In March this year, Neeraj Goyat was busy placing calls and connecting people: he was helping Indian students stranded in Ukraine escape in the wake of Russia's invasion. Later that month, he was busy training Telugu superstar Ram Charan for an action sequence in the mega-budget film RRR. Over the past year and some, Goyat has done a fair few things, but he hasn't done much of is his day job: trying to knock the living daylights out of someone who's looking to do the exact same thing to him. This Saturday he'll be back at it.
That's when Neeraj Goyat, professional boxer, will be stepping into a ring in Bangkok, Thailand to take on Rachata Khaophimai. Khaophimai has a career record of 11 Wins (8 by KO) and 1 loss, and he'll be fighting in front of a partisan home crowd. "As his record shows," says Goyat, "[Khaophimai] is some boxer. He's younger than me by 7-8 years and it'll be a very tough fight. But unless I take tough fights now, how can I take big fights in the future?"
It's that last rhetorical-question-of-a-statement that defines Goyat. It would have been easy to stage a comeback against a rookie, but he won't have it. He wants to get to the top, and he's not afraid of taking the road less traveled to get there.
Goyat started, as almost all boxers in India do, as an amateur, dreaming of representing India in the Olympics. He began as a boxing cadet at the Army Sports Institute in '06 (where he shared a room with CWG and Asiad gold medalist Vikas Krishan). His rise was rapid. He won the youth nationals in '08 and got silvers in the senior nationals in '11 and '12. He was on the road everyone took... except he couldn't qualify for the London Olympics. So in 2013, he turned pro, and it was a major risk. At the time, he says, "no one knew about professional boxing in India. There were probably two-or-three decent pro boxers, including me."
It wasn't a spur of the moment decision, though. He hadn't been happy with the way his amateur career had been going, and he had always been infatuated with the world of professional prizefighting. "There's a different feel to it, worldwide," he says. "I thought I will represent India at such a place where the whole world will know me."
It wasn't easy. For an amateur boxer brought up within the system, professional boxing may as well exist on another planet. The number of bouts you get, for instance. "Every year, if you are a national level (amateur) boxer, you'll get at least five fights just in the nationals," he says. "We may only get one a year!" Add to this the total control over schedules and training and support staff - where everything is customised for one person, you. Goyat loves it, though. "Everything is dedicated to me, it all caters to my needs," he says in a tone that screams 'what's not to love?'
"One professional fight, for 12 rounds, is better than these four-five national fights put together." (Amateur boxers go 3 rounds per bout). A major factor in what makes it "better" is the amount of planning and strategising he gets to do. "I love it! We have one opponent and you know who it is well in advance. You know his strengths and weaknesses, and there's a whole different kind of fun in preparing for that."
He has no regrets over the choice he made. In around a decade of professional boxing, Goyat has done rather well. He has a record of 16 wins (6 by KO), 2 draws and 3 losses. Two of those losses and both draws came in his first four fights. He's a three-time holder of the WBC Asian title and the first Indian to make it onto the WBC rankings (top 40 per category).
In 2019 he was slated for a massive boost, a fight that could have propelled him to the top tier - a fight against the inimitable Amir Khan, former world champion and A-list crowd-puller. An accident, though, in which he suffered a hairline fracture to his right hand put paid to that. "It was going to be a very big fight," the disappointment evident in his voice. "It would have been quite something for me, of course, but it would also have taken Indian pro boxing to another level. I lost out quite a bit financially as well, and it was a tough period mentally. But then I figured this is all God's plan. Nothing gives your mind strength like thinking that whatever God has done, he's done for our good."
The eternal optimist in the prizefighter, though, comes out soon enough. "Yes, Amir Khan announced his retirement recently, but we really can't say... so many boxers have come out of retirement. When we met in Dubai last year, he had told me 'Neeraj bhai, I definitely want to fight you.' So if we get good sponsors or a good promoter, 101% this fight will happen."
It's that positivity that also saw him expand his horizons beyond boxing as well. In 2017, he ventured into Bollywood, helping to train actor Vineet Kumar Singh in Anurag Kashyap's rather brilliant boxing movie Mukkaabaaz. He has since worked with Farhan Akhtar in Toofan ("I did some acting too in that movie - I had one dialogue!"), trained Telugu actor Varun Tej for Ghani and of course, his stint with Ram Charan and RRR. He's enjoyed those experiences, how down-to-earth and friendly the celebrities he's worked with have been, and the fact that none of this really interfere with his training. "They all involve some form of boxing, anyway," he laughs. "Training was always the priority".
In early March, he expanded his world even further. To Ukraine. One panic-stricken call from a worried father snowballed into Goyat leveraging his friendships and network across the nation that loves its boxing. He figured he could help, so he did. "I talked to some 300 kids in Ukraine at the time," he says. "I spoke with them when they got back also and I felt so good that I could help. In fact the first batch of kids who came out of Ukraine came to me and helped me. My team here kept building day-by-day.
"Oh, and my friends in Ukraine - boxers, coaches, promoters - they are doing okay," he says, his voice taking the reassuring tone it must have when soothing the nerves of scared students and desperate parents.
At the time, training took a backseat. But for large parts of '20 and '21 that is all that he had - with no fights on the horizon, he had needed to keep himself fit. "Six to eight weeks before a fight, I train specifically for the fight but sometimes it takes a year or more to get a good fight. In the [the early stages of] the pandemic, I didn't get any fights" he says.
During his downtime, he also focuses on an organisation he was instrumental in setting up: the Professional Boxing Organisation of India. From the "2 or 3" pro boxers when he was starting out, "we have about 150 professional boxers in India now. In my decade or so, a lot of change has happened." PBOI attempts to ensure pro boxers get their due, get good fights and bring a semblance of regulation and framework to the industry.
"But our [in-ring performance] standards are pretty low," he says, "For example, professional boxing training in India is not proper at all. We need to focus on that. Maybe that's the improvement we'll see in the next ten years, eh?" he laughs.
It's the kind of critical honesty that has helped shape a unique career. In effect it's him saying that he's been around for a while and done quite a bit, but there's so much more to do. On Saturday, he'll want to prove just that to the world, and to Khaophimai: Neeraj Goyat, professional boxer, ain't done just yet. Nowhere near done.
Goyat's idol growing up: Mike Tyosn, favourite boxer: Vasiliy Lomachenko