This photo taken on June 12, 2012 shows Indian boxers from the Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC), dubbed the "Little Cuba", running up a sand dune towards coach Jagdish Singh (L) during an early morning desert training session in Bhiwani, a district of Haryana state, around 120 kms west of New Delhi. The boxers at BBC share an undying passion for the sport. Bhiwani's boxing story is one of silent struggle of the people of this dry and dreary terrain who have managed to slug it out despite grinding poverty and deprivation. — AFP Photo

BHIWANI: Just before dawn, 100 boxers run up a steep sand dune pursued by the unrelenting voice of their trainer who believes his unusual preparation methods will help India succeed at the Olympics.

As the fighters try to catch their breath at the top, Jagdish Singh orders them to roll back down the dune with their hands held behind their backs and their eyes tightly closed.

They continue their gruelling workout with punching exercises into the sand, wrestling until they are covered in sweat and grit, and then washing in a nearby brick well.

In the evening, the long day's exertions finish with dancing to Bollywood film music to relax tired muscles.

Singh has prepared two fighters for the London Olympics, and he hopes that his unique desert training camp at Bhiwani, 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of New Delhi, will enable India to secure gold in the ring.

“My motto is simple - put in the hard work and everything else will fall in place,” Singh, 51, told AFP as he supervised an early-morning session with his charges, many of whom are just teenagers.

“Training in the desert strengthens their leg muscles. It is more important for boxers to have stronger legs than hands,” he said as the temperature rose quickly despite the 5:30 am start.

Hardships 'a blessing in disguise'

Singh, a former national-level fighter, is the figurehead of the boxing scene in Bhiwani, where the sport has been an important part of life since a string of professional fighters emerged from the region more than 40 years ago.

Bhiwani is a testing and remote environment to grow up in, with dusty fields yielding poor harvests and residents often having to walk several miles to fetch drinking water.

With industry scarce and unemployment high, boxing offers the chance of a better life -- and teenage boys and girls rush to sign on to Singh's demanding regime.

This photo taken on June 12, 2012 shows Indian boxers from the Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC), dubbed the “Little Cuba”, running up a sand dune towards coach Jagdish Singh (R) during an early morning desert training session in Bhiwani, a district of Haryana state, around 120 kms west of New Delhi. The boxers at BBC share an undying passion for the sport. — AFP Photo

“All the physical struggle has made us rough and tough,” said Singh. “Our children are stronger compared to those from the other regions. The hardships have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

Bhiwani, a part of Haryana state bordering New Delhi, first found itself on the boxing map when Hawa Singh won gold at the 1966 Asian Games.

Hawa won another gold at the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games, cultivating a boxing culture that nurtured the likes of Akhil Kumar, a gold medallist at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.

The current crop of Bhiwani recruits to emerge from Jagdish Singh's care include Beijing Games bronze medallist Vijender Singh and Asian Games 2010 gold medal winner Vikas Krishan Yadav, both of whom will be fighting in London.

Vijender Singh, a heartthrob to his many Indian fans, is a native of Bhiwani, while Yadav hails from the nearby district of Hisar.

“The rags to riches stories spawn a thousand dreams. Boxing has become a means of acquiring health and wealth, fame and fortune,” said Jagdish Singh, who runs his own boxing club and also teaches at the government-run training school.

 The 'extra edge' to win gold

Haryana state lends its support by awarding cash incentives and jobs in the police, army and railways for winners of international medals, and three percent of public jobs in the state are also reserved for athletes.

Yadav, who will compete in the 69 kg weight category in London, believes that working under Jagdish Singh could give him the extra edge needed to win gold.

“The kind of training that we get here is extraordinary,” Yadav, 20, told AFP.

“Our boxers have made a name internationally and the sport will only grow bigger in India in the coming days. I am sure a lot of Olympians and medallists will come out of here.”Singh's training methods may be unconventional but his students offer him complete loyalty, often touching his feet in the traditional Indian greeting to show reverence.

Bharti Poswal, a 14-year-old girl with a mop of jet black hair, smiles shyly when speaking but she transforms into a ruthless fighter once inside one of the rickety boxing rings.

Wearing a padded helmet and gum guard, her sharp upper cuts soon left her hapless sparring partner fighting for breath as she piled in blow after blow.

Poswal's determination to become a world-class boxer has seen her leave her family house in Bhiwani and opt for a nearby girls hostel which houses 12 other aspiring fighters.

“We follow a strict schedule and everyone keeps egging on the other. We are making so many sacrifices so that we can achieve success someday,” she said.

For Poswal and other girls such as 16-year-old Mamta, who uses just one name, the hero that they all worship is MC Mary Kom, the five-time world boxing champion tipped as India's best bet to win gold at London.

“Mary has proved that with determination you can overcome any obstacle. If she can do it, we also can,” Mamta said.

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