Sandip G and Nitin Sharma narrate the story of Cuban boxing coach BI Fernandez, of his multiple stints in India,
how he changed the landscape of Indian boxing and how he came to love a country and culture, so far and alien from his own
From a heap of disassembled weights, scattered slumbering on the patio of the Punjab Institute of Sports, emerges a stick-thin exuberant lad, and joins a group of other boys ostensibly taller and broader than him. They are assembled in a line, like in an assembly at school, restlessly waiting for their turn to be introduced to an elderly, pallid gentleman who stutters around like a astronaut with moon boots in a blue jacket with INDIA written in bold behind it and a white cap with a Cuban flag emblazoned on its mast. When his turn comes, the young boy firmly shakes the stooping hands of the elderly gentleman and introduces himself, “I’m Cuban.” The latter is as much puzzled as amused, before he regains his wit. “Nice to meet you Mr Cuban, my names is also Cuban.” The peals of chuckles that ensue are lost in the inking fog that’s gradually wrapping the arena in its hazy cloak.
The little boy’s name, it’s informed, is Balvir Kumar, the son of a vegetable seller in Pathankot. He is 12, but looks eight, and a trainee at the Pathankot Sports Institute. His voice has a pre-adolescent squeak. He doesn’t know how, or even why, he got this nickname. Even his fellow trainees, mostly in their mid or late teens, don’t know his original name. A former boxer, who is a trainer in the institute, says he is called thus because of height, or the lack of it, and his “relatively darker complexion.” Balvir doesn’t care; he wears it proudly, like a badge of honour.
For, he fully knows the thrust of the nickname on India’s boxing circuit. It’s how the gentleman whom he shook hands with a while ago is fondly called in the boxing circles of the country. The gentleman widely credited to have revolutionised Indian boxing, hitherto plunged in archaic coaching methods and manuals and ridden with sacrosanct perceptions. The gentleman is BI Fernandez, one with the fiery heart of a revolutionary but with a more moderate approach to life and coaching.
Over the years, though, the moniker Cuban has become a bit of a misnomer, Fernandez feels. “Look I’m more like an Indian. Almost half my life I have lived here. Mujhko Hindi aata hain,” Fernandez breaks into a now-familiar chuckle. He points out to the number of years he has spent in the country, “24, is it?” Twenty-four years spent in the Hindi heartland of Delhi, Haryana, “the Indian Havana” as he interjects, and Punjab, and he can feel as much Indian as Cuban in his sensibilities. To substantiate his claim, he can show the Dronacharya plaque he received a few years ago, the only non-Indian to be bestowed with one.
It was during his days away from the country, subsequent to the two-year ban that was slapped on him for showing dissent at the judges after Sarita Devi lost at the Asian Games, in many ways a bigoted bout, that he became more aware of his Indian-ness. He felt a sudden vacuum back home in Santa Clara. “I was a stranger to my neighbours. Most of my friends were here. I missed them. I missed training with the boys too. They were like my sons or younger brothers. I was teaching boys there in the government academy, but it was different. Here (in India) I was not only training, but always making plans for each boxer,” he sighs.
Even his taste buds felt alien to Cuban cuisine. “When I got back, I had no feeling of taste for Cuban food. I asked my wife to get some chillies and Indian spices from some shops. They would initially put less chillies but I would ask for more. Of course they made their own food without it and I got special food or dishes with chillies and masala,” he says. And of course, the masala dosas, which he used to tuck in with relish in Patiala.
So he embraced the first opportunity that came calling. Soon after his ban ended this October, he got a call from Punjab Institute of Sports coach Ramanand, and former hockey Olympian Sukhvir Grewal would quickly take him on board. “He asked me about my future and what I’m thinking next. I replied I do not know yet. Let’s see what happens. He told me Punjab has good talent, but a little lack of organisation. There were offers from Mauritius and Venezuela. All of them offered good money. But my heart was with India,” he says. Hence, he couldn’t resist an offer from the Punjab Sports Department to conduct coaching clinics for young boxers and coaches. He unhesitantly gave his consent. And after two years and two months, was back to the place his heart beats for. The first thing he craved when he reached Punjab was sugarcane juice. “In Cuba, almost every family is associated with sugarcane farming. In my family, my father used to work in a sugarcane factory. Coming here to Punjab again, the first thing I wanted was sugarcane juice. We went to Patiala last week and I had sugarcane juice many times while on our way back,” he says.
If his second coming — as he calls it, though he had three separate stints — was triggered by a longing for what he calls his second country, a land totally distinct in culture and outlook, and some 14,000-odd kilometres from Cuba, the first was wrought in scepticism. Like most first-time foreigners to the country, he came with all the nomenclatural prejudices and fear of the subcontinent. That was back in 1990, when he was the assistant coach of the Cuban national team that had just beaten Russia and Greece. “Many people back home thought I was foolish, and I was narrated the usual stories of the difficulties foreign coaches were subjected to in India. People told me India is very far and dangerous,” he says.
One such experience of a Cuban coach who came to India before him almost prompted second thoughts. He laughs as he narrates the story. “I don’t know how much of it is true, but this guy just got freaked out. He told the officials that someone threw a cobra into his room. He said he was always seeing two people trying to kill him. It had an effect on his mental approach. So he went to the Cuban embassy and said he wanted to leave. I was also a little scared then. Then I told myself let’s see how it goes. Whatever, it would be a terrific experience,” he admits. In the end, his wayfaring, non-conformist streak reigned over his apprehensions.
Two-and-a-half decades on, he feels the concern of his friends were amiss. He has a valid logic too. “Maybe Cuba is far and that’s why people worry. Over the years I’ve found India is very much like Cuba,” he asserts.
So when he packed his bags for Havana in the winter of 2014, he didn’t bid an elaborate farewell to his large cortege of friends, though in India his epitaph was pretty much written. For he had a hunch that he would return sooner than later, though it looked less likely at that point in time. So much so that he had kept some Indian currency — `30,000 —with him. Ill-fatedly in the now demonetised `500 notes. “I always hoped to come back. So I kept some Indian currency with me in Cuba and I brought that to use in India. But all of it were `500 bills. So it was of little use. I went to the foreign exchange guy in Mohali to change $100 but he refused. Now I’m depending on good friends like Ramanand (PIS coach) for money,” he says.
Now, let’s not jump to conclusions that Fernandez loved India because he disliked Cuba, or maybe the policies of its now departed leader Fidel Castro. On the contrary, he dearly loved both countries, held Castro in utter awe and treasures his only meeting with him. “It’s like music. You appreciate different types of music,” he says. The sky blue India jacket and the white cap with Cuban stripes attest to this.
“When I go to a boxing hall, I become a new man,” admits Fernandez. Or he puts on a dancer’s shoes. He clumsily pitter-patters as he walks — and often self-mocks the way he walks — but inside the ring, his feet suddenly assume the cadence of a ballroom dancer, drumming in and out, floating in concert with the arms. It’s more akin to rhythmic salsa than synchronised ballet. The 40-odd students suddenly turn admirers, their eyes transfixed to his feet. Fernandez snaps them out of their reverie, “upar dekh.” Take off the gloves and helmets, clear the mannequins and punching bags, shed the tracks and jerseys for skin-hugging robes, the spacious hall will resemble a salsa class in progress rather than a boxing session, swaying to the “Go aage, Go peeche” lilts of their instructor.
“Without dance, boxing is like a dummy,” he says. “Dance is like boxing. It requires lot of coordination and movement of your body. It is all about footwork and it is the ability to control your action. That depends on the footwork and moving aage and piche. If your opponent is on the right, you move that side. If he is on left, you move that side. To be good in boxing, you need to gain control of body and sense like a dancer. That’s why I tell boxers to correct their stance and posture first,” he explains.
He then points his index finger to a wretchedly lazy replica of Mohammad Ali’s famous Rumble in the Jungle picture and urges them, “You all want to box like him. But to box like him, one needs to master footwork.” The little Cuban chimes in with Ali’s famous couplet: “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Fernandez reciprocates: “Well done, Mr Cuban.”
Fernandez’s biggest contribution to Indian boxing, too, is the quicksliver footwork of the boxers of the present and previous generations. “When I first came, most of them had a lot of power, but were technically deficient, lots of faults and they got a lot of warnings during bouts. Several of them were disqualified too. They punched with power, but wouldn’t land where it was intended and hence was a waste of energy. The reason is they didn’t have speed. Power without speed is useless in boxing. Now their footwork and combinations are better,” he reckons.
Nostalgia suddenly makes him a trifle bleary-eyed, even melancholic. He speaks of the boxing hall of NIS Patiala with the burning ache of a dethroned king. He is at his descriptive best when he reminiscences the good ’ol days. “It used to be hot and sometimes their feet would be so soaked in sweat that it would feel like a sponge. Full paani in shoes. The floor would get total wet sometimes and we had to wait for it to clear. Sometimes, we would train late in the evening due to the heat. Sometimes, the boxers were exhausted in six-seven rounds and we had to push them more. The boxing hall was not that bad but there were minor things which we adjusted. Like getting water coolers or putting ice in coolers. Those things taught us a lot,” he says.
But in the end, it must have been a wholesomely satisfactory experience, especially to see his efforts produce tangible results and India making a quantum leap in world boxing. He has worked with the best of Indian boxers — from Gurcharan Singh and Devarajan in the 90s to Vijender and Mary Kom in the noughties, tooling and retooling their perceptions and techniques. “India got medals in World Cup, world championship, the Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. There could have been better results, like Vijender could have won a World Championship gold. He was that talented. Vikas (Krishan) could have won a medal in London or Gurcharan (Singh) in Sydney. But that’s life,” he philosophises. At 61, he knows regrets are but an unnecessary burden in life.
He can also reflect on the delicious irony of it all. When he landed here in 1990, five years after Castro’s second visit to the country and 16 years before his last, he might have felt a little uninvited. He remembers a newspaper report, snubbing his appointment as the senior coach, deeming him adequate to train only juniors. Even the federation was worried and they gave him an anxious call. “My job will have the last word,” was his retort. He knew his longevity as coach hinged on the results his wards produced. India were seldom patient with foreign coaches. After 24 years, he could legitimately say he made results speak for themselves .
But now, ironically, he is here as the junior coach, again with a cloud of uncertainty over how long he might stay in the country. If the ministry of sports doesn’t heed to the request of the PIS to give him a contract, his second coming might last just a couple of months. Maybe, it’s the reason he stays overtime at the institute. An hour’s schedule, generally, stretches to three or four, and in the end Fernandez is expended. “I think training the national team is easier than this,” he admits, wiping the beads of sweat dripping from underneath his cap.
It’s not because he is egoistic and considers coaching juniors as some kind of an insult. It’s because the methods of coaching are fundamentally different. “In the national camps, you do only training. You do not need to teach. Here you also teach and train. You need to correct here and there. In national teams, it did not happen. But here the boys see and observe you,” he points out.
He sees a different challenge in his latest duty, and gets a different kick out of it. At his disposal is a bunch of callow youngsters waiting to be shaped. “They are the future, and their mind is like a sponge. They want to catch everything. They are never tired. They always want more and are more receptive. We have to control them and then mould them. It’s a different experience and I’m now starting to enjoy it,” he grins.
More than the technical nuances of the sport, he wants them to imbibe a sense of fearlessness. “Fear is what I want to remove from their minds. They fear. And they come from poor backgrounds. They are young and I can teach them the basics of the game and also some basics in life,” he says.
Before winding up the session, he tells Balvir that he wants to take him to Cuba. Balvir’s eyes light up. Peals of chuckle again melt into the Mohali fog, which by now has almost entirely devoured the stadium in its hazy cloak. But deep inside, Fernandez would be praying that such a day as that when he has to return to Cuba for good doesn’t arrive. Or by a geographic sleight, bind the two countries together.