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The Cubans: Fighting for Freedom, Family and Pride

By Anson Wainwright


For over 30 years, we’ve watched many of the very best amateur boxers every four years at the Olympics, knowing we’d never see them perform in the professional game. However, things changed late in 2006 when reigning Olympic champions Odlanier Solis, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Yan Barthelemy stunningly decided to defect from Cuba.


All three debuted in April of 2007; Gamboa and Barthelemy were fighting in America by October of that year while it took Solis a little longer as he continued to fight in Europe until January 2009. This was largely due to there being more opportunities for a heavyweight in Europe at the time, a stark contrast from bygone years.
 
It looked to be a one-off until Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara attempted to do the same. They were foiled in July 2007 before finally defecting successfully in February 2009. 
 
In the previous 30 or so years, there has been a sprinkling of top Cubans to turn pro. The only one of recent note to have any real success was Joel Casamayor who won gold at the 1996 Olympics before going on to win world titles at two weights.
 
Solis, Gamboa, and Barthelemy, then Lara and Rigondeaux, were a real coup. Between them, they had won an amazing five Olympic gold medals, seven World Championships and 23 National Championships.
 
Since Solis, Gamboa and Barthelemy opened the gates, more and more Cuban fighters are now fighting professionally. 
 
There are many reasons why these fighters have left their homeland to turn professional, including the need to support their families and provide a better way of life, fame and fortune if they strike it big in the professional ranks, and respect. 
 
The aforementioned trio left their training base in Venezuela, heading to Germany before applying for an American visa.
 
Gamboa offered, “Actually, we hadn’t exactly planned it very thoroughly. It just happened when we got the chance to leave the team. My main problem was that I didn’t feel worshipped. We had won Olympic gold for our country but I didn’t even have enough money to buy a birthday present for my daughter. I asked myself, why should I stay in a country where the ruling class doesn’t care about me even though I represent my country in the best possible way? It just didn’t seem to make any sense.” 
 
While heavyweight prospect Luis Ortiz left for different reasons, simply adding, “I left Cuba with a dream in my mind, to come to America and become champion of the world.”
 
It was a matter of necessity for former Olympian Luis Franco, “I decided to defect and come to the United States in 2008 after being banned from further amateur boxing by the government of Cuba.”
 
Each one had to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave Cuba for good, leaving friends and family to pursue their goals in the professional game.
 
It was an arduous journey for Franco who continued, “I traveled by boat from Cuba to Cancun, Mexico. From Cancun, I traveled by airplane and automobile to Texas where I presented myself to U.S. immigration authorities, seeking asylum." It was the very same journey many of his counterparts undertook.
 
Things are tough under Raul Castro’s administration (as they were under his predecessor and older brother, Fidel) with few avenues open to Cuban youth. Many opt to box, where they are looked after and get opportunities to travel the world.
 
From a young age, Solis became involved in boxing, "We didn’t have many different choices in Cuba. If you wanted to make something and be somebody, you had to get involved in sports. When I first entered a boxing gym, the coaches immediately told me that this is what I was born to do. They saw something special and made me work hard to exploit my talent in the best possible way. So I got hooked to it."
 
Like many children, Gamboa wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, “I followed him to the gym and started hitting the sandbags. I wanted to be like him. That’s how I fell in love with the sport.”
 
Rigondeaux, the current WBA interim super bantamweight champion, also had it tough, "I used to pull large tanks of water for many miles to my family home from the village. So I think that’s where I got my base strength." He realised he needed to make the national team to make life a little easier. "In Cuba, if you don’t get on the national team, life is very difficult so when I joined boxing, first I found it very natural and spent most of my days practicing."
 
Current interim WBA cruiserweight champion Yoan Pablo Hernandez has a similar tale, "It was not so easy. As a kid, I had a few problems. We had not so much money, so sometimes I went to school without shoes or with homemade slippers. Sometimes I didn’t go because it was awkward for me but later, as a young fighter, I saw a lot of the world. That was a big motivation and helped me."
 
The vast majority of these Cuban expatriates now live in Miami, where life is light years different from what they are used to. Living in Dade County appears to agree with Gamboa, "You cannot compare living in the United States to living in Cuba. It is just completely different but I am happy that I was able to reunite with a lot of Cuban friends in Miami. It feels great to live here." 
 
There is an exception to every rule; in this case, it’s Hernandez, who moved to Europe and signed with German powerhouse Wilfried Sauerland’s promotional company. Hernandez likes living in Germany where he has a girlfriend and a child, "Not every guy from Cuba is the same. Everyone has his goals and everyone has got his place where he likes to stay. I felt that I’m able to achieve my dreams and goals in Germany." Of course, all the current cruiserweight champions are based in Europe, so being there has its obvious advantages.
 
Being a Cuban amateur brings its own pressures. Gamboa adds, "As a Cuban boxer, losing is not an option. Whenever you enter a tournament, you enter to win it." It’s a mentality he has brought to the pros, trailblazing his way through all 20 of his opponents with only four lasting the distance.
 
When asked who was the best fighter of them all, Franco says, "Rigondeaux was certainly the most talented as an amateur," but when pressed as to whether he still believes the same in the pros, Franco refuses to get caught up, saying many of his countrymen are doing well now. 
 
Gamboa has an abundance of belief in his fellow Cubans, "There are a lot of excellent Cuban fighters who are ready to take over professional boxing." 
 
With most of the best Cuban fighters now punching for pay, over the next year or two, you can expect more and more to win world titles and reach the top. As a result, we may not hear "La Bayamesa" (the Cuban National Anthem) quite as much as we’re accustomed to in London next year.


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