Cruz puts his hat in the ring again for ireland
Eamon Carr talks to the Cuban trainer who guided Ireland to Olympic glory, battled suicide and ended up in Laois. After the Rio debacle he's wants to coach new elite
If you've ever wondered why boxing is referred to as "the sweet science", an encounter with Nicolas Cruz Hernández will set you straight.
The Cuban coach is a professor of boxing.
A ranked boxer, he was a teacher at the Higher Institute of Physical Culture in Havana before being seconded to Ireland to work with the IABA in 1988.
Back then, Cuban boxers were both feared and admired. The seminars Cruz held for Irish coaches helped drag Ireland's coaching system into the modern era.
Soon, the Irish were defeating their Cuban counterparts in international competitions. The coach proved so successful that his bosses in Cuba brought him back home.
Cruz had liked Ireland. He'd settled in. When he found himself at the centre of a tug-of-love, he jumped ship and came back to Ireland and the IABA. That's when things went pear-shaped.
Today, the man who masterminded Ireland's first-ever Olympic gold medal in boxing, and helped revolutionise amateur boxing in this country, works with the education training board in the Midlands Prison.
He's still involved. He still has the knowledge. He keeps up to speed on international coaching developments. Yet, at a time when sport in Ireland is awash with money, he remains an outsider.
"I help out with the young boxers in the Stadium on Sundays," he says defensively.
Later, when we've talked about boxing history, I enquire about his current involvement with Irish boxing.
"Paddy Gallagher's in charge of the squad sessions," he says. "I've been there four times already, with the boys 11, 12 and 15 and 16 as well. I've made myself available to them. I'm enjoying this. Last Sunday, I said to Paddy: 'That was an exceptional class.' I was impressed the way he approached the kids, not just teaching them boxing but not giving out to them.
"Just guiding them and showing them the skills. The way he communicated with them was excellent. He thought I was joking. But I wasn't. He was great."
Following Ireland's shambolic campaign at the Rio Olympics, would he consider working with the Elite boxers again if approached by IABA chairman Joe Christle or CEO Fergal Carruth?
"I'm not going to drop my guard," he replies. "I forgive the people who were there at the time. But the boxers are not responsible for that. I came here for boxing and I owe boxing a lot. What happened at the time is very difficult to explain. Very complicated. But thank God I have work at the moment and I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I'm in a better position now to help other people. If I don't do it, I'll not rest peacefully."
It's easy to gauge the importance of Cruz in Irish boxing simply from the litany of names that crop up in his stories of coaching back in the day. Paul Griffin, Wayne McCullough, Michael Carruth, Bernard Dunne, Eamon Magee, Damean Kelly, Billy Walsh, Neil Gough, Francis Barrett … the list of talented boxers seems endless.
Cruz isn't boastful. He knows it's the boxers who do the work, put in the hours and reap the rewards of a life of dedication.
"They are the driving force," he says revealing his mantra, "I always preach: 'Leave nothing to chance'. It takes less than a second, one punch and the fight is over. You see it happen lots of times. You think you have it but then, one punch, and all your dreams are gone."
It still hurts that Wayne McCullough didn't take a gold medal from Barcelona.
Cruz had been doing three training sessions a day with the Belfast boxer and knew when Wayne was put down in the first round of his Commonwealth Games quarter-final bout that he'd go on to win. He'd schooled McCullough well in Cuban ringcraft.
"There would have been two gold medals in Barcelona but for Wayne McCullough's injury," he insists. "At the 1993 World Championships in Helsinki the Cuban (Joel Casamayor Johnson) told me: "If there'd been 50 seconds more he'd have beaten me. I had nothing left in the tank."
Michael Carruth's opponent, Juan Hernández, hadn't been beaten in over three years. But he'd been a pupil of Nicolas Cruz who knew his style intimately.
"Michael understood the game plan," recalls Nicolas. "We trained in private. Michael believed the plan. He was as cool as a cucumber."
At that moment of glory, Cruz could never have guessed the cruel twists of fate that lay ahead.
The Cubans would later ban him and complain to the IABA. "So they dropped me and I didn't have any more payment," he says.
He was allowed to sleep on a mattress in the Stadium where he'd sweep out the venue after bingo sessions. Among his tasks was to clean the Ringside Club toilets after functions. Stranded in Ireland, his marriage broke up.
Consumed by regret, loneliness and self-loathing, the former High Performance coach became suicidal. "In 1998 my dad died and the Cuban Embassy refused me a visa to go and bury my dad," he recalls. "I was in a deep hole. There was no way out. I had my rope ready. I was going to hang myself."
A chance meeting with a Shaolin monk provided him with the sliver of hope he needed to survive.
Today, he uses the same rope in his training sessions.
"Now I have a nice place to live and I have my work," he says brightly. "This is a beautiful country."
Would he like to still be involved with Ireland's Elite team?
"Absolutely," Nicolas insists. "That's what brought me to this country in the first place. I owe boxing nearly everything I have. I met my best friends here through boxing. I think it's time for me to help Irish boxing and Ireland."
Like everyone else, Nicolas was bitterly disappointed by Ireland's results in Rio.
"Brazil broke my heart," he says. "It was the biggest and strongest team ever. It should have done better. It could have done better if things had been handled differently. The judging was bad but the first thing you do when you go to a competition and your country brings a referee or a judge, is to be in touch with him every day to find out what's discussed at the meetings. You then draw your plans with your boxers.
"It's the Olympics. Take no chances.You do what the judges are looking out for. Showboating and fancy footwork is a waste of time and energy. Medals were thrown away because of that.
"There was misunderstanding," he adds. "Chaos. Lack of harmony. Whatever you want to call it. There were things that happened there that I would never have allowed in my time.
"What you're trying to do is bring the best at the time," he explains. "I'm not saying I could have done it better than the others. But I was surprised that athletes of that standard came out of there having made basic mistakes.
"I know I can help," he says. "I told Zaur Antia, "You're in charge. I just want to assist. I don't want to be a threat to anyone. I'd like to be with the team. I think Irish boxing needs me."