Old India boxing hand Fernandez says Panghal can medal in Paris

Old India boxing hand Fernandez says Panghal can medal in Paris

Cuban boxing coach Blas Iglesias Fernandez has had a ringside association of the sport in India for around three decades. And he believes the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) was right to do away with its failed policy of evaluation-based selections and revert to trials.

Blas Iglesias Fernandez(SAI)
Blas Iglesias Fernandez(SAI)

Fernandez, 68, took over the role of guiding the national boxers in 1995 and has seen the highs and lows of Indians. After a break, he has been roped in as high performance coach for the National Boxing Academy (NBA) in Rohtak by the Sports Authority of India. He took over in January end on a two-year contract.

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He returns with Indian boxing in a ferment with no male boxer having qualified for the Paris Olympics.

In a major policy shift last year, BFI, on the inputs of its Irish High Performance Director Bernard Dunne, dropped the practice of trials and adopted a periodic evaluation system in the national camp to select the boxers for international meets.

Some boxers opposed the move as being unfair. Amit Panghal (51kg), Rohit Mor (57kg) and Sagar Ahlawat (+92kg) unsuccessfully petitioned the Punjab and Haryana High Court against it. However, the men’s squad of Deepak Bhoria (51kg), Muhammad Hussamudin (57kg), Shiva Thapa (63.5kg), Lakshya Chahar (80kg), Sanjeet (92kg) and Narender (+92kg) could not secure a spot for Paris at the first World Qualification Tournament in Busto Arsizio, Italy last month.

The debacle and rising criticism led to Dunne’s resignation, leaving a gaping hole in the coaching leadership group. Fernandez, 68, too criticised Dunne’s short-lived selection policy.

“We must return to the system of trials, it was more fair and transparent and left no scope for ambiguity,” he said. “Given a chance, I would like to propose some changes to the selection criteria. We need to ditch the system of evaluation as it doesn’t present a complete picture.”

Fernandez, the only foreigner to be conferred with the government’s Dronacharya Award for coaching excellence, said the evaluation method was “needless” and expressed surprise that Dunne, a former European super bantamweight champion who was appointed as the Indian boxing’s HPD in October 2022, was given a free hand.

“He took over the reins when India was among the top 15-20 nations in men’s boxing. He came in and went about changing everything, which is not the way to go. I am surprised he was allowed to do this. The policy of no selection trials looks good on paper but practically it means nothing. The No.3 boxer can become No.1 in this process,” he said.

“I hear the number of bouts also went down, which is not good. Boxing is all about responding in micro seconds and those instincts develop only inside the ring with countless repetitions. If you can’t box, what good is weight management or everything else the boxers were evaluated on?”

Fernandez ended a six-and-a-half-year association with Punjab Institute of Sports in Mohali to take up the NBA post. He is preparing a plan for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. His initial focus is to widen the core group by adding more youth boxers. “That’s how you create a supply line,” he reasoned. As of now, the senior camp has three boxers per weight class and Fernandez wants to double that.

“I have started the phase of talent identification for 2028. We need more age-group events and more youth boxers in NBA. Ideally, we need 4-6 boxers in each weight category. How much sparring will three boys do? What if someone is injured or someone wants to go home? More boxers means more challenges and more variety.”

Last week, BFI announced the squad for the second Boxing World Qualification Tournament scheduled in Bangkok (May 25-June 3), the last chance to secure berths for Paris, with Panghal making a comeback.

The former world No.1, who flopped at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics but won gold in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, was out of the side since the evaluation system was put in place. Panghal was regularly outdone by fellow Services boxer Deepak Bhoria, but as per the latest evaluation, he has scored 247 points to finish ahead of Bhoria (239) and Anshul Punia (119).

Fernandez backed the 2019 Worlds silver medallist to win a medal in Paris if he qualifies. “I think Amit and Nishant Dev have the best chance to qualify. Amit is a medal contender since he is very sharp at reading opponents. He is mature and has a good all-round game. Amit and (woman’s world champion) Nikhat Zareen are what I call universal boxers. If they are in form, they can come back with a medal from Paris.”

So far, four women — Zareen (50kg), Preeti Pawar (54kg), Parveen Hooda (57kg) and Tokyo bronze medallist Lovlina Borgohain (75kg) — have qualified for Paris. In Tokyo, India fielded a nine-member squad — Panghal, Manish Kaushik, Vikas Krishan, Ashish Kumar, and Satish Kumar and MC Mary Kom, Simranjit Kaur, Borgohain and Pooja Rani.

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