History of Cuban Boxing Part 2:
Olympic Champions, Defecting Stars and a Nation in Decline
By Robert Cassidy
WHEN FIDEL CASTRO banned professional sports from Cuba in 1962, the dreams of thousands of fighters died along with the notion that El Presidente would establish a democratic government. In the decade that preceded Castro's revolution, many world-class fighters came from Cuba. Who knows how many more would have emerged if not for the ban.
As the revolution triumphed and Communism took hold of the island, new dreams were being sold to fighters. Don't fight for money, fight for Cuba. Don't fight for fame, fight for pride. Viva Cuba! Viva Fidel!
The talent pool remained the same but the objective changed.
Cuba, a nation of slightly more than 11 million people and roughly the size of Pennsylvania, has produced an alarming number of Olympic champions. A country that once hailed Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan as heroes, now boasts an amateur team that dominated international competition for three decades. The mystique of the Cuban national team remains potent even as Communism crumbled throughout the world. It remains a source of pride for a country that is decaying structurally and financially.
"I admire the Cuban athletes because they know the world shuns their country," said former WBO heavyweight champ Michael Bentt. "When they compete, it's their way of saying, "We are just as good as you without all those resources.'
To the members of the Cuban national team, boxing is a way of life. It provides them with perks - houses and cars - not readily accessible to their fellow citizens. It also provides them with a way out of Communism, should they desire to make such a bold move.
"We were always in the gym," said Dyosbelis Hurtado, a Cuban amateur star who defected and is now WBA junior welterweight champion. "We tried to be in the gym all the time because if you were good enough you got to represent Cuba all over the world. That gave us the chance to see what was out there. To get new shoes, clothes, to buy things and then show them off when we came home."
What they showed off most were shiny gold medals. In 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan Am Games and won 11 of 12 weight classes. At the 1992 Olympics, Cuba won seven golds, the most by any country in a non-boycotted Olympics. In the most recent Olympics - the 2000 Games of Sydney - Cuba won six medals, four of them gold. Since 1972, the country has won 27 boxing gold medals, an alarming figure considering they boycotted in '84 and '88.
The staples of Cuba's success are conditioning and discipline. It's been said they fight the last round harder than the first. Few familiar with the program argue against it. Vic Zimet, a former USA Boxing coach of the year, brought an American team to Cuba in 1985. The team included future heavyweight champ Michael Moorer, 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Kenny Gould and future light heavyweight champ William Guthrie.
"There is no question they were the best amateur boxing program in the world at that time and they are still a force," said Zimet. "Physically, they are more mature than our kids. The Cubans stay in the program until they are maybe 30 years old.
On the first night, Cuba won 10 of 11 matches. Felix Savon
won by knock out and Juan Lemus defeated Gould, 4-0.
Moorer was the only one to win a fight on the trip. The
second night we fought almost an entirely different set of
fighters and Cuba won all eight matches."
The man credited with building the dynasty is Alcides
Sagarra, a strict disciplinarian who began coaching in 1964.
Also instrumental was Andrei Chervorenko, a Soviet coach
sent to share training techniques as a display of
Communism solidarity. Ironically, after Cuba began to
outshine the Soviet Union at international competitions,
Chervorenko was summoned home.
Like all Communist regimes, Cuba scouted talent at a
young age and channeled potential athletes into state-
sponsored athletic schools. "I didn't choose boxing," said
Cuban defector Juan Carlos Gomez in a recent interview.
"They chose it for me in Cuba. I wanted to become a
baseball player. That was always my dream. But, you know,
in Cuba you are not allowed to make your own decisions."
Sagarra exploited the system to perfection. His outward
appearance suggests perpetual angst but he deserves
credit for blending the rhythm and culture of Cuba with strict
Soviet training habits to produce great fighters. He is a
staunch Communist and was rewarded with a post on
Cuba's National Technical Committee after stepping down
as coach in 2001. His demeanor and politics, though, could
strain his relationship with fighters. "Let me say this so you
understand," said Hurtado, speaking through his trainer,
"As a sportsman, in the corner, when he's talking boxing,
he's excellent." When pressed further, Hurtado added,
"To be a kind guy, it doesn't take away from being a
tough guy. What I didn't like about him is the way he thinks
If Sagarra was the backbone of Cuban boxing, the face
shown to the world belonged to a pair of heavyweights.
Teofilo Stevenson was the first star and was followed by the
towering presence of 6-foot-6 Felix Savon. They each won
three Olympic gold medals. The first glimpse of Savon came
at the 1986 World Championships just as Stevenson was
saying goodbye. At that tournament, Savon won the first of
five titles at 201 pounds while Stevenson won his
last fighting at super heavyweight.
"The first time I fought Savon I lost a 4-1 decision in the
quarterfinals of the 1987 Pan Am Games," said Bentt.
"Then I fought him a week later at the North American
championships and lost, 3-2. To me, he utilizes everything
to perfection -- his height, his jab, his power and
his intimidation. The Cuban fighters smell fear in their
opponents. If they can intimidate you, they've got you.
They psychologically steamroll guys."
Shannon Briggs fought Savon at the 1991 Pan Am Games.
"I'll give Savon his credit," said Briggs. "He won the fight.
But I think he took advantage of the system. He was a man
fighting kids. That's the case with a lot of these Cuban
fighters. They're 28, 29, 30 fighting kids, 19, 20, 21. That's a
big advantage physically and mentally."
There has been much debate over what kind of pros Savon
and Stevenson would have made. Don King once offered
Savon $10 million to turn pro. His response was, "What do
I need $10 million for when I have 11 million Cubans behind
Hurtado, who calls Savon a friend, said he was a great
fighter but pointed out that he was knocked out 18 times
throughout his illustrious career. It should be acknowledged
that many of those came in lesser competitions where it
could be argued that Savon wasn't as focused as he would
have been for the Olympics. But it should also be noted that
they occurred against lesser opposition, while wearing
headgear and using larger gloves. Nonetheless, his ability
to take a punch, particularly in the pro ranks, would have
been the biggest question mark confronting Savon.
Several times in the '70s promoters tried to arrange a match
between Muhammad Ali and Stevenson. Frankie Otero, a
former lightweight contender who was born in Havana but
moved to America, says, "I respect them as amateur fighters
but you get people just off the boat and they swear that
Stevenson would have knocked Ali out. In my opinion it
wouldn't have been a fight. Ali was one of the greatest
fighters in history. Stevenson was a three-round fighter.
In the pros, it's a different ballgame."
Zimet, the USA coach who saw Stevenson fight and had
worked in the opposite corner from Ali in the pros, agrees.
"I can't see how Stevenson would have beaten him," he said. "Ali's experience and natural talent would have been too much for him."
The strongest argument for Ortero's case is Jorge Luis Gonzalez, a 6-foot-7 Cuban heavyweight who beat Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe in the amateurs. In 1991, Gonzalez became the first Cuban boxer of any magnitude to defect when he sought political asylum at a tournament in Finland. Luis DeCubas, a Cuban-American boxing manager, brought him back to the states. Gonzalez won his first 23 fights before being stopped by Bowe in the sixth round of a WBO heavyweight title bout. He was subsequently stopped by Tim Witherspoon, Ross Puritty and Michael Grant.
But DeCubas refuses to stereotype Cuban amateurs based on Gonzalez. "Cuba produced
great pros for many years," he said. "Why would that change? I believe if you were a great
amateur, you can be a great pro. They say Cuban amateurs burn out. Pernell Whitaker,
Meldrick Taylor, they had hundreds of amateur fights and were great pros."
* * *
THE DECISION to walk away from your family and home is filled with torment and uncertainty.
But more and more Cubans are fleeing their country. While athletes have the opportunity to
defect while competing overseas, desperate Cubans often board make-shift rafts hoping to
reach Miami, 90 miles to the north. Experts believe that 60-percent of rafters die on their
journey to freedom.
"I'm grateful my family brought me to freedom," said DeCubas, who left Cuba in 1966 at the
age of nine. "It's a very hard ordeal. Cuban culture is very family oriented. Personally, I don't
think I could have done what some of these fighters have."
Hurtado often thought about leaving to pursue a pro career. The right opportunity finally came
in 1994 after the team competed in Connecticut and stopped for a layover in Miami. As his
teammates slept, Hurtado dashed from the hotel. He was 22 years old and knew he'd never
go home again.
"I was not afraid," he said. "But it was the toughest decision I've ever made because of my
family. My mama, papa and seven brothers are still in Cuba. I don't know how many more
years will pass before I see them. Will I ever see them again? Yes, in beautiful pictures
they send me."
"I would like to go back to my country, but I can't," he added. "And why? Because I am a
boxer. Because I wanted to make a living. That is a stupid reason."
Two of the most high-profile defections were made by Joel Casamayor and Ramon Garbey.
They left five days apart from Cuba's Olympic training camp in Mexico just weeks before the
Casamayor, a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympics, was infuriated by the Cuban government
after it rewarded him with a bicycle upon returning home with the gold. He believes it was
punishment for not joining the Communist Youth Party.
As more fighters made their way out of Cuba, a promotional company called Team Freedom
was started by Leon Margules, Roger Haber and DeCubas. The group initially totaled 14
fighters. Of that number, nine remain active. Aside from Hurtado and Casamaor, the results
have been mixed. Elicer Castillo left Cuba on a raft when he was just the 5th-best light
heavyweight in Cuba. Today, despite losses to Tim Witherspoond and Chris Byrd, he is
a top-10 heavyweight.
The biggest disappointment has been Garbey, a former world champion and Pan Am gold medallist. He's 16-3 as a pro with the losses coming in succession to Fres Oquendo, James Toney and Napolean Tagoe. "He was one of the most talented fighters I had ever seen," said DeCubas. "But he couldn't concentrate and stay with his training. When these young men are exposed to freedom, it becomes difficult. The first year is crucial to keeping them focused. They have to learn a new system, a new language, new training. And they miss their family."
Of Garbey, Hurtado added: "He was one of the best fighters in Cuba. He's a great friend of mine. I love him. When we are in this country, he does what he wants and I do what I want. My life is training and fighting. I don't know which life he chose."
In the absence of biological family, the fighters who have defected consider each other family, much like the generation of Cuban fighters of the early 1960s. "Casamayor is another friend of mine," said Hurtado. "He lives in Los Angeles now, but we talk whenever we can. I know that every time I fight, all of them pray that I will be the winner. And I do the same thing every time a Cuban fights."
* * *
WHEN COMMUNISM collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, many predicted the demise of Fidel Castro's reign. The Cuban economy was hurt severely because it relied on support from the Soviet Union. Also stifling the country's economic growth is an ongoing U.S. embargo that prohibits trade with Cuba.
Frankie Otero, the former lightweight contender whose family left Cuba when he was a child, returned for the first time last year. "The architecture is phenomenal but they haven't maintained it for 40 years," he said. "So it's decaying. It's like seeing a beautiful woman at the age of 20 and then again when she is 50 years old. She is older, but you can still see some of the beauty."
Many of the former pro fighters who left Cuba around the time of Castro's revolution still have a great deal of pride in their homeland. The mighty Cuban boxing dynasty, however, is a source of resentment, not pride.
"When Teofilio Stevenson fought Duane Bobick in the Olympics," said Otero, "I was rooting for Bobick. Maybe because one was American and one was a Communist. That was 30 years ago I was more Cuban then than I am now."
Florentino Fernandez, a former middleweight contender who has been living in Miami for 40 years, said, "I watched Stevenson and the Cuban fighters on television but I didn't really root for him. They were fighting for Castro. I didn't like that."
In perhaps an effort to stem defections and bring more money into Cuba, Castro has allowed some athletes - including baseball legend Omar Linares -- to compete professionally in other countries (the Unites States is not included). The government, of course, takes a cut.
Will Castro ever allow the same for his boxers?
"He's talked so negatively about pro boxing that he'd never do it," said DeCubas, who Castro once labeled a pirate and gangster during a radio address. "The party line is that pro boxing is corrupt. It would contradict everything he's said."
Much like the nation, the Cuban boxing dynasty has changed as well. Sagarra is no longer the coach and Savon has retired because international rules prohibit a fighter from competing after the age of 34. Other veterans, Mario Kindelan and Hector Vinent have also retired.
But Hurtado believes the program remains strong and says that there many, many young and hungry fighters to replace those who have retired.
Hurtado says some of the proudest moments of his life came while representing Cuba in the ring but admits to dreaming of a free Cuba, of reuniting with his family, with "my people, my food, the country of my birth." To many Cuban-Americans, a free nation would be a victory for democracy, for human rights. When he thinks of a free Cuba, he can't help but think about the impact it would have on boxing.
"If Cuba was free and Cuban boxers were allowed to be pro," he says. "I think in each weight division we'd have a world champion."
A condensed version of this story was originally pubished in Boxing Digest