The Sunday Leader

CORNERMAN Dian

BOOKS on Sri Lankan sport personalties are rare, and that’s not surprising: after all, celebrities of the kind worthy of writing books on are scarce as hen’s teeth. As far as one remembers there was none until Sri Lanka’s cricketers went out and stunned the world by taking the World Cup in 1996.

That glorious triumph elevated some members of the ’96 team to the rarefied world of icons –and so, finally, we had found celebrities of our own to write books on. And so was published: Aravinda: My Autobiography, in 1999 and Mahanama, Retired Hurt, in 2001 – both ‘ghosted’. Skipper Ranatunga and Muralitharan, of iconic status too, however, chose not to put their life-stories between covers; the reason could have been modesty, believing, perhaps, their achievements weren’t grand enough to write a book on.

Against that backdrop, a book of “stories from the life of Dian Gomes’’ entitled Cornerman, to be launched on Tuesday, July 15 at the BMICH, questions legitimacy.

Gomes sport is boxing; his name, as a boxer, though, won’t be mentioned in the same breath with legends of the likes of Albert Perera, the Jayasuriya brothers, Sumith Liyanage, Malcolm Bulner, Winston vanCuylenberg or H K Karunaratne. All of them were national champions who represented the country in numerous international contests, some at the Olympics as well –  everyone a folklore figure. And Gomes?  He couldn’t manage anything better than the Junior National fly weight title in 1975. He quit in 1976, after taking a sound beating from H. S Caldera.

Given the undistinguished record of his fighting career, you might likely contest Gomes’ suitability as a subject for a book on boxing. And lest you conclude that Cornerman has trespassed into premises reserved for sport celebrities, you better listen to what the man himself has to say.

“I don’t pretend to have a great record as a boxer, and my boxing days at Royal College gets only a passing mention (in the 435-page book),’’ Gomes, who is Group Director at MAS Holdings, explained to me. “The book is about my ‘love of the game’; my involvement with the boxers, not just ringside but in their lives. Behind the boxer the public sees, there are many untold human stories – stories that only a trusted cornerman gets to know. The book tells those untold stories.’’

When the idea of this book was first discussed, the intention was to confine it to only the boxers. “Being a book on boxers and boxing, it was meant to tell the role a cornerman plays in the life of a boxer, in and out of the ring, but then someone asked: “how about the many non-boxers you’ve been cornerman to… the office staff, the factory workers, the managers, why not include them too?’’

Cornerman so became not only Gomes’ stories about boxing and boxers, but also about the men and women who helped MAS Holdings be the giant apparel entity it is. In the corporate world, Gomes is reputedly known for his uncanny knack for identifying talent, and his pursuits of lofty ambitions. Where companies’ role in sport is traditionally confined to one of only doling out sponsorship, Gomes went beyond: he made sport a company culture. “Having a sporting hero as a colleague in your workplace can’t be bad for the company,’’ he says.

How much Gomes’ philosophy contributes to the business wellbeing of the company is difficult to measure, but without doubt it contributed hugely to the development of Sri Lanka boxing. And there’s no better supporting evidence of that claim than the achievement of MAS Holdings employee, Anruddha Rathnayake, the first Sri Lankan boxer in forty years to enter an Olympic Games ring, in 2008 in Beijing.

There being so much to trumpet about Gomes’ contributions to company and Sri Lanka boxing, Cornerman could so easily have drifted down a path of self-glorification. But compilers Vidhura Ralapanawe and Shevanthi Fernando steered clear of that temptation. They’ve left it mostly to the beneficiaries’ of Gomes’ virtues to tell the stories of the man, his ways and his thoughts. For instance, this is how Mahesh Amalean, Chairman of MAS Holdings, portrays Gomes: “Dian built the MAS brand through sports. He brought in the right sporting talent and nurtured them into international sportsmen and women. There are companies that sponsor sportsmen and women as product ambassadors, but Dian built our brand ambassadors, behind our own gates.’’

Brandix is MAS Holdings’ business rival; so what does the rival director, Ashroff Omar think of his “foe: “He has a cult-type following. His strength is the ability to lead people and to select the good people to follow him.’’

And his many followers tell great stories of the impact the cornerman has had on their lives, laced generously with rich anecdotes. One concerns Cheevan Daniel, one-time MAS Holdings’ chief of recruitment who moved to MTV, driven by ambitions to someday launch a TV talk show – “like Larry King.’’  That day came after he assumed the leadership role of MTV and asked Gomes to be the first guest on the show. Gomes agreed, but not before giving the aspiring talk-show host a strong dose of straight-talk: “Are you crazy – you are now a leader, so you need to lead. Your job is not to be Larry King but to hire Larry King.’’

Daniel was as good as hit by an Olympian Rathnayake left-hook. “It made me stop dead in my tracks and reconsider everything. That mind shift was possibly one of the biggest I have made, and it definitely helped me lead successfully.’’ It’s that respect Daniel has in Gomes’ judgement that prompted MTV to tie up with the ABA to launch the Super Fighter program, an island-wide search, among youths, for the country’s first ever Olympic boxing medal, in 2020 – an obsession with Gomes.

Meanwhile though, he wonders what might’ve been had his last words been different to Rathnayake before his fight in the 2008 Olympics. The words: Putha, balala Gahanna  (Son, watch and punch). Had those three little words turned Rathnayake into another boxer, not the ruthless, bloody-minded, unforgiving fighter he always is? Cornerman doesn’t answer that question but coveys the doubts that continue to haunt Gomes: “Dian was racked with remorse. Did his last words ….’watch and punch’ cage the animal in Anuruddha? Did they caution and circumscribe and sheath his ferocity… Had he, Dian, succumbed to the strain at the crucial moment and called for virtue from his fighter that was alien to him.’’
The plan to celebrate Sri Lanka boxing’s first Olympic Games appearance after 40 years was not meant to end like this – 3/13, a margin of defeat that, in cricketing translation, pretty much means an innings-defeat.

The preparation of Rathnayake for the Olympic makes fascinating reading – not the part about the blood, sweat and tears shed at the anvil of training; nor the sending of the boxer to Cuba because his preferred Cuban coach could not be brought to Colombo; nor fulfilling the boxer’s desire to visit all the temples and kovils he wanted to visit. But then what could the ABA or his employer do about the taps at the boxer’s Kandy home releasing only driblets of water? Linea Clothing, MAS’s Kandy plant, sent a bowser of water to the boxer’s home. And Rathnayake went about his training without a worry in the world.

Cornerman is a lovely read. But a word of caution, the book weighs an arm-aching 2.4 kilos, not quite the book to take to while-away the long hours of a long trip or flight. Those who Gomes have been cornerman to, though, won’t mind the ache – if only to wallow in nostalgia and ponder on what might’ve become of their lives without the cornerman.

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