CA Kuttappa remembers the first bit of feedback he gave Santiago Nieva after taking reins as head coach of India’s men’s boxing team last December.
“Technically, they are super,” Kuttappa, who has previously coached the likes of Vijender Singh and Suranjoy Singh, told the high-performance director. “But they need to improve when it comes to handling rough and tough opponents. ‘Tu ek maarega, main do maarunga’ waala hona chahiye. (You hit one, I will hit two) You have to be rough now.”
Since adopting the professional 10-point must system which scores boxers on “quality blows”, “domination and “competitiveness”, amateur boxing has opened itself to guileless punching and dubious judging. You need to be seen throwing a lot, never mind missed punches.
And exchanging in the pocket and looking more active has taken precedence over moving in, stealing points with jabs and moving out. At the continental championship, most of the male boxers suffered defeats, and/or cuts, against opponents trying to muscle them out.
“There are a lot of benefits of being rough,” Kuttappa said at Tuesday’s felicitation ceremony for the medallists at the Asian Boxing Championships, held last week. “Ashish lost the 69kg semifinal to (eventual gold medallist) Bobo-Usman Baturov even though the Uzbek didn’t land one clear punch. But because he was a lot rougher, maybe the judges thought ‘this guy is attacking, he is aggressive’.”
“Of course, if a Deepak (Bhoria) is winning without changing his style, you can’t needlessly tell him to move forward. But that’s not the case with Shiva Thapa or Kavinder Bisht. They have to be more aggressive.”
Nieva agrees with the general assessment but adds that aggression isn’t a one-size-fits-all tactic. “You do what you have to do to win a particular bout. For some boxers, it might be about staying at a range. Other boxers need to take charge and break down their opponents,” says the Swede. “Tactics change for every boxer, every bout. But generally speaking, yes. I like a boxer who has the possibility to take the centre of the ring, take charge and steer the bout.”
In Bangkok, Thapa and Bhoria were study in contrasts. In the 60kg quarterfinal, Thapa weathered the flurry of local favourite Rujakran Juntrong in the first round, and broke down the deflated Thai with intense punching in the next two rounds, confirming his fourth straight Asian Championships medal. Bhoria, competing in only his second international meet, made the 49kg final on the basis of ring awareness, boxing on the outside and avoiding feisty exchanges, before losing the title clash to a wildly-swinging Nodirjon Mirzakhmedov with a contentious 2-3 decision.
“I would have to re-watch that bout, but if one coach is giving the second round to Deepak 10-8 and one gave it to the Uzbek, then obviously I wasn’t happy about it,” says Nieva, who held up a yellow card after the verdict in symbolic protest. “The decision review is still experimental, so nothing came of it. But I would have liked to know if the decision would have changed if the system was in place.”
Women’s high-performance director Raffaele Bergamasco had his own gripes with the scoring of the 57kg semifinal between Sonia Chahal and Nilawan Techasuep of Thailand.
“Sonia was the clear winner, 3-2. These weren’t good decisions, same with Sarita. The technical delegate consoled me, and said ‘don’t worry, next time the review system will be there,'” says Bergamasco. “But to lodge protest, you would have to pay €1000 (Rs70,000). They will review it, and if it is overturned, you will get back 50 percent. Loss, it’s gone. Even there, boxing remains subjective.”
Cuts and losses
The rougher style of boxing, coupled with the removal of protective headgear, has also resulted in an increased number of cuts for male boxers. In the 56kg final, Kavinder Bisht was disrupted after a cut he had suffered in the semifinal opened up. Satish Kumar couldn’t even compete in his +91kg semifinal while 81kg contender Brijesh Yadav had to concede his first match after suffering a cut in the second round. A bleeding Thapa lost the 60kg semifinal to a particularly unruly Kazakh Zakir Safiullin. While Nieva acknowledges that offensive or tired boxers falling forward are more prone to cuts, he was aggrieved by the lenient referees. “They permitted too much of rough boxing. I was suspended after Shiva’s defeat because even though it’s not allowed, I had to tell the referee that it was his fault that my boxer got cut.”
“It’s frustrating because you box a guy who is not playing within the rules,” says Thapa. “But this is what the referees are looking at. Earlier, when the bell for last 10 seconds sounded, people would start to run away tired. Ab last dus second ka matlab shuru ho jaao.”
Amidst the bunch of bruised and battered boxers shines Amit Panghal, India’s current golden boy who doesn’t get cut or rattled by testy opponents. Nieva explained what makes Panghal special, even after a challenging transition to 52kg.
“Amit has Plan A, and Plan B. For a long time, he had success going in and out, punching from the range. But this time, he defeated stylistically-different opponents with different approaches. In the final against the taller and more physical Korean, staying at range would have been damaging. So he fought on the inside and hit good body punches,” says Nieva. “A good boxer should be able to both deal with rough opponents, and play rough when he needs to.”