Trailblazing Sikh boxer Pardeep Nagra says his fight for religious equality isn't finished

The new film 'Tiger' chronicles the story of Canadian boxer Pardeep Nagra. In the late 1990s, he won the right to get in the ring with a full beard.

The flyweight fighter successfully fought to end a beard ban in Canadian amateur boxing

Prem Singh, left, and Pardeep Singh Nagra are seen on the set of the film Tiger. (R3M Productions/Canadian Press)
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Pardeep Nagra's greatest fight has made its way to the big screen — but it's not a match in the boxing ring.

In 1999, the former flyweight boxing champion fought the Ontario amateur boxing association to keep his beard.

At the time, fighters had to be clean shaven during matches, but Nagra, who is Sikh, kept his facial hair as part of his faith.

Tigerstarring Prem Singh as Nagra and Mickey Rourke as his coach, chronicles the boxer's fight to change the rules — an effort he continues to this day around the world — and open boxing to Sikh fighters.

In a scene from the film, the boxer contemplates whether he should shave his beard. In reality, Nagra said, that was never a consideration.

"No gold medal is worth my beard, no championship is worth my faith," Nagra told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"When those young kids will go and win a gold medal, that's my gold medal right there as well, and so that's the journey for me," he said.

Moustaches OK, beards out

When he first entered the boxing gym, Nagra didn't think much of his beard. All he knew, he said, was that one day he would be fighting in the ring.

"And just random, somebody came up and said, 'Hey, are you ever going to compete?' And I said, 'Sure,'" Nagra recalled.

He didn't know about the rule that fighters should be clean shaven until that person mentioned he would have to shave. Sure enough, after consulting with his coach, it was true.

Prem Singh plays boxer Pardeep Singh Nagra in the movie Tiger. Singh told CBC Radio's q that playing Nagra was a 'dream role.' (R3M Pictures)

Moustaches — trimmed and neat — along with sideburns were fine, but beards were a no-go. It was a safety issue, they said. If he was cut beneath the hair, it couldn't be treated.

"They used a lot of crazy wacko arguments, that was just one of them," he said, adding at one point, "they actually tried to flip the script one time during that whole journey."

The association even told Nagra that his beard was an unfair advantage because it would cushion blows to his face.

"The origins were never there for safety; it was strictly aesthetics," he said.

Disqualified

Eventually, the rules were relaxed and Nagra competed — and won — the provincial championships, securing him a spot at the national amateur boxing competition in Vancouver.

When he arrived, the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association, now known as Boxing Canada, refused to let him weigh in.

The association disqualified him.

"I had lawyers who were planning, just in case this happens, to walk in arbitrarily into the courthouse ... without being on the docket asked to get heard right away," he told Bambury.

You have to be in the ring when it comes to human rights.- Pardeep   Nagra , former boxer

Nagra and his lawyers made their case and won an injunction.

"They said, 'Hey Pardeep, go back down. Weigh in. We're faxing them. They're well aware of the decision and go and enjoy yourself and fight. And good luck.'"

He returned to the venue in time to weigh in a second time, but rather than follow through, he says they cancelled his entire weight class — a qualifying event for the 2000 Summer Olympics.

"Then you can just see the animosity growing against me again," he said, adding his life was threatened.

During a competitive event in B.C. in 2000, a man approached him holding a razor, knife and scissors before being taken away.

The battle continues

The Canadian Amateur Boxing Association maintained that they didn't cancel the event, but postponed it. Nagra took the association to court a second time in order to fight with his beard intact. In early January 2000, he won.

Disallowing boxers who have beards for religious reasons, the court ruled, violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nagra competed later that month.

Nagra smiles at a news conference in Toronto on Jan. 12, 2000. A court ruled that because of his religious beliefs Nagra will be allowed to keep his beard and continue to box in Canada. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Reflecting on his battle today, he sees parallels in the Quebec government's proposed ban on some religious head coverings.

"It's through my faith that I can in turn make my country better, and I can hold my country accountable to the values that it holds dear," he said.

Regulations for Sikh boxers have improved since Nagra's final court case. Bearded fighters can compete across Canada, and rules were recently changed in the U.K.

But he's critical of the international boxing community for being too slow to move.

"We're working still at the international level 20 years removed," he said.

"You have to be in the ring when it comes to human rights."


To hear the full interview with Pardeep Nagra, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.  

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