The real twist in Indian boxing germinated in the summer of 1991 when the then Boxing Federation of India president Aspy Adjania roped in Cuban Blas Iglesias Fernandez to tap the boundless potential of young Indian pugilists. Nearly two decades later, this move has gained in importance and the characters have risen to heroic proportions, thus ma­king the story compelling reading.
A man of purpose, Adjania went abo­ut the task of redeeming Indian boxing, plunged in archaic training techniques and traditional ways, with devotional in­tent. Sure, Adjania had his share of criti­cs when he brought in Fernandez. But in less than a year, he forged a strong unit, which contained the likes of the already-proven Dingko Singh, V Devarajan, Zor­am Thanga and Dharminder Singh Yadav. For the first time, five Indian boxers qualified for the Olympics (Barcelona 1992). The Cuban played a critical role in reshaping Devarajan’s technique. “He is the best coach I have ever seen. He taught us various techniques and India’s excell­ent show in international competition is because of his coaching. He is fantastic in motivating boxers. We learned that in order to win points, we don’t have to box fearlessly but be patient and intelligent. That was an important change in perception. Also, he took us to Cuba where I tr­a­ined under the famous boxer and coa­ch Alcides Sagarra, besides sparring wi­th world champions Enrique Carrion and Rogelio Marcelo” says Devarajan.
The meticulous Fernandez injected pr­ofessionalism into Indian boxing. “The boxers were talented but had no discip­line. The good thing was they were quick learners. I just had to channelise their po­tential. It could have been better tho­u­gh. Dingko could have been the best in the world and Gurcharan could have won India’s first medal in Sydney. He was a special talent. He was close to entering the semifinals, but couldn’t hold his ner­v­e. Devarajan was extremely hardworking and deserved an Olympic medal,” remarks Fernandez, who has always demanded commitment from the boxers.
“He is committed to his job and dem­ands the same from us. If he saw you in the dining hall, he would start talking about your punches. We used to hide form him. But he is the best that I have worked with,” attests Dingko, gold-medallist in the 1998 Asian Games. Unfortunately, Ad­jania’s untimely death led to Fernandez’s contract being terminated in 1996. Bulg­a­­rian Petr Stoyanov was roped in but wh­­­en he failed to deliver in the 2002 Asian Games, the federation’s first resort was Fernandez, who duly obliged. “I didn’t carry any grudge against the federation because I liked the country and, importantly, liked working with the boxers here,” says Fernandez.
A new bunch awaited him — a fledgi­ng Akhil Kumar, Varghese Johnson, Harpreet Singh, Jitender Kumar and a raw Vijender Singh. “I was totally excited at the prospect. Jitender and Vijender we­re in their teens and to mould them into go­od boxers was both a challenge and pleasure. India now boasts of a very good side which will only get better in future. Th­ankfully, I have an efficient colleague in Gurbax Singh Sandhu,” he says.
The first step was to put a system in place by importing state-of-the-art equip­m­­ent. “The federation was receptive to this and we imported equipment worth crores. But equipment alone won’t do any good; we have to use it in the right way. This was my duty, and to a reasonable extent we have succeeded,” he says.
The most striking facet of the Indian pu­gilists is that they are fearless. “These boys are confident to take on anyone in the world. They don’t fear losing, though they hate it. This change in attitude didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of ma­ny factors but, most importantly, self-belief. Many Indian boxers of the past lacked this,” he says.
The 52-year-old doe­sn’t believe in tink­e­ring with technique. “Different boxers have different techniques and it is best that you stick to your natural style, what you are most comfortable with. However, minor changes can brought ab­out so as to enhance performance,” he says. Punch straight is the new mantra in Indian boxing. “Initially, Indians went for spectacular upper cuts and hooks. But in amateur boxing, this is a waste of ene­rgy. Boxers from Cuba and the Balkans are so successful because they punch str­aight. We have done away with long-range and medium-range punches and brought more clarity in the delivery of punches. But, ultimately, it all depends on how the boys adapt to new skills. So far, they have done well,” he sa­ys.
Given the work Indian boxers and su­pport st­aff have put in, it was inevitable that they would de­l­iver. Vijender Sin­gh’s bronze in Beijing was only a prelude and the CWG success a preface to brighter things in store for Indian boxing, “Vij­e­nder’s contribution was crucial as it made people sit up and notice. Now, boxing is no longer confined to a few pockets in India. Mo­re and more youngsters in other parts of the country are pursuing the sport,” says Fernandez.
There is an abundance of talent at the senior level. “One thing we have develo­ped over the years is depth. We now have two or three boxers competing for the sa­me spot, even in the heavyweight ca­­teg­o­ry, where we previously lag­ged be­hind. This is exactly what we want — intense competition at the national level. Also, we have identified a core group of boxers, who can be rotated. So we have different squads for the Asian Games and Commo­nwealth Games,” he points out.
However, Indian boxing is still a prod­u­ct in the making. “We still lack a lot of things like nutritionists, masseurs, physios, biomechanics experts. In Cuba, we have at least three, four coaches and tr­a­iners helping one boxer. So we should not sit back and say that we have won so ma­ny medals. We must say we could have won more and ask why we haven’t.” This is exactly what drives this man.