From hero to zero, the troubled life of Nicolas Cruz Hernandez
The history books are full of glorious stories to emerge from the Olympic Games. From Castro’s Cuba to mining gold in Barcelona under the Irish tricolour, Nicolas Cruz Hernandez should have been one of them. Instead, the Cuban coach finds himself cut adrift from boxing in Ireland, and unwelcome in his own country. He tells Neil Loughran about the dark road that has taken him to the brink and back…
FOR every Olympic success story, there are thousands that fall through the cracks. Athletes, coaches, mentors who, after reaching the sporting pinnacle, return to everyday life with a sackful of stories to last a lifetime, but no medals to show for their endeavours.
Nicolas Cruz Hernandez has fallen through the cracks. Through the cracks of Irish boxing, through the cracks of Irish society, through the cracks of a life he once knew back in his native Cuba. But his is no ordinary tale. In 1992, Cruz Hernandez was one of the sport’s leading lights in this country. At the Olympic Games in Barcelona, he was the mastermind behind Wayne McCullough’s silver medal charge and, alongside Austin Carruth, played a key role as Michael Carruth became the first, and only, Irishman to ever land boxing gold.
Former Irish head coach Billy Walsh has spoken in glowing terms about the impact Cruz Hernandez had after touching down at Shannon airport on May 4, 1988. So too McCullough and Carruth, as well as a host of coaches who walked into his seminars with heads full of cynicism only to leave with opened minds.
So how, 24 years after Barcelona, has Nicolas Cruz Hernandez found himself cut adrift from boxing? Away from a sport to which he feels he still has so much to offer? It has been a blessing, something that has enriched his life and brought great joy, but it has also been a curse which has led him to the pits of despair, so much so that he wanted to end it all.
BILLY WALSH was still in the throes of a successful amateur career when Cruz Hernandez arrived in Ireland with a Cuban team made up of national team boxers and club fighters.
Like the Harlem Globetrotters, they would take the show on the road, to Glasgow, Dublin, it didn’t matter. Boxing fans have always been enchanted with that famous red vest. At that time, nations struggling for success - as Ireland was at that time - were in the market for foreign coaches, men who had been involved at the top level. The East Germans were widely revered, Russia also, but Cuba were, and remain, top of the tree.
Trotman Daley was the first of his kind involved in the Irish set-up. A tough task-master - “old school” as Michael Carruth politely describes him - the Cuban would have fighters losing half a stone during arduous training sessions.
Walsh, Carruth and co wondered what all the fuss was about - until their new coach, a compatriot of Daley’s, arrived: “Nicolas had just stopped boxing, but still had the mentality of a boxer rather than a coach,” Walsh told Sean McGoldrick in his book Punching Above Their Weight.
“Sometimes coaches forget what it’s like to be a boxer. He told us in advance what sessions we were doing and how long they would last. He did torture us in terms of the training but there were no hidden agendas.”
Cruz Hernandez had been the number two ranked light-heavyweight in Cuba during the early ‘80s, but the country’s decision to boycott the 1984 Games in Los Angeles put paid to his own Olympic dream. After hanging up the gloves, he became a lecturer at the Higher Institute of Physical Education in Havana before a surprise request to travel to Ireland.
“They say life and decisions take only a few seconds, but in the space of a day my life changed forever,” he recalls.
When the Cuban team headed home 10 days after it had arrived, one man remained in Ireland - Cruz Hernandez. Then president of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) Breandan O Conaire liked what he saw and was keen for him to stay and revitalise Irish boxing from the ground up.
Although he wasn’t one of the coaches sent to Seoul in 1988, Cruz Hernandez had already started to make an impression on the boxers. The youngest of the crew - Belfast’s Wayne McCullough - credits the Cuban coach with helping turn him into the fighter who would eventually go on to become WBC world bantamweight champion.
“He was brilliant,” said the ‘Pocket Rocket’, who was just 18 in South Korea.
“When I turned pro the Americans loved my style, and I put a lot of that down to Nicolas. He trained you like a semi-pro almost – a lot of defence, slipping, blocking, sitting down on your punches. At a training camp in Kerry before Seoul, we would have done a lot of touch sparring but I didn’t really like it, I preferred doing the pads with Nicolas because I felt like I was learning something every time.”
It was only when the team travelled to Barcelona in 1992 that the full effect of Cruz Hernandez’s training began to bear fruit. McCullough had made subtle improvements without altering his crowd-pleasing, all-action style. Carruth was a supreme boxer, an awkward right-handed southpaw, and fighting at welterweight suited him much better than lightweight had four years previous.
As fate would have it, both came up against Cubans in their Olympic finals. Indeed, Carruth’s opponent - Juan Hernandez Sierra - was a former student of Cruz Hernandez in Havana and was from the same province of Artemisa in the west of the communist country.
Plotting the downfall of his fellow countrymen felt like an out of body experience, with Carruth achieving the unthinkable and McCullough falling just short against the slick Joel Casamayor. Back home, Cuban president Fidel Castro made reference to “our” success when lauding Cruz Hernandez’s role in Ireland’s prosperity. He looked set to oversee a revolution within Irish boxing, and was happy to do so.
Little did he know, though, that his achievements would come at a cost.
“I WAS not to work with the Irish team any more because Cuba had a strategy to do their best against the Americans at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Ireland’s success in 1992 was seen as too much. Straight away I was on the black list.”
Called home after Barcelona, Cruz Hernandez reluctantly returned. Reluctant not because he didn’t love Cuba. He did. The place, the people, the culture - it ran through him. But he wanted to make a better life for himself and his family.
Ireland, even in the early to mid-1990s, offered this. After the part he played in Barcelona, he was held in the highest of esteem back in his adopted homeland. When the opportunity arose to go back to Ireland in 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics, he was willing to do anything. Cuba had dispatched Cruz Hernandez to Puerto Rico to conduct seminars.
Conversations took place with O Conaire and, before he knew it, he was on a plane and days later found himself sitting ringside at the National Stadium watching the Irish senior finals. But this was to be no fairytale return. In the most Irish of fashions, having gone to such lengths to secure Cruz Hernandez’s services in time for him to lead the team at that summer’s Olympics, the IABA just as quickly turned their back on him.
When the Cubans learned of his defection, they told their Irish colleagues that they would veto his appearance in Atlanta and, should Cruz Hernandez lead the Irish team, the working relationship between the two countries would be severed.
Inexplicably, the IABA consented to the Cubans’ wishes: “They didn’t want to get into conflict with the Cubans. I was very, very disappointed, I felt let down. I made that decision [to defect] because my ties to Ireland, the friendships I had, I felt I could rebuild my life here.
“Over there I was just doing what I was told and I got fed up with that. I thought I could eventually bring my wife and kids over, but I was dropped off the team. When they went to Miami for preparation for the Olympics, I didn’t go.”
Within months, in order to make ends meet, one of the heroes of four years previous found himself pulling pints at the Ringside club, sweeping the floors after bingo and working doors at the weekend. Only the generosity of a friend from Mayo, Joe Lavelle, stopped him having to sleep on the floor as he sent a bed and mattress to the National Stadium, where Cruz Hernandez lived, from Belmullet.
From hero to zero, he found himself just another stranger in a strange land. It wasn’t meant to be this way: “I was helping out some of the clubs, but I wasn’t involved with the team any more, so I felt like a failure.
“I couldn’t come back to my country, couldn’t have any contact with my family. During those years it was nearly impossible to make a phone call to Cuba. It was a nightmare.”
It was almost six years before he was allowed home, during which time his marriage had broken down, his children were growing up, and he had been refused entry to attend his father’s funeral. With his life falling apart, dark thoughts began to take hold. In his head, there was no hope.
“I considered long and hard at the time just to leave this planet," he said.
“I had a rope and I had made up my mind what I was going to do with it - I had already picked the branch of the tree at the back of the stadium. The only thing I had in my mind was death, it was just something I started to think was okay to do. I felt I had betrayed my family, let down my country - there was no recovering from that. I was a traitor.”
A chance meeting with a Shaolin monk in Dublin helped alter that mindset. Meditation played a major part as he began to regain control of his life. Part-time teaching jobs in Portlaoise prison and St Patrick’s Institute helped pay the bills and provided mental stimulation.
The rope with which he had considered taking his own life instead became a symbol of hope, and a tool of his chosen trade: “The three threads of the rope, I opened them up, I made a knot and made a longer rope and when I was going to boxing classes I was using that for exercises, bobbing and weaving.
“That was the rope I was going to use to hang myself up. After that, it became something else. It was not forgotten, it was there, but I was getting stronger and I decided not to hide any of that but to keep all of those things in my hand. It made me stronger.”
“I THOUGHT he would have been the national coach for all the years he was in Ireland” - Wayne McCullough
In 2000, Nicolas Cruz Hernandez was brought back into the Irish boxing fold, but it didn’t last long. Appointed national coaching administrator, it should have been the first step on the road back to where he felt he belonged; the Olympic Games.
Instead, it led him back down the road to despair. Naively, he didn’t ask how much his new post paid until he had shaken on the deal – 15,000 euros was barely enough to live on, never mind save to go back home and visit family in Cuba.
Yet worse was to follow. Unfamiliar with the taxation system in Ireland, Cruz Hernandez was unaware he had been placed on an emergency tax since his return in 1996. In his new job, out of 15,000 euros, he was seeing just over 6,000 euros per year.
“In 2008, it was discovered by pure accident when I went to the revenue commission in Tallaght. The woman said I was owed a lump sum, but they could only go back four years, the other eight years were lost. That did massive damage.”
Unable to forge any kind of existence on such a meagre wage, Cruz Hernandez left his new post with the IABA after just a year and began working with the education training board in Midland Prison, teaching physical education, yoga, Spanish and boxercise.
Aside from an involvement with a couple of pro fighters around the turn of the decade, a once omnipresent figure has been largely absent from the fight game. Every time an Olympic Games comes around, it is like a dagger to the heart. Even speaking about Rio and the current crop of Irish talent, the pain is evident.
“The bad moments haven’t left me. In 2012, for the first time ever in my life, I had to go to a counsellor. I was just trying to save myself, because I had decided that was it. The Olympics were in London - that’s why I came to this country," he said.
“My brother took his own life, and in my head I kept thinking like he was calling to me, saying ‘you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go’. My life was in boxing. Boxing is a drug, it’s in the blood. Being far from it, not being there any more, I felt useless up to the point it has hit me so hard that I don’t go to boxing any more. I won’t even watch on the television. I still feel I have a lot to offer, that’s why it hurts me so much when I hear about the Irish boxers. In my heart and soul I wish them all the best - I would love to see that gold medal coming back.”
May 1988. Nicolas Cruz Hernandez prepares to leave Cuba for Ireland for the first time. Knowing all that has happened in the years between - the highs of ’92, the lifetime friendships forged as well as the hurt, the isolation, the trauma - would he make a different choice this time around?
“No, I can’t say that. It’s been difficult, but such is life. I have learned with that. It has made me harder - I am still telling the story. Because after all I went through, I didn’t fail - I didn’t take my life," he said.
“Nothing is easy. I met people that helped me, people who have given me lessons, and the great memories I have from the Olympics. Wonderful people. This is the story of my life.”