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Hard knocks: Pakistani boxers dare to dream of Olympics

Updated Aug 17, 2015 09:21pm

Boxing coaches around the world operate like generals; shouting orders and even mocking fighters if they feel they can get more out of their charges.

In Pakistan, the coach does a little bit more.

Armed with a needle and thread, the trainer, Ali Bux, can be seen stitching worn out equipment alongside the ring. Punching pads and sparring gear is nowhere in sight.

“I keep telling him that he looks more like a cobbler than a boxing coach,” Pakistan's heavyweight prospect Sameer Hasan Khan jokingly says.

For Sameer and the 17 other Pakistani boxers vying for a ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the air of skepticism surrounding the national camp has gradually transformed into optimism.

The run-down facilities, a lack of funds and even the torn boxing gloves represent another challenge for Sameer and his compatriots training in Karachi for the upcoming Asian Boxing Championship.

The Asian Boxing Championship is a qualifying event for the World Boxing Championship which will give fighters around the world an opportunity to compete at next year's Rio Games.

Hussain Shah the inspiration

Tightening his yellow strappings, Arshad Hussain jolts his neck sideways as a trainer puts on his gloves.

Seven fighters, chosen from all over Pakistan, wait for him in the ring as he completes the combination for a sparring session.

Arshad Hussain hopes the feats of Hussain Shah will inspire him in his pursuit of an Olympics dream. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
Arshad Hussain hopes the feats of Hussain Shah will inspire him in his pursuit of an Olympics dream. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid

The 24-year-old Arshad is a Lyari local, who obtained his training from the Kankari Ground. After having represented Pakistan in numerous international games, he is now at the peak of his career. But he remains focussed at the ultimate prize: a ticket to Rio.

“We have been training here for seven months now. But it’s not about which one of us makes it to the top. We’re all like brothers here and we’ve gotten close over the course of these months,” exclaims Arshad with a humble smile.

Arshad along with his fellow boxers, staying at the Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF) hostels, follow a strenuous regime. Their day starts well before the sun comes up.

After a quick breakfast of dates, apples and milk, all the boxers start their workouts and continue with two-hour intervals.

“We fight, struggle and eat together. In fact, we’re going to watch the movie 'Shah' along with our coach.”

'Shah' is based on the inspiration tale of Hussain Shah who grew up to a rough life in Karachi's Lyari Town in the 60s to become Pakistan's boxing legend.

Hussain Shah's life-changing moment came when he won bronze at the 1988 Olympics, Pakistan's only medal in boxing at the Games to date.

Riding on spirit alone

'Inspiration' is what Pakistan boxing coach Ali Bux is looking to tap into as he trains his fighters with meagre resources.

Bux, who won gold for Pakistan at the Asian Amateur Championships in 1980 and two bronze medals at the 1978 and 1982 Asian Games, knows a thing or two about coming up against the odds.

He carved a successful career amid similar circumstances and remained unbeaten on the national circuit for 14 years.

Expecting the government to play an active role in the upliftment of boxing is futile, according to Bux. He is teaching his fighters to turn adversity into positivity.

“It’s useless to expect anything from the government, as they have already given up on our scarce demands,” Bux says.

The PBF had requested funds from the government to hire a Cuban coach but the Pakistan Sports Board only agreed to pay up to $3,000.

Sameer Hasan Khan, a former kickboxing champion and now a boxer, trains with at the national camp in Karachi. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
Sameer Hasan Khan, a former kickboxing champion and now a boxer, trains with at the national camp in Karachi. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
Boxing remains one of the few Olympics prospects for Pakistan after the much-decorated hockey team failed to qualify for the Rio Games. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
Boxing remains one of the few Olympics prospects for Pakistan after the much-decorated hockey team failed to qualify for the Rio Games. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
The air of skepticism surrounding the national camp has gradually transformed into optimism. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid
The air of skepticism surrounding the national camp has gradually transformed into optimism. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid

“At times we need brand names on the fancy clothes we wear. They somehow add to our confidence. This is exactly what a Cuban coach would have meant for the team,” says Ali Bux.

“I have myself trained with the Cuban coaches and my students like Hussain Shah have actually competed in the Olympics.”

The gymnasium where the Pakistan team is training wears a dilapidated look. The exercise equipment, much like the gloves, is worn out. But PBF secretary Iqbal Hussain says the coaches were tapping into the spirit of the boxers.

“We did not need any sort of funding from the government in terms of training. We just needed sponsored travel and registration costs,” Iqbal says.

“Since Mohammad Waseem won the bronze medal at Asian Games in 2014, these boys have more reasons to trust their training and expect more from themselves,” says Iqbal.

Adding to the efforts of the boxing coaches is former Pakistan cricketer Moin-ul-Atiq.

“Moin has joined the boxing squad as a psychologist and a motivational speaker. He has done the same for cricket team as well,” Iqbal reveals.

“The game is not always won with power, it needs strong ideas that inspire an individual from within. As they are all from different backgrounds, we try to bring them all on the same page about the team morale and what it means to achieve something for the country.”

Boxing remains one of the few Olympics prospects for Pakistan after the much-decorated hockey team failed to qualify for the Rio Games. It comes as a big surprise then that the government is unmoved by the boxing team's plight.

But British boxer of Pakistani origin Jabran Bilal, who flew from England to join the squad but fell ill before the trials, says he had not seen such ‘fire’ back home.

“Whatever conditions I’ve trained in before, I haven’t have seen such fire. Though the equipment is not up to date, the efforts of the Pakistan boxers might just compensate for it. They have immense potential.”