EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ISMAEL SALAS – THE MASTER & THE SYSTEM

As I creep through the almost camouflage entrance to the Hayemaker gym, machine-gun padwork echoes down the metallic corridor. It’s a sharp snapping I could imagine hearing as a bone breaks or a hand claps. These hands aren’t clapping.

I’ve been here before, though. It was surreal enough the first time seeing Cuban boxing coach Ismael Salas on the massage table. A true legend of the sport. Sitting on the edge of the ring apron, Salas’ office, interviewing him was an altogether different experience.

“I’ve been here, (it’s been a) long day! But that’s what it’s all about. We are working and creating all the systems. When you create the system, you have to work hard to build it up but then you make it work for you.”

Salas has been in London for roughly six weeks since his announcement as David Haye’s new trainer. Having brought Venezuelan World champion Jorge Linares with him, he has also inherited a stable of fresh talent. Heavyweight Joe Joyce, fellow Olympian Qais Ashfaq and Scotsman Willy Hutchinson are all under his watchful eye in London as he plots their rise to the top.

I ask Salas about his introduction to boxing. The Cuban speaks fluently in his third or fourth language. The intelligence of the man, evident from our first bell.

“I was born in Guantanamo, Cuba. When I was around nine years old or ten years old I started boxing because the only boxing gym around was in my town. So, we go there playing, this and that, and I start to take things seriously. I start to fight. Because, normally in Cuba we have a street fight. Normally. It’s the way we grew up!”

He explained that once old enough, he attended a sports college. I asked Ismael if this was similar to Japan, where high-level Judoka can study Judo at University?

“Yes, I’m talking to you about the 70’s like 1974 or 1975 and after that I went to the University for Sports Science. The Cuban University of Sport. There, I started to work with the Guantanamo team as a head coach and the team had the best fighters in Cuba. So we built up a few Olympic gold medals, silver medals, World championship medals, Pan-American games, Central American games. By luck, I was successful.”

In my limited experience, this level of consistency is rarely a result of luck.

Listening to Salas talk is like being hypnotised for any true fan of the Sweet Science. Start to finish, we talk for twenty-three minutes. He spits out gold for minutes at a time, providing the background to what has become an illustrious career.

“I worked many times with the Olympic committee, I gave seminars. I worked for AIBA in Pakistan, in Poland, in Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya. In North Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, China. In Russia, South America, Mexico, Venezuela. All around the world. In the amateurs I’ve been busy!”

The difficulty with Cuba, as has been since 1962, is the prohibition of professional sport. Fidel Castro banned sports professionally and did so during a purple patch for Cuban boxing. Many champions suffered and the sport took an interesting turn. I spoke previously to Guillermo Rigondeaux who had to literally flee Cuba hidden under a dark sheet on the back of a boat.

“All the professional fighters had to leave Cuba. More than six World champions. Even Benny ‘The Kid’ Paret. He died in one fight. Everybody took their own way and Cuba started to build their system, you know? Cuba started building a system for amateurs. The system basically was from the Eastern Block of Europe. So, an East German, a Romanian, Bulgarian etc.”

This obviously paid dividends for the amateur boxing scene in Cuba. It was their sole focus. No-one was chasing money, they were chasing pride. Salas was raised in this environment and through his work with the Olympic games and AIBA, he found his own escape route.

“I left Cuba in 1989 to work with the AIBA president in Pakistan. I started to work with the Olympic team in Pakistan and we went for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. After that, I did not return to Cuba. After Barcelona, I went to Thailand. Now, this was a turning point in my professional life.”

The master tactician was keen to establish himself in the paid ranks. The transition, something he spoke about extensively during my time there, was his primary concern. He told me some coaches never adapt. Some amateur coaches will always have that ‘amateur’ mentality. That doesn’t mean they’re poor coaches, it’s just a part of life. Some can adapt, some can’t. Boxing meets Darwin.

“In 92′, when I went there, I couldn’t speak English or Thai. I don’t know how I started everything! But everything went very fine for me, I had SIX professional World champions, I was given the prize by the WBA of the 1996 Trainer of the Year. I have a gold medal in the Olympics with the Thai (team). We have a silver medal and bronze medal from Thailand. After there, I moved to Japan. I had a World champion in Japan. Then in Australia, I had a World champion in Australia.”

The resumé continues to impress. Where some may flatter to deceive, Ismael Salas has done everything the hard way. From learning full languages whilst scraping a living, to mastering the training camps of popular World champions. He’s seen it all.

“In total, I have nineteen World champions. For sure, we keep working, we keep building… So, many World champions are on the way! All those ingredients and experiences, this is what made Salas right now. With the blessing of God… I am full of experiences and physically I feel very strong. I’m 60 years old but still, I can hold pads all day. Around 60 rounds per day!”

When trainers talk about experience or growing within the sport, they can only scrape the surface of an Ismael Salas. Whilst we can’t overlook the ability of a trainer like Freddie Roach or Virgil Hunter, they haven’t lived the life of the little Cuban.

Virgil coaches his fighters to defend intelligently, as well as attack quickly and in bursts. Roach focuses on sharp combinations in the face of the opponent, throwing fives and sixes together to overwhelm. That is their style. Sculpted and maintained over a period of time not to be discounted. Succesful. However, the flexibility of Salas is something that cannot be matched in the modern game.

“You have different continents. Five continents yes? On each continent they have their own style. I have been working with the five continents. So, I can take little bits from here, there and there and I can be what I am now. My fundamentals though, are coming from Cuba.”

Never forgetting his roots. But never neglecting progression. 

I had been intrigued by his work with a rejuvinated Jorge Linares. Linares, a British boxing fans’ favourite has battled to defeat Kevin Mitchell, Anthony Crolla twice and now faces off against Luke Campbell. At this point, the WBA lightweight king seems as British as his defeated opponents.

Linares has sparkled on Matchroom cards in the past 18 months and seems to be enjoying something of a swansong during the later stages of his career. I never knew how the pair had been united and was captivated as he told me he was lined up to coach Linares… to be a coach himself!

“Mr Honda (Linares’ promoter) because he loved Linares, he said ‘Can you help him to be a good trainer?’ Because he will be a very good trainer. Wow. He teaches everyone. He loves to teach. Anyway. Then I say okay, I make a test for him. My personal test for any fighter at this high level and I can find out how far they can go… The test is the co-ordination between feet and arms. So, if the information goes too slow from the brain to the feet, from the feet to the hands… it’s time to retire. I got this through experience, I can see it. So, I did the test and I said to Linares, ‘You are fine!’.

After passing the test, it was important to get to the root cause of any mistakes or chinks in the armour. This is something Ismael picks up naturally.

“One of the things about Linares time with Freddie Roach was that he was champion always. The same as Pacquiao and he was doing this jumping in, jumping in. I said, ‘For me, you are a South American you are not Fillipino. You don’t need to do this. You are a South American fighter.'”

This deep understanding has helped forge a bond inside and outside of the ring.

Whilst researching this article, I discovered that Linares is a sanctuary located on a Spanish province called Salas. This holds serious significance as Jorge was coming off of three defeats and thought of as a potential trainer. Under Ismael, he is undefeated and seemingly at the peak of his powers.

When you are a nineteen time World champion coach, you have a legacy. The legacy is based on adaptation. It is based on taking risks, soaking up your surroundings and sticking to the basics. Overall, it is based on hard work and dedication. Those buzzwords you often hear in boxing uttered by its multi-million dollar fighters.

“I’ll tell you, sometimes I hate it when somebody says ‘because of you…’. I like to take the most simple way. The most simple way – just works. You see right now when we start work it is hard work for me. For everyone but for me I have to put all of myself. For them, they need to absorb what I try to do with them. But, it’s like I say; you build the system and afterwards the system works for you.”

It all comes full circle. The System. Create it, perfect it and use it to your advantage. Manipulate your own way of working and stick to the basics. Excel at the fundamentals and you are well on the way to success. He is little, he has high-level shoes on and he dances after sparring. The passion that drives him is on show during every session.

Ismael Salas has nineteen World champions and almost fifty years in the sport. He has worked in every continent and learnt from each. He is personable, bi-lingual and has a good sense of humour. Most importantly;

“From the very bottom of my heart I never look at somebody else. I only look at myself. I know what I can do. I do my best to get to my dreams. Because my dreams are not ending. I have big, big dreams.”

Written by Craig Scott

@craigscott209