A restless spectator would be lucky to not trip over the tripods tucked away within the nosebleed seats at the indoor hall of the Indira Gandhi stadium. The number of cameras and binoculars trained at the two rings by performance analysts have left the venue of women world championships resembling the set of a Big Brother spinoff.
“Good that amateur boxing is learning how important this is,” says India men’s high-performance director Santiago Nieva. “It is still only a handful of countries, but it is about establishing a culture and treating it like an elite sport like football or even professional boxing.”
Nieva’s counterpart Raffaele Bergamasco and the young women boxers have also alluded to the time spent studying footage during the tournament. Even five-time World Champion Mary Kom has explained how her opponents, most of whom she has defeated, have taken the ring after “doing their homework and changing their game.”
So when coach Chhote Lal Yadav claims that Mary Kom “refuses to see” any footage to prepare, one doesn’t know how much of it is to further present a great champion as a phenom. “In Poland this year, before the bout against Hanna Okhota, I tried to show her some footage on my phone. Thirty seconds dekhi, fir mujhe boli ‘ja’. But I still somehow find a way around to show her the key points,” says Yadav. The onus then lies on Yadav to study future opponents and tailor the training sessions accordingly.
“It is different for each boxer. Not everybody would like to watch videos and prepare,” says Nieva, who was “collecting boxing videos and putting together VHS tapes in the 90s.” “But no football team takes on the opponents without studying. Even in amateur boxing, top countries have been using videos to pick up patterns for years, even before ‘video analyst’ was a thing. It is only recently that other countries have realised the importance.”
The development is recent — AIBA officially granted teams the permission to record competition at the Rio Olympics — but the trend has been there for years. “We have been doing this since 2004,” says a Chinese team member. “Even before that, we had video cassettes on boxers. It became much easier with smartphones and small cameras. They only thought of giving permission when everyone was doing it anyway. GB does it the best though.”
Great Britain employs two full-time analysts who travel to notable tournaments to build up their exhaustive database.
“At every Olympic sport, there are video analysts. Thankfully, AIBA realised that if you want to get better, you need to be able to analyse performances. Anyone with a £200 camera can do it officially,” says Chris Connelly, packing his £1000 camera, which has recorded over 40,000 amateur bouts. “A coach or a boxer can get very biased. They would see 30 seconds of a fight, and go ‘I know what this boxer is all about.’ That’s where we come in. My job is to go ‘okay, this is what happened in the last ten fights, and not just the 30 seconds you saw’.”
Contrary to what pop culture would have you believe, video analysts rarely drop bombshell revelations and often only come up with findings as mundane as the go-to punches and patterns.
“If you box, there are things that you will do automatically. Where the boxer will go without thinking, things that they can’t change,” says Connelly. “Every morning, I sit down with the boxer, coach and the psychologist. We will watch the opponent and discuss. My input in the meeting will be to give statistics. ‘It wasn’t just this fight. It happened in these fights as well.’”
Connelly, who worked with the English Premier League before joining the English Institute of Sport facility in Sheffield, says there’s little ‘Moneyball’ in how statistics work in boxing.
“In football and baseball, there is a lot of clarity. There are individual styles. There are clear tackles, passes, shots and goals. Boxing is an interactive performance. A performance differs from one opponent to the other. They could be a southpaw, or orthodox. They could come forward all the time, or need to be chased. You need to be prepared for every scenario,” says Connelly. “Then in boxing, one can never be completely sure if it hit the glove or missed. In situations like here in New Delhi, where the crowd is super loud, even a glancing blow appears to be a blow.”
But with limited funding available to most federations, Great Britain is the anomaly, not the norm. Germany had to rope in a researcher from a university to help them out while Finland’s physiotherapist doubles as a videographer.
“Who wouldn’t want a system like that? We don’t have a big team that goes around,” says Australian coach Kevin Smith. “But just the internet has made it easier. You look at the results, how they performed against different boxers and prepare tactics accordingly. There are very few unknown entities now. From YouTube, you can get a fair amount of insight into the skillset.”
Precisely why Team USA spends a lot of their time shutting down illegal streams. “We record all the national meets comprehensively. And try to stop anybody else from putting all of it online,” says a team official. “Of course you can’t do that at the World Championships.”
With full streams available on the official channel, why record from the busy vantage points? “It is always good to have your own recording, because you can never be sure of the internet situation at the stadium or the hotel,” says a German team member. “It’s also good to record yourself because you remember certain moments better.”
If they are not obstructed by excited home supporters bouncing each time Mary lands a punch, that is. “It gets unbelievable. I don’t know how to stop them then. It’s almost like, guys, please sit down. The camera is still recording.”