The role Nicolás Cruz Hernandez played in Irish Boxing’s historic breakthrough has become a nearly-forgotten footnote
Nicolás Cruz Hernández is the forgotten hero of Irish sport. Thirty years ago, he played a key role in one of the seminal events in Irish boxing.
At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, boxers Michael Carruth and Wayne McCullough made history by winning gold and silver medals within 40 minutes of each other.
At the previous six Olympics Ireland had won two bronze medals in boxing. In Barcelona, only Cuba, Germany and the United States finished ahead of Ireland in the sport’s medal table. Carruth, whose late father Austin was in his corner, remains the only Irish male boxer to win an Olympic title.
The role a then young Cuban coach played in that historic breakthrough has become little more than a footnote. This wasn’t always the case. Cruz smiles wistfully when he recalls those heady weeks and months after he returned to Dublin in the wake of Ireland’s best Olympic performance for 36 years.
“It was funny,” he said. “I couldn’t walk around Dublin without people inviting me for a drink. Back then, I used to take a drink, and nobody would let me pay. They kept telling me stories about getting drunk on the day the lads won their medals. Some pubs had reduced their prices to what they were in 1956 [when an Irish boxer last contested an Olympic final]. There was talk of us getting the Freedom on the City.”
The story of how a Cuban coach landed in the corner of two Irish boxers taking on two Cubans in gold medal fights at the Olympic Games began on May 4, 1988.
Nicolás Cruz Hernández, the then 31-year-old son of a tobacco farmer from the western Cuban province of Artemisa, arrived on an overnight Aeroflot flight at Shannon Airport from Havana. He was with a Cuban boxing team for three internationals in Dublin, Glasgow and Dundee. But when the rest of the Cuban party returned home, he moved to Dublin to take up a consultancy coaching role with the then Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA).
“All of a sudden I was left on my own abroad for the first time,” he says. “It was weird. I noticed straight away I wasn’t seeing another black person on the street. I had no say or input into the decision to come to Ireland. We just did whatever we were told.”
The IABA’s long-time president, Felix Jones, had a dream of seeing an Irish boxer win an Olympic title in his lifetime and he turned to Cuban President Fidel Castro for help.
In 1974 Cuba announced itself as the new powerhouse in amateur boxing by winning five gold medals at the inaugural World Championships in Havana. At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, they secured ten medals — six gold, two silver and two bronze.
Economically struggling due to a US-imposed trade embargo, Cuba earned some badly needed foreign currency by sending their boxing coaches abroad to work with national federations. Cruz wasn’t the first Cuban coach the IABA had hired, but he was the one who left an indelible mark.
He had harboured ambitions of making the Cuban boxing squad for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, but those dreams were dashed when Cuba supported a Russian boycott.
As a teenager, he competed in the triple jump before switching to basketball and featuring on the Cuban junior squad but he was inspired by the exploits of the nation’s boxers at those 1974 World Championships. “I thought I had an arm that I could use,” he says. He ended up being the number two ranked light heavyweight in the country. But after his Olympic dreams were dashed, he quit the sport.
Having graduated with degrees in physical education and sports science in Havana, he worked in the Cuban military cadet academy initially as a PE instructor before becoming an instructor in guerrilla warfare. “We expected an American invasion all the time,” he recalls.
When he finished compulsory military service he was appointed a professor of boxing at his alma mater, the Higher Institute of Physical Culture in Havana.
In addition to his designated work, he took in young boys off the street and taught them how to fight. In a three-year period, six of them had made sufficient progress to be fast-tracked into the national development programmes for fighters. The authorities noted his talent as a coach.
Ireland first registered on his radar during the H-Block hunger strikes. The death in 1981 of Bobby Sands, who had been elected as an MP while on hunger strike, resonated strongly with the military cadets he was tutoring at the time. “The students left their classrooms and came out into the halls chanting Bobby Sands’ name. They wanted to come to fight for the freedom of Ireland.”
Cruz is diplomatic when asked to describe the state of Irish boxing on the eve of the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
“Not properly organised,” he suggests. He soon discovered how primitive things were when he went to the IABA’s pre-Olympic training camp in the Staigue Fort House Hotel near Castlecove on the Iveragh Peninsula in south-west Kerry.
The only non-contact exercises the Seoul-bound boxers were familiar with were running and skipping. There was virtually no specialist boxing equipment available.
“We had to cut the legs off the boxing ring to fit it into the hotel ballroom and the only other equipment we had was a frame with two bags hanging from it.”
Necessity is the mother of invention. Cruz located two tractor tyres and a truck axle in a nearby scrapyard. He turned the axle into a 16kg hammer. “We belted the tyres with it every morning. The lads really struggled at the start. But by the end of the camp they were flying.”
He soon encountered the kind of politics which has bedevilled Irish boxing for decades. Cuba boycotted the Seoul Games, but while other countries who had employed Cuban coaches took them to Korea, Ireland inexplicably left Cruz at home.
Ireland failed to win a medal in Seoul although 18-year-old Belfast kid Wayne McCullough earned rave reviews.
“I was very sorry I wasn’t able to go to the Olympics because I knew the shape the boxers were in,” says Cruz.
He spent four and half months in Ireland on his first visit. He returned annually during the next Olympic cycle and gradually revolutionised the amateur fight game here. He travelled all over the country giving coaching seminars in clubs.
He also gained the confidence of Felix Jones, who was willing to meet his demands. Ahead of the 1991 European Championships in Gothenburg, he persuaded the IABA to hire a camcorder to allow him to record other fights and do video analysis of opponents. He identified the potential of Dublin featherweight Paul Griffin and adopted him as his special project.
“I made a deal with him. So long as he kept winning he would sleep in the bed in the room we shared, and I would sleep on the floor. As soon as he lost I would get the bed.”
Griffin ended up winning Ireland’s first gold medal at the European championships for 42 years.
Ahead of the Barcelona Games, Cruz prevailed upon the IABA to break with tradition and send the squad to a training camp in Cottbus, a university city in Brandenburg, behind the then Iron Curtain in East Germany.
They shared the camp with the Thai Olympic team and a number of German boxers while the Nigerian Olympic team were a two-hour drive away. A combination of the primitive living accommodation — 12 boxers shared one toilet — the absence of typical Irish foods like rashers, sausages, eggs, fish and chips and homesickness fermented a revolt.
McCullough walked out of the camp. He got a taxi to Berlin from where he took a flight back to Belfast. The rest stayed, though the camp was eventually cut short. However, Cruz believes it was an invaluable learning experience with Carruth and McCullough sparring fighters they went on to beat in Barcelona.
He recalls teaching the squad which included teenage heavyweight Kevin McBride who later beat Mike Tyson in a professional fight how to play baseball.
“They grew bored and homesick and it was something I did on a Sunday to try and entertain them. We had great fun.”
The boxers knew how to have fun, even if occasionally a prank went wrong. In Barcelona they got in trouble for launching water balloons from the balcony of their apartment after swimmer Michelle Smith slipped and grazed her leg.
“We were called before the chef de mission Pat Hickey, who threatened to send us home if there were any more problems. In the end, the boxers were the only athletes to win medals, so he had no choice but to jump on the bandwagon.”
Much to the annoyance of the other Irish athletes, as well as competitors from other countries who were sleeping in the same block as Ireland, Cruz had the boxers out training on the lawn in front of the dormitories every morning at the crack of dawn.
“Not a single day did we go to the gym to train. Firstly, I didn’t want to give our opponents any hint of what the Irish boys were going to do. Secondly, from a psychological viewpoint, a boxer will change the way they are training if they know they are being watched by other coaches and fighters.
“When all the other Irish athletes had been knocked out of their events and only the boxers were left, they came out and watched us train in the morning. Athletes from other countries came as well. Eventually, the crowds got so large I had to appeal to them to stand back and give us more room.”
Wayne McCullough’s dream of winning the gold medal was effectively scuppered in a brutal semi-final in which his North Korean opponent broke his cheekbone in three places and attacked him outside the ring as well. McCullough somehow passed the medical test before the final but was no match for Cuban Joel Casamayor in the bantamweight decider.
At face value, welterweight Michael Carruth faced an even bigger challenge against the then golden boy of Cuban boxing, Juan Hernández Sierra, who was the reigning world champion and unbeaten for three and a half years.
Cruz knew Hernández personally, nonetheless, he devised a plan which Carruth implemented to the letter enabling him to cause a major upset and win the gold medal on a 13-10 score.
The Dubliner, who had won a bronze medal in the light welterweight category at the World Championships in Sydney, might have been less willing to follow Cruz’s advice but for what happened at a World Cup tournament in Havana two years earlier. Carruth was drawn against a highly-rated Cuban southpaw, Candelario Duvergel, in the first round of the light welterweight division.
“The Cuban was an amazing counter-attacker. I told Michael that unless he boxed in a certain way the Cuban would stop him. He did what I told him. He forced the Cuban to take a standing count. Michael should have won the fight, but it was a hometown decision. But because of that he trusted me when it came to the Olympic final. On the day before the final I spent an hour and a half with Michael showing him the way Hernández would fight. I told him ‘you are not to take one step forward. Instead, you are going to do what he does best; you are going to box.’ The only time I had to shout at him in the final was during the second round when he got a bit over-enthusiastic.”
The loss of the gold medal in the welterweight final cost Cuba third place in the overall table. Even though President Castro name-checked Cruz when he welcomed the Cuban back to Havana and congratulated him on doing his job, his fate was sealed.
According to Cruz, the President did a deal with the Cuban Boxing Association which resulted in the boxing coaches who had trained fighters who had beaten Cubans in Barcelona being recalled. In return, the Association promised to do better at the next Games in Atlanta in 1996. Cruz was top of their list. He wasn’t allowed back to Ireland after he returned home in late 1992.
Cruz is at a loss to explain his desire to come back to Ireland. His then wife Marie gave birth to the couple’s second child, Nicolás, in 1995. They also had a seven-year-old daughter, Laura, when Cruz defected to Ireland in February 1996.
The new president of the IABA, Breandán Ó Conaire, formally requested the Cuban authorities to allow Cruz to return to help prepare the squad for the Olympic Games in 1996. But Cruz never saw the telex. It was placed in a drawer in an office of a secretary in the institute in Havana.
By chance, Cruz stopped at her desk one day for a chat. Unprompted, she opened a drawer and handed him the telex message from the IABA which included their office number in the National Stadium. Cruz says he folded the piece of paper, placed it in his wallet and promptly forgot about it.
In February 1996, together with another coach and a political minder, Cruz was sent to Puerto Rico to conduct a coaching seminar. He travelled on a scheduled flight from Havana to San José, via Miami in Florida. The stop-over in the US meant he had to obtain a US visa beforehand.
The party left Cuba on February 21. Four days later, the then US President Bill Clinton announced a ban on flights from Cuba in retaliation for an incident in which the Cuban Air Force shot down two aircraft operated by an organisation called ‘Brothers to The Rescue’, which was opposed to the Cuban authorities.
The Cuban party had to return home on March 8 via the Dominican Republic. By then, Cruz was in Ireland. “Neither Breandán nor anybody else in Ireland knew I would be leaving Cuba. I hadn’t thought too much about defecting and I certainly hadn’t anything planned before I left Cuba. But I did tell my then wife that if I didn’t come back I would be in Ireland.”
On the first day of the seminar in San José he arrived early and befriended a local official who told him that if he needed to make any phone calls, to talk to him. Later, while rummaging through his wallet he found the note on which the telephone number of the IABA was printed.
“I knew it was the middle of the night in Ireland, but I left a message on the answering machine in the office in the National Stadium. Breandán got in touch and sorted out a plane ticket and the visa to get into Ireland.”
Cruz decided to be upfront about his decision to defect and informed the president of the Cuban Boxing Association, who had also come on the trip. “Unlike other Cubans, I didn’t want to hide my intention. So, I went to the president and demanded my passport. My mind was confused and I’m not sure why I spoke like this to the president. I knew afterwards there was no going back.”
The president was called away to a meeting in Argentina and Cruz’s passport was left with another official.
“He obviously wasn’t very careful with it,” says Cruz with a wry smile. Cruz simply took his passport from an envelope that he found in the official’s holdall and hid it.
The frantic official searched the dormitory, but Cruz had hidden the passport elsewhere. He then tried to delay the mini-bus taking them to the airport by making an unscheduled stop at the headquarters of the Costa Rican boxing association.
“My flight to New York was due to leave at 12.15 and it looked like I was going to miss it. When the bus to the office stopped I sneaked around the side of the building and asked the secretary to call a taxi. I jumped into the taxi and told the driver I was afraid I was going to miss my flight. He put the foot down. He drove through red lights and I was afraid we were going to crash. When we arrived at the airport he took my bag and said he would put it through the x-ray machine and sent me to the desk.”
When Cruz produced his Cuban passport and a ticket for a flight to New York it raised a red flag, but eventually, he was issued with a boarding pass. He picked up his bag and sprinted past the queue waiting to board as fast as he could. “I never stopped until I found my seat.”
A woman from the Dominican Republic sat beside him and during the flight poured out her life story to him. “It was remarkably similar to my own. She had left her family behind her when she first came to the States. She also gave me a copy of the New Testament. Listening to her story helped calm me down.”
By the time he arrived at the Aer Lingus desk at JFK airport his flight to Shannon had closed. But the Aer Lingus agent recognised him and transferred him on to the next flight to Dublin. Within hours of arriving in Dublin, he was back in the National Stadium watching the Elite finals.
Sadly, the story does not have a happy-ever-after ending. Cruz threw himself into preparing the Irish team for the Atlanta Olympics later that year. He takes particular pride in the fact that Ireland succeeded in getting four boxers qualified, twice as many as Great Britain.
But he was left at home when the squad travelled to the Games. It appears the Cuban authorities threatened to break off all relations with the IABA if Cruz was the team coach in Atlanta and the IABA opted not to upset them.
However, the biggest issue was that the cash-strapped IABA struggled to raise the money to pay Cruz. He lived in the National Stadium while a friend, Joe Lavelle, brought a bed on the back of a truck from Belmullet for him to sleep on. Effectively he became the caretaker of the National Stadium, sweeping the floor after bingo sessions and cleaning the adjoining Ringside bar. He worked nights with a security company in order to make ends meet. He desperately missed his family and reached his breaking point in the winter of 1997.
“I felt I had nothing to look forward to,” he recalled in an earlier interview. “The idea of hanging myself came into my head as I watched the trees from the back door of the gym. There was a lot of snow that year and I used to take it into my hand and feel it because I had never seen snow in Cuba. I was thinking, this is the last time I will be doing this. I had the rope ready.”
A chance meeting with a Buddhist monk at a yoga seminar in the Little Flower Hall in Meath Street in Dublin changed his life. Slowly his acute feelings of anxiety and fear subsided. In a symbolic gesture he tore the rope in three pieces. He then tied the pieces together and used it as a boxing aid in the gym — the boxers had to bob and weave around it.
Finally, in January 2000, he was appointed as the IABA’s first national coaching administrator on a modest salary of €15,000 a year. In his anxiety to secure the position, he had forgotten to ask about the pay. “Jesus, with that I couldn’t even save enough to go back home or bring my family here for a visit.”
But it was all the IABA could afford as government funding for the sport was still a pittance. Worse still, Cruz didn’t realise he was on the wrong tax band. Essentially he was paying emergency tax. It was 2008 before the mistake was rectified. It cost him thousands in lost wages as he could only claim back his tax arrears for four years. By then he had been an Irish citizen for more than a decade. “I’m a black Paddy ever since,” he says.
After Ó Conaire surprisingly stepped down as president of the IABA in 2000, Cruz found himself being sidelined by the Association. He wasn’t directly involved in preparing the Irish squad for the 2001 World Championship in Belfast.
By then he had decided to look elsewhere for employment. Helped again by Joe Lavelle he did a computer course and was about to start work with a Ballina-based company when he was offered a role as a teacher in the Midlands Prison. He has now lived in Portlaoise for 20 years and still teaches yoga and Spanish in the prison there.
Five years and eight months passed before he was able to return to Cuba after his defection. By then, his marriage had disintegrated, and his father had died. The authorities demand that his ex-wife write a report on what he did during his visit and whether he tried to persuade his children to leave Cuba.
“There was a lot of tension. For those five years, I could visit every country in the world bar the country I was born in.”
Nowadays, he can visit Cuba any time — he has been there twice this year — and he has stayed in contact with his now adult children.
By the time the government decided to fund boxing through the establishment of a high-performance programme in 2003, Cruz had moved on with his life and didn’t apply for any of the full-time roles.
It is doubtful whether he would have secured a position as the thinking at the time was that Ireland needed a coach from Eastern Europe in order to first gain parity with the former Eastern Bloc countries. Ultimately that decision was vindicated. But despite all the success since, one medal continues to elude Irish boxers.
Michael Carruth is still the only Irish male boxer to win an Olympic gold medal. And it is debatable whether he would have won that medal without the presence of Nicolás Cruz Hernández in his corner on that fateful Saturday 30 years ago.
Decorated Australian World War I commander John Monash once said: “No man is a hero in his own country.” In the case of Cruz, he became the forgotten hero in his adopted country.