As a kid, Simran Jeet Singh had dreams of becoming a professional boxer. At 10, sleeping in a Leicester bedroom surrounded by posters of Muhammad Ali — his favorite being the iconic image of Ali towering over a knocked out Sonny Liston — Singh started boxing at a local sports center. (Other favorite pros he used to watch over and over again on VHS tapes of his grandfather’s: Frank Bruno, Cornelius Edwards, Kirkland Laing and Maurice Hope.) Eventually, Singh began fighting in amateur club bouts. He tells me over the phone that he only had three losses in 30 fights, all of which were on technicalities. “I was very good at the sport and took to it naturally,” he says. “I was easily one of the best in the club by the time I left in my teens.”
All of which is to say that his in-ring career wasn’t cut short by choice. Like many Sikh men in adolescence, Singh was growing out his beard at the time, a practice known as kesh, in which Sikhs grow out their hair naturally as a symbol of respect for all of God’s creation. It’s one of the “Five Ks,” or rituals ordered by the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, in 1699 that many Sikhs consider to be the core tenets of their faith. Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Khalsa, the author of Living Reality, a book that details the philosophies of Sikhism, writes about kesh:
“Guru Gobind Singh gave us the knowledge of kesh, of long, uncut hair. If a person, from birth to the end, does not ruin the antenna of the body, the hair, then insanity cannot come near that person under any circumstance. He taught us to keep it intact. He taught that there is a function this hair serves sitting on the crown of the head. There is a reason in God’s scheme that our hair grows and grows. Even when we cut it, our hair will continue to grow.”
This, however, presented a dilemma for Singh (who is now 29). While he wanted to box at an amateur level — a necessary step if he ever wanted to turn pro — the Amateur Boxing Association of England (now known as England Boxing) prohibited facial hair in competitive matches back then (circa 2009). The ABAE said that the ruling was necessary because facial cuts and wounds needed to be clearly visible — both to judge competitive matches and for the safety of the boxers themselves. While some Sikhs worked around the rule by training with a beard only to shave it off the night before a fight, others like Singh distanced themselves from the sport because of it. “Many of us ended up losing passion for the sport because we felt we weren’t welcome, despite all the years we spent training,” he explains.
The good news is that the ABAE lifted the ban on beards back in June, after years of campaigning from Sikh and Muslim groups, who argued that the bans constituted religious discrimination. In a statement, ABAE’s CEO Gethin Jenkins said: “Boxing is rightly proud of its diversity, and we hope by changing this rule we continue with our attempts to be as inclusive as possible.”
Still, though Singh welcomes the change, he feels that the ban has had a lasting impact on Britain’s Sikh community, and put boxers like him in an unfair position. “It felt like I was being asked to choose between my religion and boxing — and my religion was always going to win,” he says.
Similarly, Inder Singh Bassi, a five-time London amateur boxing champion who used to shave before his matches, told ITV News that Sikhs were opting to play different sports in order to avoid having to shave their beards. And London-based boxer Karam Singh told TalkSport Radio that the ban had been a “betrayal” for the Sikh community. “We’re a warrior community. We’ve fought world wars. We’ve got our own rich history. If I didn’t have boxing, I’d have no discipline. My faith and my boxing are the two biggest things for me and they go hand in hand,” he offered.
These are also the same frustrations expressed in Tiger, a new movie that’s due to premiere in the U.S. and Canada next month. The film, which stars Mickey Rourke, is based on the true story of Pardeep Singh Nagra, a Canadian amateur flyweight champion, who, in 1999, was prohibited from competing in the Canadian Boxing Championships unless he shaved his beard. After dropping out of the tournament, Nagra filed a human rights case in the Canadian courts on the grounds of religious liberty. Nagra eventually won, but only after months of fighting with the courts and the media. As he told the Canadian Museum of Human Rights:
“The most frustrating part that I had during that process and that I still have today was being recognized and seen as a Canadian for who I am. I am a Canadian, and yet, people would say, ‘Why do those people come to our country to change our rules?’ And who are the ‘those’ and who are the ‘we,’ in terms of trying to frame accusations that way? There were pieces like, ‘Why doesn’t India take on this case’ Because this has nothing to do with India. I’m a Canadian citizen, and I’m Canadian. There were comments like, ‘You knew the rules coming in, and so, why don’t you just try to find something else to do?’”
For Saurav Dutt, the London-based writer who assisted with the film’s screenplay and wrote the book it’s based on, it was this point about identity that was at the core of Nagra’s story. “The heart of the story is what it means to live in a multicultural society,” Dutt says. “[Nagra’s] story is one where he’s made to confront his identity, and he’s made to defend his religious identity in court, despite the fact that he’s a Canadian citizen and has represented his country.”
In that way, Dutt adds, “It isn’t a film just about Nagra. It’s also about being a person with different identities but still being part of your society. So it’s about the people who fight for the right to wear turbans while serving in the army, or sports where Muslim women want to wear the hijab. The message from the film is that you can have deeply held principles and devotion to articles of faith, and still be loyal to your community, society and country.”
Singh laughs when I ask if he’d box again now that the beard ban has been lifted. “I’m way too old and fat!” he exclaims. He does, however, welcome the change, and hopes that it’ll help attract a new generation of Sikhs into the sport — maybe even one who will grow up to be a national or world champion. Or at least famous enough to have his own line of posters that cover the bedroom walls of 10-year-olds throughout the U.K., no matter their religion or race, just like the Muhammad Ali posters that used to serve as both Singh’s wallpaper and inspiration.