Things were much less of a struggle the last time Albert Mutalibov coached the Russian team at the boxing world championships. In 2019, the last time Russia competed at the world event, as host in Ulan Ude, Mutalibov’s side won a total of five medals, including a gold for Ekaterina Paltceva in the women’s light flyweight category.
In New Delhi though, the team has not fared well. Of the 12-member strong contingent, only three Russian boxers have made it into the quarterfinal round, still a win away from an assured medal. Paltceva, seen as a top medal hope ahead of the competition, crashed out in the first round. Despite that Mutalibov is grateful for the opportunity to compete at the championships.
“In 2019 we had five medals but that was a home tournament. You have a lot of advantage boxing at home because there is the support of the home crowd. You end up getting a lot more medals than you would if you compete in a different venue. You can’t compare your performance at an international competition to that at home. As a coach, you learn a lot more when you are fighting abroad. That’s where you find out the real level of your team. As a coach, I rate performances a lot more when it comes away from home,” says Mutalibov who has been part of three other Russian teams (2006 World Championships, 2018 World Championships and 2017 World Youth Championships) that have competed in India.
But Mutalibov had no way of doing that until recently. As a consequence of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February last year, sports teams and athletes from that country as well as Belarus were banned from competing in international competitions.
Boxing, too, was impacted. The Russian and Belarus teams were banned from competing at the 2022 Women’s World Championships in Turkey as well as competitions for the remainder of the year. Indeed, when the International Boxing Association (IBA), helmed by Russian Umar Kremlev, allowed the two countries to compete at the New Delhi World Championships, it led to boycotts by several countries, including the USA, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.
But while Russia has returned to competition, Mutalibov admits the time away from international competition has hurt his team’s chances. The Worlds are only the side’s second international competition since the Golden belt series in Morocco earlier this year.
“We could have been at a better level of performance but we were impacted badly by the last year when we had no competitions,” Mutalibov says.
The biggest obstacle to overcome, says Mutalibov, is the lack of international match practice. “Our athletes are getting nervous because they haven’t had a lot of competition. That’s one of the main reasons our boxer in the 50 kg category (Paltceva) lost. The only way to overcome that nervousness is to have the experience of competing at international competitions. You have to compete. There’s no other way,” he says.
It isn’t that the Russians have not competed at all over the past year. “We had several competitions including national championships. We conducted tournaments in Russia and training camps when preparing for the world championships and Morocco. The level of domestic competition in Russia is still very high. The only issue is that we cannot go abroad. We tried to invite other countries to join our camps but sadly it didn’t work. The impact on our training process and preparation is severe,” Mutalibov admits.
The gulf between domestic and international competition, he says, was stark. “Before the competition, we organised a lot of sparring in the training zone. They still looked good in sparring, in fact, a lot better than in the competition. But that is because there is no responsibility or anything at stake in sparring. That told me a lot. Our girls didn’t have the feeling of an international ring. It is a feeling that’s different from the feeling of (competing) in a national ring. Our boxers couldn’t show their best because of this nervousness. They were taking too much time between their attacks. They couldn’t show their best qualities because of this,” he says.
Despite the unfavourable results, Mutalibov says he is backing his side to perform in the future. “We have a very young team. Their average age is 18-19 years. There are just 2-3 weight categories with veteran boxers in them. This is another reason why we aren’t doing that well. But that is not a problem. We want to move forward with this young team. I’m counting on this team. Even though some of them lost over here, they still had the chance to step into the ring. They also got some good training and sparring practise with top boxers,” he says.
What Mutalibov says Russia needs is more competition. Yet, while they are competing at the New Delhi World Championships, there is uncertainty about where exactly the team will compete next. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has agreed to explore a pathway for athletes from Russia and Belarus to participate under “strict conditions” of neutrality. With the IOC stripping the IBA of the rights to run Olympic qualification tournaments and the boxing event in Paris, continental multi-sport events are set to be used as qualifiers. Poland, reportedly, is opposed to Russia’s participation at this year’s European Games in Kraków and Małopolska.
Things were simple in the last Olympic cycle. Ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Mutalibov says Russia had their pick of training locations. “In the past, we competed in a lot of international competitions. Before Tokyo, we had plenty of opportunities. We could pick and choose where to go. We could choose any country in Asia or Europe. But now we face a problem of where to go. I believe the next competition we will take part in is a men’s and women’s competition in Caracas, Venezuela in April this year,” he says.
Despite the uncertainty over the future, Mutalibov is particularly glad that his boxers have been able to compete under the Russian flag and potentially have the Russian anthem played should they win gold. “It’s important to participate under our flag and our anthem. I don’t think anyone has the right to deprive athletes of the right to participate under their flags and symbols,” he says.
While political issues have frayed his nation’s ties with other nations, it is clear that personal bonds between him and other teams have not. Even as Sportstar was speaking to the coach, multiple coaches from other countries came up to him, shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries with him. “There’s no problem between coaches or personally between athletes. (Even during the time Russia was not allowed to compete) We were in touch with many of our friends in other countries. We communicated regularly. But it’s very different to be able to come in person to a World Championships. The atmosphere of the world championships is unique. It is impossible to replicate it,” he says.
“None of these girls has anything to do with politics. I hope that we can separate politics from sports as much as possible. I hope it will be possible for them to get a chance to qualify for and compete at the Olympics,”Albert Mutalibov, Russia boxing coachOn athletes missing out on competitions due to Russia’s political turmoil
And while the majority of interest in his team will be through a political lens, the Russian players at least are looking at the tournament purely on its sporting merit. “I wasn’t able to compete at the World Championships last year. This is my first senior world championship. All my life I have been preparing for this moment. I want to go on and win gold,” says Nataliya Sychugova, who reached the quarterfinals of the women’s 63kg category. Her goal is not just limited to the World Championships though. “I hope that in the future I can qualify for the Olympics and win a gold over there as well,” says Sychugova who won a silver medal at the 2017 Youth World Championships in Guwahati.
That is what Mutalibov hopes too. “As a coach, making an Olympic champion is the biggest achievement. But first, we need to qualify for Paris. This team has nothing to do with politics. They are here to box. None of these girls has anything to do with politics. I hope that we can separate politics from sports as much as possible. I hope it will be possible for them to get a chance to qualify for and compete at the Olympics,” he says.
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