Pardeep Nagra arrived for his fight at the Canadian boxing championships to a mixture of applause and boos.
The controversy-ridden Sikh boxer left the ring to unanimous cheers from the crowd of 300 at the Ramada Inn, having lost a 7-3 decision to 10-time Canadian light-flyweight champion Domenic Filane but having won a good deal of respect.
Filane, from Schreiber, Ont., a veteran of more than 200 fights, outclassed his inexperienced opponent, but Nagra covered up constantly and didn't embarrass himself in the semi-final bout.
He took a low blow in the third round and sank to the canvas, but got back up rather than milking the incident for a possible disqualification.
"It's been a long time coming for me -- three years and a lot of pressure to get to this level," Nagra said. "I was happy with my performance. I was fighting against someone who has more national championships than I have competitive fights."
Nagra said he will continue his fight to get the International Amateur Boxing Association to change the rule that disallows boxers to compete wearing beards.
"It's not just for me, but for the greater good of humanity," he said. "I'm not sure if I'm accepted yet. I'd hope the Canadian Amateur Boxing Association would come around."
In fact, two days before the fight, CABA technical director Matt Mizerski publicly wrote off 29-year-old Nagra and his battle to wear the beard, which is a part of his Sikh faith.
"He's not going to win anyway," the official said.
"That was unfair and unwarranted," Nagra said. "If, as Canadians, we are going to be ambassadors of good will and human rights, you want the organization behind you. The statement seemed hostile under the circumstances."
For his part, Filane said he was also under pressure. The light-flyweight championship was postponed a month because of the legal fight over the issues of religion and regulations.
"How'd you feel with the whole world watching?" Filane said. "It was pretty hair-raising.
"I never faced this in 10 years of Canadian championships. I was fighting someone whose never been here before. I wouldn't say he's good. He's an amateur and he was trying to survive. I take my hat of to him because he did."
Many of the ringside voices were calling for Filane to knock out Nagra. But Filane, who has been to two Olympics and three Commonwealth Games, where he's won two bronze medals, stuck to his usual strategy of trying to win on points.
"I don't feel hostility toward anyone," he said. "When I go into the ring, it's my job to beat him, but I know him outside the ring and he's a great guy. He's fighting for something he believes in. But he was fighting for something I've got and he wasn't going to get it.
"I couldn't really understand where he was coming from. I'm just a guy who follows the rules."
Filane will fight for his 11th Canadian title tonight against Tyson Cave, a quick, slick Nova Scotian.
Nagra's reception on Wednesday as boxers arrived for the first stage of the Olympic box-offs wasn't hospitable.
A boxer muttered "Troublemaker" as Nagra walked by. One coach, miffed with the attention surrounding a relatively undistinguished boxer, complained to reporters, "What about the other fighters?"
Filane shrugged. "Even my mother's friends know Nagra's name, and they don't know anything else about sport."