Jayam Ravi’s film ‘Bhooloham’, while debating the pitfalls of consumerism, has rather inadvertently turned the floodlights on an unacknowledged tradition of North Chennai: Professional boxing. Up until the 70s, prize-fighting bouts were a huge draw in the largely working class part of what was then Madras.
Boxers from Chennai, mainly from the impoverished slums and fishing tenements of the northern part of the city, were renowned for their technique than brawn. The entire tradition was home-grown. Mentors picked up talent from street-fighting kids and nurtured them.
Boxers today talk about two camps in the city: Salpetta and Idiyappan Naicker families. No one is quite sure how these names came about or what happened to the families later. One retired boxer casually says Salpetta was for fishermen and the other was for dalits.
While boxing bouts were a means to settle scores for these families as well as other smaller local groups, there was also handsome prize money at stake for these impoverished 18-year-olds venting their adolescent energies into street-fighting. Not only was the money good (Rs 10,000 for the winner), everyone from the neighbourhood would crowd around to witness these bouts held in arenas in Kannapan Thidal near the JN stadium.
The boxing ring was where names were made or marred. “It was a platform to become famous for aspirants. Money was only secondary,” says 55-year-old A Raju, a four time all-India gold medallist in amateur boxing.
So what was the real prize? “Gethu,” says Raju. In street Tamil, gethu means anything from self-respect through attitude to arrogance.
Son of a fisherman and fish vendor in Choolai, Raju’s teenage years were spent loitering around the Pattalam market after he dropped out of school, and was inevitably drawn towards street violence. Many known figures like Tori Rosario, Selvam, Pattalam Dayalan, Nagaraj and Kasimedu Vadivelu, were inducted into the sport after their ‘fame’ as local henchmen grew.
Winning battles, sometimes knocking out opponents on sheer power, built an aura around the local residents as well as potential employers like businessmen, real estate brokers and money lenders, for whom the boxers later moonlighted as strongmen.
Dayalan, a feared boxer in the 80s, is now a frail old fish-seller in the Pattalam market. But his name inspires awe and fear among the fish-vendors in the market, as they reminisce his brute strength and ability to take on five men at a time in a street-fight.
Raju and Rocky Brass were some of the lucky few who were spotted by Railways and offered jobs under the sports quota in the late 70s. Vadivelu, one of Rocky’s favourite local boxers, matured into a strong-man. He became Boxer Vadivelu and was later murdered in the Central jail in Dec, 1999. And it sparked a notorious riot in which at least nine were killed. Dayalan recalled a rival boxer’s precociously talented understudy, whose career was cut-short when his right hand was chopped off in a street fight.
Poked a little further, Rocky, himself a drop-out, reveals that his foray into boxing was because of his police constable father’s concern that his son was falling into bad company. His wife recalls how her brother, gaining notoriety in Kasimedu for beating up boys older to him, was packed off to the Army.
However, V Devarajan, the first boxer from India to shine at the international stage, says that pugilists were very disciplined and sincere when it came to the sport. “They might have done all kinds of things in their personal lives; but they would lead a life of abstinence three months before a serious bout,” says the 45 year old trained under the Salpetta school.
From the late 70s and through the 80s, a number of professional boxers made the jump to amateur, what with organisations like Railways, ICF, police and armed forces offering them employment. Old timers recall an unofficial ban on professional boxing due to the law and order problems it tended to create.
Though the sport attracted only those from the lower middle class and uneducated poor, the period from mid1980s till the early 2000s saw a change where middle class families began to send their children to learn boxing, Devarajan says.
From then on, the sport deteriorated in the city due to factionalism and corruption in the state association, he alleges. “Anybody and everybody gets into boxing and selection is dependent on factors other than talent. Because of this, I sent my brothers to Andhra Pradesh and they came up the ladder through their association,” Devarajan says.