Before he even left the boxing arena, Amit Phangal had the video of his bout against Scotland’s Aqeel Ahmed sent on his WhatsApp. And by the time he sat in the car to leave for the village, he had received the pointers of his short-comings in his bout against Ahmed, a Pakistan-origin Scot, which he won by a split verdict.
The post-mortem wasn’t just about the punches, which were mostly on target. Instead, his positioning that worried coach Santiago Neiva. It’s an issue that has been bothering the Indian coach since the time he landed in India a year ago — not just with Phangal, but with most Indian boxers.
With five of his boxers entering the last four and assured of a medal — Panghal (49kg), Mohammed Hussamuddin (56kg), Naman Tanwar (91kg) and Satish kumar (+91kg) today joined Manoj in the last four — the coach knew that the road ahead was tougher. There was no margin of error and one slip could prove costly.
“I was surprised that some of these things, which are fundamental at an elite level, were not worked upon very much with the Indian boxers,” Neiva told The Indian Express after Phangal entered men’s lightweight semi-final on Tuesday. “By fundamentals, I mean basic things like how to position yourself in offensive and defensive situations, in the centre of the ring and so on. Boxing isn’t only about punches. Like in football, positioning is very important.”
Neiva’s observations are a telling commentary on the state of boxing coaching in the country. Several boxers have spoken in hushed voices about how coaching at the national camps was only about shadow practicing combination punches and gym workout. Not that the boxers themselves were ignorant, just that they were unaware of the techniques used abroad.
No method, only madness
Mary Kom, who competes in her semifinal on Wednesday, had said it was only after she started training under foreign coaches that she realized how India’s training methods were primitive.
“Coaching kabhi thi he nahi. Just one advice, one-two punch maaro,” she had lamented a day before the team’s departure for the Commonwealth Games.
It’s a gripe that struck a chord with other pugilists as well. Vikas Krishan, a gold medal hope in the middleweight, says he realized the importance of a proper warm up only last year – after more than a decade of competing at the highest level. “No coach had ever told me anything about it. They just said I couldn’t last three rounds because I lacked endurance,” Krishan says. “I was trying to find out reasons for it online and stumbled upon a Youtube video. That’s how I got into it.”
When Neiva accepted the job offer from India, he knew he was coming to a country that was nouveau riche in terms of boxing talent. But what surprised him the most was the boxers’ practical understanding of the game. The Argentine compares it to football. “You can’t score a goal in football if you don’t understand positions,” he says.
He realized they could pack a punch. But those wild swings had no meaning if they could not use their mind, and read the opponent’s. So he started to stress on positioning and identified around six to seven situations where a boxer can potentially find himself in trouble.
Video clips pertaining to these scenarios are shared on a WhatsApp group. “Telling them is one thing but to it is easier to understand if we show them,” Neiva says. “We show them tactical things – like positioning and the tricks to get out of holding, something we had a big problem with last year.”
In his first bout of the Games on Sunday, Krishan found himself in one of those circumstances. Australia’s Campbell Somerville hit Krishan on the stomach and pushed him on the ropes. Now that he had his opponent exactly where he wanted, the rambunctious crowd expected Somerville to land the knockout blow.
It looked ominous for Krishan as Somerville lined himself up, but the Indian showed fine footwork as he ducked, glided over to the other side and unleashed a ferocious shot that caught Somerville on the jaw. Somerville’s grin turned into grimace, and he could never recover from that knock.
Phangal almost found themselves in a similar scenario on Tuesday. Luckily for him, Ahmed wasn’t able to turn it around like Krishan did. But Neiva knows better boxers will make him pay. “Amit keeps getting trapped against the ropes. He landed more punches than the other boxer but he should know where his position should be,” Neiva says. “It’s a basic thing. But they need to perfect them.”