Wednesday, December 08, 2021

National women’s boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu: In the centre of a different frame

National women’s boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu recollects his days with the men’s team and explains his ‘cultural shift’ to the new realm.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi |
February 13, 2017 12:30:31 am
Indian women boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu oversee boxers during a practice session at IG Stadium on Tuesday. Express photo by Oinam Anand. 07 February 2017 After 41 years of coaching various men’s teams, Gurbax Singh Sandhu says he is still getting used to women’s boxing. (Source: Express Photo by Oinam Anand)

Gurbax Singh Sandhu twirls his moustache, combs his beard (rather tucks a couple of stray hairs under his turban with a pen) and smiles a nervous, uncomfortable smile. With him in the centre and the women boxers around him, this is somewhere in between Shah Rukh Khan’s Chak De! India cover and one of those awkward poses straight from the wedding reception albums.

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Sandhu is twitchy and self-conscious being in the centre of the frame. And to be fair to him, he’s never been either. Instead, he is the cornerman. The reassuring presence in the Indian corner of the boxing ring for as long as one can remember. The journey, he said, would end with the Rio Olympics. Gurbax craved for some rest.

But barely two months into his ‘retirement’, Gurbax received a call from the federation. And in December, he was back. After 41 years of coaching various men’s teams, he was now made in charge of the women’s side. “I was very reluctant initially. I had never worked with women before. I thought what will I do?” Gurbax says, leaning on the ring at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium here, where the women’s team had been training before this week’s exposure trip to Sofia, Bulgaria.

At 64, and after four decades with the men’s team, the cultural shift for the genial coach is massive. He’s still getting used to being around ‘so many women’ (65, to be precise), observing them from a distance, not interrupting while they are training and talking in softest of tones.

Indian women boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu oversee boxers during a practice session at IG Stadium on Tuesday. Express photo by Oinam Anand. 07 February 2017 He’s still getting used to being around ‘so many women’ (65, to be precise), observing them from a distance, not interrupting while they are training and talking in softest of tones. (Source: Express Photo by Oinam Anand)

“With men you are lot free. You take a chair and sit anywhere. ‘Hey Shiva, how are you? Hey Vikas, what are you doing.’” He is animated, illustrating his point by wrapping his arm around your shoulder, holding tightly. “You are much free. When you are bored and nothing to do, we go to one of the boy’s room. Here, you are isolated. You have to watchful of your words. Of your actions. You have to be much soft and sober than what you are there. But I am quite okay. The girls are quite nice. They are positive and sincere. The men had also been super. Such a long period, we never had problems.”

Not that they never had problems, but Sandhu’s general political correctness and non-controversial nature helped a long way in ensuring it did not blow out of proportion. He isn’t the usual in-your-face aggressive, outspoken boxing trainers. He’s everything opposite of that. Sandhu, though, disagrees. “You have not seen me. I am very aggressive at times,” he says with a smile, reminding his two moments of aggression from 30 years ago.

Sandhu says he was in a ‘lot of trouble’ at the 1985 SAFF Games, when he got in an argument with then international boxing federation’s Pakistani president Anwar Chowdhry over some results. Two years later, he claims to have ‘been angry with the whole crowd in Karachi’. “But with kids, you don’t need aggression in training. It’s different with different people,” he says.

Confidence man

Indian women boxing coach Gurbax Singh Sandhu oversee boxers during a practice session at IG Stadium on Tuesday. Express photo by Oinam Anand. 07 February 2017 Gurbax Singh Sandhu is an expert at improving the self-assurance of boxers, who needed more poise in their punch. (Source: Express Photo)

But more than being the combative coach, Sandhu refers to himself as a ‘confidence man’. He is an expert at improving the self-assurance of boxers, who needed more poise in their punch. He has witnessed first-hand the rise of Indian boxing from being no-hopers to challenging the world order before the hope was lost again following the federation’s international exile.

Sandhu has been through it all, beginning with Dingko Singh’s landmark Asian Games gold in 1998. Before that bout, Sandhu says they got a tip-off that Dingko’s Uzbek opponent Timur Tulyakov was going to start aggressively and then pull out after the second round. Back then, the rules were such that, in case the bout was stopped owing to an injury, the boxer with most points till that moment would be declared winner. Sandhu and Dingko re-worked strategy minutes before the final. “Unka planning tha. The other boxer had an injury. He wanted to take early lead and then retire. So Dingko went all out, total domination from the beginning. When the Uzbek boxer gave up (fourth round), Dingko won,” Sandhu says.

boxing, women's boxing, india women's boxing, women' boxing coach, gurbax singh sandhu, boxing coach gurbax singh, gurbax singh boxing coach, women's boxing india, women's boxing team india, sports news, indian express Like with the men, Sandhu knows success with women will come only if they are comfortable around him. (Source: Express photo by Oinam Anand)

Soon after, Gurcharan Singh emerged as the next big thing in Indian boxing. But his heartbreaking loss in the light heavyweight category at the Sydney Games, and the subsequent disappearance, left a gaping hole in in the country’s boxing scene. Sandhu says he couldn’t sleep for weeks after Gurcharan left the camp six months after the Olympics.

Sandhu and Cuban coach BI Fernandez worked on the next generation, and he found himself sleepless once again, this time a night before Akhil Kumar’s bout against then world no. 1 Sergey Vodjopyano at the Beijing Olympics. “I was in my room when I heard the noise of someone pacing around in the lobby,” Akhil recalls. “I walked out to find Sandhu saab standing there. Neither of us were able to sleep a night before the bout.”

Akhil won the next morning, but could not convert it into a medal. Vijender later did, which changed the country’s boxing landscape forever. “Sports dealers started calling, saying their sales had increased. Once, I went to a Delhi restaurant and they didn’t take money for the meal. Boxers never got such treatment before,” Sandhu says.

That was followed by more success at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games but India never really could continue the momentum due to the federation’s infighting. The Boxing Federation of India, with Ajay Singh as its president, has started to pick up the pieces and Sandhu has been tasked with bringing some structure to women’s boxing.

Sandhu is still adapting to his new role. He is spending most of his tie studying the boxers, these days along with his 14 assistants—seven men and seven women, including Akhil’s wife Poonam.

Unlike the men, women’s boxing has stagnated to the point that no new faces have emerged in the last two years, with Mary Kom still remaining the best medal hope. Sandhu acknowledges that as a problem, along with several others, including the need to have more explosivity and toughness.

But this is still the ‘getting to know phase.’ The other day, a young boxer was feeling homesick, with her father also worrying about her. Sandhu, according to a coach, spoke to the boxer’s father. “Aaj se aap ki beti meri. Fikar na karein uski,” he is believed to have said.

Like with the men, Sandhu knows success with women will come only if they are comfortable around him. “But before that, I need to be comfortable with them,” he says.

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