History of Cuban Boxing Part 1:
The Last Generation of Pro Fighters
By Robert Cassidy
FLORENTINO FERNANDEZ closes his eyes and the vision still appears. He will feel a warm summer breeze or hear the ocean gently wash up on the sand, and suddenly it brings him home. Even after four decades, the beauty of his homeland remains vivid. The memories are both pleasant and painful, as they send him back to places and faces he wishes to see. But he knows that some wishes aren't meant to come true.
"I miss Cuba very much," he said. "I miss the family and friends I left behind. I miss the beaches, the beautiful people, the view of Malecon [Havana's busiest street]. I miss the Cuba of 42 years ago."
Fernandez was among a few dozen professional fighters who left Cuba after Fidel Castro's rise to power. The lot included Luis Rodriguez, Benny Paret, Isaac Logart, Doug Vaillant, Sugar Ramos, Jose Legra and Jose Napoles. They represent the finest and -- until some recent defections - the last generation of pro boxers the island nation has produced.
There had been great Cuban fighters before and a spate of great Olympic champs since, but never was boxing as saturated with Cuban talent as it was in the early to late 1960s. The legacy of those men is measured by the success they achieved in the ring, but also by the sacrifices and hardships they endured by the sudden, and permanent, separation from family, friends and the country of their birth.
"I remained friends with Luis Rodriguez and with many of those fighters," said Fernandez, speaking through interpreter Eddie Soler, a Cuban-American and Florida-based boxing historian. "We remained close. We couldn't go back, but we had each other."
Fernandez and his brethren were established fighters when Castro launched his revolution from the mountains known as Sierra Maestra and forced dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile on New Year's Day, 1959. Initially, Castro was viewed as a savior by many nations, including the Unites States. But the kind of violence and vengeance that he fought against soon became common practice after the coup. Castro further alienated his country from the U.S. when he shunned democracy in favor of communism. Then in 1962, he signed Cuban National Decree 83a, which outlawed professional sports. It read in part, "Professional sports enriched the few at the expense many." Cuba ceased producing pro fighters.
"I was in Cuba three days after the revolution," said Hall of Fame trainer Angelo Dundee. "I stayed at the Hilton, where Castro stayed. At that time, Castro still wanted things to go on as usual and he wanted there to be a boxing show. He was at the card and so was his brother Raul and Che Guevara. The atmosphere was always sensational at the fights in Cuba. But now, there were soldiers with machine guns at the fights too. One guy, his machine gun went off straight up in the air. What a scene that caused. That last time I went, when I was going through the airport, security was very tight. They checked everything but the kitchen sink. I said to myself, I'm not coming back anymore."
According to the book, "In the Red Corner, A Journey into Cuban Boxing," author Jon Duncan writes that the Cuban sports federation ordered a meeting of the island's pro boxers. At that meeting the fighters were told they could leave and pursue their careers or they could stay and a job would be provided for them by the government. Most of them left. The last pro fight card ever held in Cuba was in December of 1961.
Fernandez, now 66 and in Miami, was one of the middleweight division's hardest hitters and a favorite among his people. He knocked out 18 straight opponents in Havana, a Cuban record. That streak ended in April of 1960, not because a fighter went the distance against Fernandez, but because it was his last fight in Cuba.
"Leaving Cuba effected me in a lot of ways," said Fernandez, who challenged for the title and
lost a split decision to Gene Fullmer in 1961. "My mother died four years ago and I was
unable to see her. When I was in Mexico, before arriving in Miami, I had the opportunity to
fight Dick Tiger but no one could find me."
The exodus also included trainers, managers and promoters. Luis Sarria was a respected
trainer and Muhammad Ali's chief masseur. Tuto Zabala Sr., who played on Cuba's national
basketball team, went to Jamaica, then Miami before settling in Puerto Rico. According to his
son, Tuto Jr., Zabala began promoting fights to raise money to aid forces against Castro.
"He started promoting in 1964," said Tuto Jr. "The first big fight he did was Rocky Rivero
against Florentino Fernandez. After the fights, he'd send money to Alpha 66, which is
an organization that still exists today. His whole reason for getting into boxing was
to fight for the freedom of Cuba. My father was always anti-revolution, anti-Castro."
Many left the island quickly, leaving wives and children behind. Others were already fighting
abroad and were told by family members not to come back. Jose Legra was training in Miami
but grew so homesick that he returned to Cuba. He was lucky enough to get out again in 1963
and relocated to Spain. While fighting there, under the training of Cuban Kid Tunero,
he captured the featherweight title in 1972.
The Cuban Diaspora spread to Mexico, Spain and other Caribbean Islands. But the most
densely populated area of Cuban immigrants was Miami. That is where many continued their
careers and the Fifth Street Gym became their headquarters.
"I used to go to Cuba about every other week," said Dundee, who ran the Fifth Street Gym
and worked with Rodriguez, Ramos and Napoles. "I used to bring American fighters over and
I got to know the Cuban promoters. When Castro outlawed pro boxing, they came over here
and it was, 'Please, Angelo work with me.' Really, it was my pleasure to work with them."
While Havana hosted the 1915 heavyweight title fight between Jack Johnson and Jess
Willard, the history of the sport from a Cuban perspective begins with Eligio
Sardinias-Montalbo, better known throughout the world as Kid Chocolate. Chocolate was
the first Cuban-born world champ. He won the featherweight and junior lightweight crowns
in a career that spanned 1928-38. To boxing's elder historians, Chocolate is the finest fighter
to emerge from the island. Part of his allure was his ability to entertain. He fought with a
flair and rhythm that was decades ahead of his time.
"Sugar Ray Robinson was a great admirer of Kid Chocolate," said Fausto Miranda, a former
Cuban journalist who covered many of Chocolate's fights. "No other man, no other Cuban,
did in the ring what Chocolate did. For style, he was the best. Fancy, fancy, fancy."
The next great Cuban export was Kid Gavilan (Gerardo Gonzalez), a welterweight champion
from 1951-54. Another showman, he introduced boxing to the "bolo punch," a looping,
whirling uppercut that was more flashy than it was effective. Known as "The Cuban Hawk,"
Gavilan twice fought Sugar Ray Robinson and defeated the likes of Ike Williams, Beau
Jack and Billy Graham in his 143-bout pro career.
"Gavilan was a hero to the people of Cuba," said Chico Vejar, who lost to him in 1956.
"He was very busy during a fight. When you did something to get an edge against him
he always seemed to have a way to neutralize it. He was a fan's fighter. He was very flashy,
When the debate over Cuba's best fighter is waged among modern boxing experts, it centers
around Gavilan and Luis Rodriguez, who won the welterweight title in 1963. Joe Miceli is one
of three men to have fought Gavilan and Rodriguez, dropping a split decision to Gavilan at
Madison Square Garden in 1950 and getting stopped by Rodriguez in Havana in 1959.
"I didn't know much about Rodriguez when we fought," said Miceli. "He was a slick boxer and
he went on to be champion. But Gavilan was great. He was a real showman. He was very cute
in the ring. The crowd liked him. He did things in the ring long before Muhammad Ali."
It would be Rodriguez, however, who had an important affect on Ali at the Fifth Street Gym.
"Luis was very fond of Muhammad and vice versa," said historian Hank Kaplan. "Even though
Luis was a welterweight, they occasionally sparred. Muhammad always studied Luis in the
gym. There is no question that Muhammad incorporated some of what he saw in Luis into
his own repertoire."
Rodriguez and compatriot Benny "Kid" Paret emerged as top-rated welters in the late 1950s.
Although Rodriguez decisioned him twice in Havana, Paret would get the opportunity to fight
for the title first. He won the crown from Don Jordan in 1960 but would lose it a year later to
Hall of Famer Emile Griffith.
Paret managed to regain the title from Griffith but their third meeting would prove tragic for the
Cuban. At Madison Square Garden, fighting before a national television audience, Paret was
knocked out in the 12th round and slipped into a coma. He would die 10 days later at the age
The specter of Paret's death and the brilliant career of Griffith would forever overshadow
Rodriguez , who died in 1996, fought Griffith four times between 1960-64. Of those bouts, three
were awarded to Griffith via split decision. Rodriguez' victory, the night he won the title in 1963,
was the only unanimous verdict in the series. Similar to Gavilan and Chocolate, Rodriguez
was also a stylist, an artful boxer who turned pugilism into poetry.
"In my opinion, Rodriguez was the best Cuban fighter ever," said Frankie Otero, a Cuban-born
former lightweight contender. "He was hard to decipher. He would outbox the boxers and
outthink the punchers. He wasn't spectacular, like Gavilan but I pick him based on the number
of top welterweights and middleweights he beat."
While Rodriguez and the others were clearly a displaced people, they were considered
fortunate. There were fighters who didn't make it out. One of them was Antonio "Puppy" Garcia.
"The biggest idol in Cuba was a kid named Puppy Garcia," recalled Dundee. "He was exciting.
He was a brawler and a bleeder.
They loved him in the fight clubs in Havana." Dundee was arranging for Garcia to fight Hogan
"Kid" Bassey for the featherweight title in 1961. But Garcia disappeared.
"My career stopped because I was sent to jail for nine years," said Garcia, now 68 and in
"I was against the communist party. That was 1961. I was 27 when I was sent to jail. I couldn't continue boxing because they smashed my ankle. In 1963, we were celebrating the 24th of February, which is a very patriotic day in Cuba. The guards surrounded me with guns and started beating me. They smashed my ankle. It was horrible."
Garcia finally left on the Mariel boat lift of 1980, a voyage made possible when the United States agreed to accept Cuba's political prisoners. The event gained notoriety after it was discovered that Castro sent criminals and the mentally ill among those seeking political asylum. While Garcia got out, his 77-year-old brother, Lino, a national featherweight champ who twice fought Sandy Saddler, remains in Cuba.
"He was out of Cuba for a while and then came back before Castro took over," said Garcia. "Now they have him isolated because he is not with the regime. He was once a hero. If you are not part of the communist party, you don't exist."
That is another sad chapter of the triumphant, but often lamentable, history of Cuban boxing. The recent Olympic heroes are exulted while the government has practically erased the existence of the country's great pros. The exception is Kid Chocolate, who fought his last five bouts in Havana and lived on the island until his death in 1988. His commitment to remain in Cuba earned him a burial plot in the cemetery for significant Cubans and a Havana boxing stadium named in his honor.
Kid Gavilan is a different story. He also returned to Cuba after his career but grew disenchanted with the government when it built a highway through the middle of his farm. He was also insulted by the $200-per month pension he was offered. He left a wife and other family members behind when he got out in 1968. Today, at the age of 76, he lives in a nursing home in Hialeah, Florida.
"I loved the Cuban fans then and I love them today," said Gavilan, speaking through interpreter Eddie Soler. "My country loves me. Even with Castro, they still love me. I fought all over the world and I can tell you that Cuba is the most beautiful nation in the whole wide world. I love Cuba. I hope to see my family again. But Castro would have to be dead. He hurt all the families of Cuba."
That is a common theme among Cuba's last generation of pro fighters. Absent from their home for decades, they still love Cuba while bitterly resenting Castro.
"I became an American citizen 15 years ago, but I still consider myself primarily Cuban," said Fernandez. "To me, Cuba was the greatest country in the world. Then Castro took over."
A condensed version of this story was originally published in Boxing Digest