Schoolboy Rulan Carbonell dances around the ring, jabbing the air and dreaming of becoming a world-class fighter like his hero, former Olympic gold medalist Felix Savon.
Warming up before a competition, the 13-year-old represents Cuba’s rich boxing tradition and a new generation of fighters in a sport that has brought the island world acclaim.
Boxing is second only to baseball in popularity in Cuba, and is the sport in which Cuba garners the most medals in major international events. At the 2004 Athens Games, Cuba had five boxing golds among its total of nine.
Cuba’s national boxing championships began Sunday, and young fighters such as Carbonell hope someday to be in that tournament. The teenager from Havana’s Cerro neighborhood said he took up boxing because his grandfather practiced the sport.
“My dream is to be like Felix Savon, the greatest and the one I admire the most,” he said.
Heavyweight champion Savon won six world championships and three Olympic titles before hanging up his gloves at the end of 2000.
Thirty local fights are held every weekend at the old Rafael Trejo gym in Old Havana, involving younger boys such as Carbonell as well as older fighters. Boxing fans cheer from the bleachers during each match, as if it were a major tournament.
“Here is where they learn technique, the skills and where the motivation to succeed is born,” said Hector Vinent, welterweight Olympic champion in 1992 and 1996 and a trainer since retiring six years ago.
“That’s it,” Vinent shouts at a young fighter, moving around as if he was in the ring. “That left hand ... Watch what you’re doing!”
“You have it in your blood and you transmit that to the student,” Vinent said as he congratulated two young fighters for a good match.
Many successful Cuban boxers trained here, including two-time light-flyweight Olympic champion Maikro Romero and Noel Hernandez, who won the light-heavyweight title in the World Cadet Boxing Championship in 2005.
Vinent said that similar tournaments for young fighters are organized across the island to help develop the sport in all the provinces for boys 11 to 16.
The best classify for their school Olympics, held every year in July, and when they are older they have a chance to participate in Cuba’s national tournament. Twenty-seven fighters who trained at the Rafael Trejo gym are among the 230 boxers participating in this year’s national championships.
Yoangel Moya, a skinny 12-year-old, took up the sport three months ago and trains at Trejo.
“I like it,” he said, “and my mama encourages me to keep up the tradition of my father, Angel.”
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