CA Kuttappa, of all people, realises the need of a mentor who listens as much as he instructs. The Mysore man began his boxing journey in 1992, was picked up by the Army four years later, but struggled to find his voice in a coaching environment which was more tough, less love.
“The coaches were methodical taskmasters. The training was good, but after a hard day’s work, there would be nobody to talk to,” says the 39-year-old. “Pyaar thoda kam tha. It was more like, ‘karna hai toh karo, warna hamara kya.’ As a result, the average trainees would be left behind while the ones who got more attention shone.”
So when Kuttappa got his coaching diploma from National Institute of Sports in 2006 and made his way to the national camp shortly thereafter, he knew exactly what not to do. Over his more than a decade-long coaching career, Kuttappa has established himself as an agony aunt and father figure rolled into one; the person in the corner of the boxers, if not at a major international tournament than at sparring sessions and dinner tables, listening to their fears and insecurities. “These kids come from villages, they leave their homes behind. They are already out of their comfort zone. At that moment, they need somebody who is willing to hear them out. Maybe, it’s because of my nature, but I wanted to treat all of them like brothers,” says Kuttappa. “I just had one condition. I will listen to everything that you say outside the ring. You have to listen to me inside it.”
His wards have held up their end of the bargain. Vijender Singh and Suranjoy Singh credit the four Commonwealth Games medals, three Asian Games medals and a medal each at the Worlds and the Olympics — India’s first in boxing at Beijing, 2008 — to Kuttappa. The two urged the coach to send his entry for the Dronacharya Award in 2010 — “Aap form bharo, award hum dilwayenge” — but Kuttappa declined to avoid upstaging his seniors. Eight years and as many boxing Dronacharya awardees later, he got his due on Tuesday.
“I had never even thought of a Dronacharya award when I started. I find it more satisfying to win an award as a coach than as a boxer, but I have to credit Viju for bringing in a new era for Indian boxing.”
The Dronacharya and his Arjuna crossed paths in 2003, when the reigning champion Kuttappa moved up a class to light-welterweight to face the exciting youngster at the Nationals. “Mera naam tha tab, while this guy was just coming up from the junior circuit. But it didn’t take me long to realise that he was technically sound. His stance, his strength punches were too good, and you could see that he had core strength. He was definitely the superior boxer,” recalls Kuttappa, who lost the bout 16-25.
Later when he got his hands on the exciting prospect as a coach, Kuttappa worked on movement and counter-punching. Training the Bhiwani boxer however was less about recalibrating and more refining and reaffirming. Kuttappa remembers an international tournament where a back-to-the-basics lesson rescued Vijender.
“It was the final round and only one point separated Vijender and his opponent. I was seconding, and in the break I only told him, ‘Just remember the work that we have done. Just do the stuff that we have been practising,” Kuttappa says, then laughs. “I know it sounds like a nothing advice, but at that point, a boxer needs to do the basics. It’s more about clearing their mind. Vijender went back in and won by a huge difference. Later in the dressing room, usne mera haath pakda, media ke paas leke gaya aur bola, ‘he’s my coach'”.
Kuttappa brings out the difference between two eras of Indian boxing as well. The “hard, Cuban-American” training under BI Fernandez and Gurbax Singh Sandhu and the “scientific” training of current coach Santiago Nieva. Kuttappa — who recorded grainy footage of sparring with his phone or a sub-par video camera and scoured through the limited catalogue of YouTube circa 2007 — fits somewhere in between.
“No other coach was doing that back then. I used the footage to tell boxers their strong points to refine them, because sometimes rattling off their weaknesses can demoralise them,” says Kuttappa. “There was a (Mike) Tyson sparring video that we saw a million times. Vijender liked that a lot.”
Then there was the running. Under Fernandez, the boxers as well as the coaches would run 10-15km, twice or thrice a week. Under Nieva, it’s five km of running at a medium pace.
“Fartlek running. It’s not just continuous running and hitting the bags afterwards now,” says Kuttappa. “But I’m not saying that one style is better than the other, because done properly, either would bring results.”
Kuttappa, himself a product of the military-esque school of boxing, remembers the days training under 2006 Dronacharya awardee Munuswamy Venu.
“Bohot rota tha starting me. Jitna training me maar khaaya, utna ring me kabhi khaaya hi nahi,” laughs Kuttappa, who won most of his bouts via knockouts or referee stoppages. “There would be cuts inside my mouth from the sparring. And Venu sir would tell me, ‘mutton kha lo, beta’. Because the spice would numb the pain.”
“Venu sir” was Kuttappa’s guest for Tuesday’s ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. “I respect and fear him a lot because I still think of him as my strict coach,” says Kuttappa. “I called to invite him and broke down in tears on hearing his voice.”
Asked if he had a chat with Vijender after the awards were announced and Kuttappa replies, “Oh yeah, and we just laughed!”