (Sikh Temple), Singh Sabha London East in Barking. “We run a kids club. Kabaddi, boxing, wrestling. We train the kids there for free.” This is an act of Seva, or selfless service, a key principle of the Sikh faith. “My grandad is the president at the Gurdwara. The sports club is run by myself, my dad, my uncle and a few other coaches. It’s an outlet for kids. [Parents] might not be able to afford sending their kids to a karate club. But, at the Gurdwara it’s free.” Inder’s humble demeanour should not be mistaken for his fighting spirit, one that clearly comes from his family, but also from his faith and culture. There are many key figures in Sikh history, but one in particular inspires Inder more than others. Bhagat Singh. A martyr and revolutionary freedom fighter, Bhagat Singh campaigned for freedom from British colonial rule and was hanged in 1931, at the age of just 23. “To read somebody else’s story and the struggles they went through. It motivates me. If he can do something against all the odds, then surely I can do something.”
The odds are sometimes what Inder is fighting most. Boxing may not come with the same prejudices as team sports, where minority groups can be discriminated against through being denied their deserved place. Prejudice in the ring can manifest in other ways. “It’s more how someone can stop you from progressing. I believe it has come my way a lot.” He describes his experiences. “I’ve been to 3 national finals. Not once have I won,” he tells me. “About 4 years ago, I boxed a navy lad. I believe I beat him all 3 rounds. I would have been the first Sikh to win the national English belt. The fighter himself came up to me after the fight and said ‘you know what, you won that fight fair and square.’ The Mayor of Westminster was there and he said ‘I don’t know much about Boxing, but from what I saw, you won the fight.’ But the judges seemed to think otherwise.” He recalls another story. “I once boxed in the European Box Cup, at Alexandra Palace. In the final I boxed a GB boy. My hair is long, so I tuck it in. My hair must have come loose, nothing major. I got a point taken off and I lost the fight. In a 3-round fight, a point is a third of the fight gone.” I often talk about resilience when it comes to the success of athletes and Inder is no different. “I can’t let somebody else’s prejudice define me. You’ve got to keep pushing. This career of mine is a journey. There are only checkpoints.”
As I write this, Bassi’s next outing is just a few weeks away. COVID has meant a turbulent schedule for fighters all over the world. Boxers tend to want to make the most of their youth. Get in as many fights and gain as much experience, before the big time. With normality resuming, Inder hopes to get back on track and fight at least four times in 2022 , to build on his journey. Everybody has a journey and journeys tell stories. This is Inder’s journey and one that I hope can build and develop into a great story.
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