New Delhi: Vijender Singh (75kg) became the first Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympic Games for a third successive time after reaching the semi-finals of the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sunday.
The first Indian to win an Olympic and World Championships medal - bronze in both events - Vijender outpunched Chuluuntumur Tumurkhuyag of Mongolia 27-17 to not just assure himself of an Olympic berth but also a medal at the ongoing tournament.
"I am back," were Vijender's first words while speaking to PTI from Astana after winning the crucial bout.
The 26-year-old had failed in his first attempt to book a ticket for London in last year's World Championships.
"I have answered all my critics, who said that I was finished (after losing in the first round of World Championships)," said the former world number one, who was gasping for breath after a draining encounter.
Before the 2008 Beijing Games, Vijender had won gold at the Asian Qualifiers at that time, which incidentally were also held in Kazakhstan.
"I will now give it my all in the Olympics and prove that I am the best. It's such a relief to have got qualified. The fact that I am the first Indian boxer to have qualified for a third successive Olympics makes it all the more special," he said.
In the evening session, Sumit Sangwan (81kg) also entered the semifinals by beating Korea's Hyeongkyu Kim 22-12. But he is still not assured of an Olympic berth as the 81kg has just three slots on offer and if the 19-year-old loses in the last-four stage, he will have to fight it out in a playoff bout to get the Olympic berth.
Sumit, who defeated Olympian Dinesh Kumar in the national trials for the event, was tied 4-4 with his rival in the opening round.
The Haryana-lad then got a slight hold over the bout by clinching the second round 7-3. In the final three minutes, Sumit dominated the proceedings and sealed the issue comfortably.
"It was an extraordinary performance by a very talented youngster. He played at medium and long range and his combination of hooks landed perfectly. Some of the blows were in fact very powerful. He is really promising," Sandhu said.
Sumit will face Jordan's Ihab Almatdault in the semifinals.
Later, Asian Games silver-medallist Manpreet Singh (91kg) beat Chingis Borbashev of Kyrgyzstan in less than two rounds in his quarterfinal bout.
The Indian was interestingly down 4-8 in the opening three minutes before coming back strongly with some hard punches that resulted in three compulsory counts for Borbashev in the next round which led to the referee awarding the bout to Manpreet.
He will now face Iran's Ali Mazaheri in the semifinal.
Manpreet will have to fetch a gold in the final to book his Olympic berth as his category has just one slot available for London Games.
"That's what boxing is all about. It's unpredictable, Manpreet was trailing but he won because he got himself together and went all out in the second round," said Sandhu after an all-win day for India.