x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Credit for Indian success goes to Cuba

Indian boxers say they owe their triumphs to coaching techniques from Havana and the recent successes in Beijing are a case in point.

Indian boxer Vijender Singh, right, in the 75kg final of the Commonwealth Boxing Championships in New Delhi in March.
Indian boxer Vijender Singh, right, in the 75kg final of the Commonwealth Boxing Championships in New Delhi in March.

If you walk down Obispo in Cuba's Old Havana for more than a few minutes, there is a fair chance that you will meet someone who offers to show you all of Ernest Hemingway's favourite spots.

In his Parisian days, the American author had a boxing match with a Canadian writer where the time-keeper was another literary figure, F Scott Fitzgerald.

Hemingway, for all his machismo, was no pugilist, and if you want to see beyond the mythology that surrounds his years in Cuba, ignore the offers and wander on to Calle Cuba for a glimpse of the real thing.

At the Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo, you get an insight into Cuba's wonderful boxing culture. The name to remember is not Hemingway, but Dr Alcides Sagarra Caron.

In nearly four decades as Cuba's national coach, Sagarra won 32 Olympic gold medals. He was to the amateur ranks what Angelo Dundee and Eddie Futch were to professional boxing.

With the help of Andrei Chervonenko, a Soviet coach, he set up a programme that won Cuba an astonishing seven golds at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

The battered gym in this old and run-down quarter of Havana can be considered one of the houses that Sagarra built, and Carlos Miranda, the head trainer, stays true to the great tradition.

My visit only involved taking a look and smelling the old leather, sweat and rust.

Tim Blake, who wrote of his experiences in The Independent, went a step further. "I had walked into a strange gym and made friends with cool people who showed me a side to their country, and themselves, that I wouldn't otherwise have seen," he wrote.

"I learnt a lot about Cubans by fighting them, although I never laid a glove on Ramon [one of the trainers].

"He had the classic Cuban stance: so laid-back he could have been surfing."

That Cuban cool can now be found 10,000 miles away in rural northern India.

The country's boxers won three gold and four bronze medals at the recent Commonwealth Games, and head to Guangzhou, China, for the Asian Games which start today, in the hope that one of them will reprise Dingko Singh's achievement at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok. It was there the bantamweight fought his way to the gold medal. To trace how Old Havana and interior Haryana came to be linked, you have to go back two decades to a man named Aspy Adjania.

The president of the boxing federation at the time, Adjania was one of a few good men in a country where administration is usually the preserve of opportunists.

In the early 1990s, he arranged for the most promising of the juniors to train in Cuba, under Sagarra's supervision.

The coach in charge of the Indian boys was Blas Iglesias Fernandez, now enjoying a second stint with the team.

Venkatesan Devarajan, who won bronze at the World Championships in 1994, spoke of his influence in an interview a few years ago.

"He was the most brilliant coach I have ever seen," Devarajan said. "He taught us various techniques and most of India's excellent show in international competitions was possible because of his coaching. He was fantastic in motivating boxers."

The good work of the Adjania years had been carried forward by Gurbux Singh Sandhu, the current national coach.

Together, he and Fernandez have moulded a side that fears no one. They have sparred with their Cuban counterparts and in Vijender Singh, boxing can claim to have one of Indian sport's pin-up boys.

Growing up in a village near Bhiwani, Vijender and his older brother, Manoj, soon realised that the ring offered a way out of their circumstances.

There was inspiration from others too. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Gurcharan Singh, a light heavyweight, came within a whisker of reaching the gold-medal round.

His achievement was the spur for thousands of village boys to hit the punching bags. There were echoes of Cuba, too, with support from the state government that promised government jobs and cash rewards for those that excelled in the international arena.

Back when he was making his way, Vijender used to model to bring in some money. These days, he can be found on catwalks with Bollywood starlets when not in the ring.

Those that mentor him insist though that he will not lose focus.

"I want to implement the Cuban system in India," Fernandez said in a recent interview.

"In order to come up in boxing, India has to maintain its resources for a long time. Now, the juniors are doing very well. Seniors are doing very well. We have to maintain the momentum. The future is safe for Indian boxing."

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing were another triumph for the Indo-Cuban coaching combination. Vijender won bronze, while both Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar reached the last eight. "This gave a lot of confidence to Indian boxers and now they are beating the best boxers in the world," Fernandez said.

Guangzhou represents another tough challenge. "You have countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan which have world-class boxers," he said. "The Chinese are also a force to reckon with in the lighter weight categories. Getting medals will be a lot tougher there."