RIYADH: On Oct. 16, Arjun Singh was on the bill of Amir Khan’s Crypto Fight Night at La Perle in Dubai.
It was easily the biggest bout of the young British-Asian boxer’s career, and he came up trumps, defeating UAE national team fighter Mohammed Alattas.
Singh is only 14. One of the rare rising stars in the UAE’s fledgling grassroots boxing scene, he took up the sport as an eight-year-old after moving to Dubai from Birmingham, in England where he was born and raised.
He said: “It was mainly to grow my confidence. Boxing was on the rise, and it was a popular sport to do. I just wanted to join in and now look where it has taken me, winning a national championship.”
Singh had won a UAE under-13 national title in early 2020, just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus outbreak could have disrupted his progress at such a vital stage in his development, but he has managed to maintain a strict training regime, balanced with his schoolwork.
“I was training five to six days a week, and even on my off days I still go for a run. I always try to finish my schoolwork in school so that I’ve got the rest of the day for boxing.
“I do stretches first. Do my footwork for around 10 minutes and start skipping to get warmed up. And then we’ll just do some pad work or go into the bags and then after that, if there’s 20 minutes left, we’ll just go upstairs and do some cardio or fitness-related work, then abs at the end,” the NAS Dubai school student added.
He noted that his family, particularly his father, had given him “amazing” support, and along with many friends had been ringside as he walked out for his fight at La Perle.
“It was kind of surreal to be honest. When I was walking out, I didn’t even realize there were so many people watching. But then the adrenaline just rushed through me, and I was just focused on one thing and that was my opponent. Before the fight you get nervous but then during it you just focus on one thing and that’s winning,” he said.
Then came his big moment, the official announcement.
“When it went to points, I was kind of nervous that I wasn’t going to win, but then I heard it was a unanimous decision and I heard my name being called out. I looked over and could see all my friends and family just cheering for me which was kind of amazing,” he added.
One of Singh’s favorite boxers is the Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko, who he admires for his movement in the ring, but the youngster has special affection for a fighter much closer to home.
“To look at and to idolize it is probably Hamzah Sheeraz, because he comes to the gym, and I would always see him in the ring, working with his team. And it’s always good to pick out the little stuff that he does.
“He always gives me advice on how to go about life, and how to find balance in boxing and your life. He tells me when to run, and how far to run. And also, his team has been giving me nutrition advice,” he said.
While Singh has all the facilities that he could ask for, he pointed out that maintaining a high standard of boxing was increasingly difficult due to there not being many other fighters in his age group.
“Hopefully, sparring wise, it gets better, but at this point it’s like a drought. There are no sparring partners. I have a couple of sparring partners that come from the UK. And whenever I go to the UK, I could be sparring every week or so. But in Dubai it’s like once a month, and that’s against kids older than me, not even in my weight category. So, we have to go a bit slower, which isn’t good for me.”
When he does get the opportunity to return home, he trains at Birmingham’s Eastside Boxing Gym, a hub for talented amateurs.
“It’s amazing to be honest, the sparring there is actually really, really good, and the amateurs they have brought up are amazing,” Singh added.
He has been mentored by Eastside’s Paul Soggy and David Coldwell and is now getting similar backing in Dubai.
His trainer, Waleed Din, said: “The plans for Arjun are to get him as many fights as possible and as much sparring as we can. There are not many people in this region who can compete with Arjun, so we will have to travel. Trips abroad are essential for his growth.”
Michelle Kuehn, founder of the Real Boxing Only gym, where Singh trains, is a keen supporter of grassroots boxing and of developing young careers such as his.
She said: “I think he needs what every amateur boxer needs in the UAE. They need a grassroots movement, and they need boxing growing from the bottom up. And that means more individuals who are active in the sparring and fighting scene. The bouts are not available for amateurs now. The UAE Boxing Federation is doing as much as it can, but it’s still a new sport here and that takes years to develop.
“There are a few key gyms in Sharjah as well that are really contributing to that. And my goal for the gym, and a few others that I would like to work with, is to give the boxers the opportunities they need,” Kuehn added.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, RBO held Fight Club DXB nights every Saturday, with the focus being on giving participants the chance to spar. It is something she hopes to bring back in partnership with other gyms “at least two to three times a month.”
Currently, disruptions remain, and the national championships, which were supposed to be held in December, were cancelled.
She said: “So if Arjun isn’t fighting at the nationals, where is he fighting? There just isn’t enough competition. He should be fighting three times a month. That’s how it works in the rest of the well-established boxing countries. That’s how you get the experience you need, that’s how you get better. And it’s something that we’re really going to focus on in 2022.”
Though Kuehn’s gym has been a training base for many professional boxers in recent years, she believes that attracting big names for one-off fight nights is not a sustainable way to grow the sport in the UAE.
“You can come at the top all you want, but they just leave and go home. They don’t live here. There are a few pros that live here, but even they, how many times are they going to fight each other?
“It costs money to be a pro as well, and you have to get sponsors and you don’t get paid that much, especially if you’re not fighting anyone of significance. And the ones that are significant don’t live here. They live where the training is, which is in the UK or the US,” she added.
For now, she will continue to support Singh in every way she can at her gym.
Kuehn said: “I will push for him to fight a lot in the next two years. He’ll probably need to go to the UK and to fight, he’ll need to get into tournaments there. And I’ll be looking to build tournaments here for him. And then I would say he should go pro quite young and get into the really, really big fights.
“He’s got a skill set. He’s got the power. He’s got the family backing. He’s got the gym behind him.”