Cuba Steps From Amateur Glory Into The Prize Fighting Chase

HAVANA – Fernando Galván charged forward and threw a looping right uppercut. Arlen López, the Cuban boxer who won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics last summer, took a half-step back and counted with a quick, clinical left hook.

The punch landed on the corner of Galvan’s chin, whiplashing the journeyman’s boxer’s head, knocking him unconscious and dropping him face first into a small boxing ring in the center of an auditorium in Aguascalientes, Mexico, this month.

López’s knockout showed the blend of power, precision, art, science and violence that made Cuba’s amateur boxing program the best in the world. Cuban boxers have won 15 Olympic medals since 2012, compared with nine for the United States. At the Tokyo Games, Cuba entered seven weight classes in boxers, and emerged with five medals – four gold and one bronze.

And yet López’s knockout was distinctive, both for him and for his country, as it came with a professional boxing card, first with the recent support and blessing of Cuba’s communist government. Six Cuban competitors compete under the banner of an upstart Mexican promotional company, Golden Ring.

For a country that outlawed professional sports in 1962, a pro boxing card highlighting three Olympic gold medalists represents a significant shift in priorities.

A main catalyst for that change, stakeholders say, is competition. After winning multiple Olympic titles, continuing to improve in boxing means seeking new challenges.

“At the amateur level, Cubans are the best boxers in history,” said Julio César La Cruz, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and team captain who knocked out Deivis Casseres, a Colombian, in the second round. But “we need to clash with the best boxers in the world at the professional level to measure the force,” he said.

Yet in Cuba, whose top boxers and baseball players often defect in search of professional paydays, money also matters. Under their deal with the Golden Ring, boxers like López and La Cruz will keep 80 percent of the net pay from each fight, with the remainder divided among coaches, medical staff and the national federation.

Golden Ring President Gerardo Saldívar would not disclose the boxers’ payouts, or his company’s cut, but said the Cuban boxers would receive “normal market value.”

“They will be well paid,” Saldívar said.

Still, the national team won’t be leaving amateur boxing. While four more professional events are scheduled abroad later this year, competing at the Olympics and World Championships will be a priority for the country.

Rolando Acebal, the head coach of Cuba’s boxing team, said the decision was also necessary to keep the sport top-flight, especially as professionals have been eligible to compete in the Olympics since 2016. “We’re fighting with them, but we don’t ‘Don’t know them, “he said.

But on an island that has long instilled an amateur ethos, drilling athletes to fight for homeland glory rather than lucre, the decision has significant implications around the money.

“What is one million dollars compared to eight million Cubans?” The heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who won Olympic gold in the Munich, Montreal and Moscow Olympics, once asked after turning down a $ 5 million offer to challenge Muhammad Ali.

With presumably smaller dollar figures at stake during the card in Aguascalientes, Cuban boxers participated in a pro show with an amateur feel.

Bouts were scheduled by weight class so that smaller boxers like junior lightweight Lázaro Álvarez, a three-time Olympic bronze medalist, and welterweight Roniel Iglesias, a two-time Olympic champion, competed earlier this evening. Larger fighters like the light-heavyweight López, and La Cruz, a cruiserweight, competed later, as they would on an international amateur card.

The Cubans also competed as a team, with La Cruz named the captain. They are dressed in matching red shorts, except for a small Cuban flag on one leg and a Puma logo on the other. Contemporary pro fighters in high-profile events often festoon sports trunks with sponsor logos, an important source of ancillary income.

When Cuban fighters were last competed professionally, the unadorned ring attire was the norm.

Before Cuba withdrew from professional sports, boxing on the island had become entangled with the mafia throughout the 1950s and was seen as very dangerous after some high-profile deaths due to the length of the fights.

At this time, Che Guevara’s idea of ​​the “new man” – a notion that moral incentives should constantly replace material incentives as people changed their values ​​- was on the ascent.

The Communist Party of Cuba has long since moved back to more material incentives. During Raúl Castro’s time as president (2006-2018), “prosperity” was defined as a goal of socialism, and a law on “wage stimulation” based on athletes’ results for cemented earnings.

The national team’s base salary is just 3,500 Cuban pesos a month, versus the dollar a day. For each Olympic gold boxers brought home, they are paid the equivalent of $ 300 per month ($ 150 for a silver, $ 75 for bronze) for life, with payments too for victories at the Pan American Games and for each World Championships.

Although they are paupers compared to successful boxers elsewhere, on an island where the average salary is less than $ 50 a month, Cuba’s top boxers are now living comfortably – and need to win.

At last month’s National Series in Camagüey, there were even blushes of flashes. La Cruz left the stadium wearing a gold chain and drove away at a new Mercedes, his reward for gold in Tokyo. It was a top pro fighter for the small fry in the US, but a stark status symbol in a country where only about 1 in 70 people owned a car according to the last census in 2012. Besides the cars from other Olympic medalists, the only Other vehicles in the barren car park had an ambulance and a rusting bus that carried the rest of the team to their hotel.

“They’ve increased the scope of the wage scale so that highly talented people get paid more, obviously because they don’t want to lose people,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University. “If some people are earning $ 35 a month, and others are driving around in fancy cars, that is a very wide wage difference and a little hard to justify in terms of the socialist value culture,” he added.

The athletes interviewed by The New York Times are pleased with the new arrangement, saying they will deal with a wave of defections that have risen in their sport in recent years. After leaving, fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara, Luis Ortiz and Yuriorkis Gamboa have all gone to sign, and earn big, with American promoters.

It is not clear if there is more money for those at the top that will plug the deluge. The island is in the midst of an economic crisis brought on by ferocious US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed immigration to historic highs. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to upset their federation, several lower-earning team members complained of long hours facing their families in line for food.

Kevin Brown, one of two boxers who walked out of the team during the Pan American Games in Ecuador this March, said that had he been offered the opportunity to fight professionally earlier, he would still have been left “a thousand times.”

Flyweight Robeisy Ramírez, who left the national team during a training camp in Mexico before signing with Top Rank in 2018, was skeptical the boxers would receive money. “It’s another con,” he said. “The money is for the country and not the boxers.”

Cuban boxers are paid in the Cuban peso and in “MLC” – an electronic currency pegged to the dollar used to buy food and consumer goods. The peso has plummeted in value over the last couple of years, while MLC has no value beyond the island.

“You have to spend it or sell it on the black market,” said Brown, a light welterweight.

And while the carrot is being plumped, the stick also looms; A labyrinth of regulations deterring athletes from jumping ship.

Fidel Castro once likened an athlete who abandoned his team to “a soldier who abandoned his fellow soldiers in the midst of combat,” and agents wanted to snap them up as “sharks” wanting “fresh meat.” Just like doctors and diplomats, athletes like Brown and Ramírez who have been leaving a sporting “mission” abroad banned from returning for 8 years.

Brown, who lives in Ecuador and is trying to reach the US, said he was “regulated” on the island and had his passport taken away when he would travel with the Cuban team.

That tension fueled speculation about the absence of Andy Cruz, the lightweight gold medalist from Tokyo, and the boxer many observers consider to be the best of the current Cuban cohort. Cruz was originally slated to compete at the event in the Aguascalientes, but was pulled from the lineup four days ahead of his bout.

Rumors swirled that the Federation sidelined Cruz to prevent him from defending him, while official statements variously described the decision as tactical, strategic, or disciplinary.

For his part, Cruz, 26, apologized to boxing fans on Twitter for his professional debut.

“I wanted it for you all,” Cruz wrote. “It was out of my hands. The dream continues. “

Even with defections, Cuba’s results have not suffered. Now, the open question is whether one can carry in the professional game.

“Even though it’s boxing, it’s a different sport,” emphasized Saldívar, the Golden Ring president.

The ring in the Aguascalientes was 16 feet by 16 feet, the smallest most jurisdictions allowed. That cramped the space for Cuban fighters to maneuver, or, as coach Acebal put it, to “dance and thump.” In the run-up to the fight, Cuban coaches had adapted training for the transition from three rounds to six.

That transition can be brutal.

“Amateur boxing is more about touching and scoring points,” said Ramírez, who was knocked down in seconds just his first pro fight by a little-known American in 2019. “Professional is about doing damage.”

Morgan Campbell reported from Toronto.

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