He was born into a farmer’s family, followed the norm of Haryanvis joining the army or paramilitary forces and was introduced to boxing at the age of 21. Mehtab Singh, an undisputed light heavyweight champion in the national circuit from 1971 to 1976, became the first boxing Olympian from Bhiwani — known as the country’s boxing hub — when he made it to the three-member boxing squad for the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The Arjuna awardee and 1974 Asian Games silver medalist boxer died at the age of 72 on Tuesday night at Manesar, Gurgaon. He was survived by three sons.
His last rites took place at his native village Isharwal in Bhiwani district.
Spotted by another boxing legend Hawa Singh in the army, both became household names in Bhiwani and inspired generations to pursue their career in boxing.
“Mehtab sir was the first Olympian in boxing from Bhiwani as well as from Haryana. He was a great source of inspiration for us when we joined boxing. We always wanted to box like him,” says Beijing Olympic medalist boxer Vijender Singh. “The initial big names that put Bhiwani at the international boxing scenario were Hawa Singh and Mehtab Singh. Both were the legends of the sport. The boxers of our generation or even before us, followed their footsteps to earn a name of ‘mini Cuba’ for Bhiwani.”
“It’s a big loss for the entire sporting fraternity. He was one of the boxing stars of the country and will always be remembered for his simplicity,” said boxing Arjuna awardee Raj Kumar Sangwan, who was part of the national selection panel along with Mehtab Singh.
Before boxing, considering his well built frame and stamina, Mehtab Singh was selected to pursue athletics at the regimental level. He joined Indian army as a jawan in Guards 1 in 1966. “It was in 1969, when Hawa Singh uncle, who was already a big name in the sport and was also in the Guards regiment, spotted my father and introduced him to boxing. Later he won gold twice in the Asian championship and silver in the 1974 Asian Games. He also went on to represent the country in the Olympics,” said Mehtab’s eldest son Prabhat Nagal, who was a national medallist in boxing at junior-level. “Few years ago, my father told me that whenever and wherever he dies, his cremation should take place at our native village Isharwal.”
“In our times, the army used to be the powerhouse in boxing and all the country’s top boxers during the 60s and 70s were from the defence forces. Like others, Mehtab Singh was also a product of Indian army. He was a disciplined boxer and his strength was his great endurance,” said M Venu, who along with Mehtab Singh was part of the three-member Indian boxing contingent at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“He was a man of few words and remained grounded throughout his life, even after when he became an Arjuna awardee and even when he was a national selector.”
After retiring from the army as an honorary captain in 1994, Mehtab Singh joined Moti Lal Nehru Sports School, Rai, as a boxing coach. Later he also remained as a national selector.
“He’s one of the pioneers of making Haryana a sporting powerhouse in the country. I knew him from his playing days and during his stint as a boxing coach in Sports School Rai. He was a gentleman and always happy to see the young brigade performing better than him at the international arena,” said Haryana’s first Asian Games gold medalist high jumper Bhim Singh.