By W. Gregory Guedel | EastSideBoxing.com
In the first half of the 20th Century, when mobsters, gamblers, and celebrities mingled in the tropical playground that was Havana, fighters from Cuba were a formidable presence in the world of professional boxing. The casinos run by American owners in Cuba regularly featured professional bouts, and in many respects the Havana of the 1930s-1950s was a blueprint for the future gambling/boxing Mecca that is today’s Las Vegas. Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan were among the Cuban-born champions who enjoyed great popularity in both countries, and stood at the forefront of a steady flow of boxers who regularly made the short trip to the US to compete in pro bouts.
That flow was abruptly stopped in 1962, when Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports as being contrary to the ideals of his socialist revolution. Although Cuban fighters were banned from participating in professional matches, the development of amateur boxing within Cuba became a priority for the Cuban state.
As with their Soviet-bloc counterparts, the Cuban government viewed sport as a means of exhibiting the success of the state’s social system, and winning medals in international competitions was a high-profile means of promoting the party line. To assist its Caribbean socialist brethren in their aims, the USSR sent experienced boxing coach Andrei Chervorenko to help develop Cuban fighters. Working with Cuba’s own Alcides Sagarra, a comprehensive national recruiting and training program based on the Soviet model was established.
The results were astonishing. Cuba, a country the size of Pennsylvania with a total population of only 11 million people, proceeded to dominate international amateur boxing. Since the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Cuba has won 55 Olympic medals in boxing – more than any other nation and 4 more than the United States. This figure is even more impressive considering Cuba boycotted both the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul. Combining its Olympic medals with amateur World Championship medals and those from various other international competitions, Cuba stands far above the rest of the world in amateur boxing accomplishments. After four decades of unmitigated success on the international stage, there is no sign of an imminent slowdown. Many today believe that if Cuban fighters were allowed to compete professionally, they would repeat this success and soon own numerous world titles.
While the international success the Cubans have achieved in the amateur ranks is undeniable, most would acknowledge that professional boxing is a much more challenging arena. The basic differences are clear and significant: professional bouts feature longer rounds and more of them, no headgear, and lighter gloves. The idea of an Olympic champion jumping directly to fight against a professional for a world championship is an unlikely proposition, as even the most talented amateur would be at a vast disadvantage under the more arduous professional match conditions. When the idea was tested on one occasion, with 1956 Heavyweight gold medalist Pete Rademacher challenging reigning champion Floyd Patterson in Rademacher’s first professional fight, the result was Patterson winning by 6th round KO. Nevertheless, promoters also made efforts in the 1970s to arrange a “Super Fight” between Muhammad Ali and Cuba’s two-time Olympic gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson. The idea was rejected by the Cuban government, and Stevenson’s “official” justification for declining the fight was “What is one million dollars compared to the love of 11 million Cubans?” For his part, Ali dismissed Stevenson as “a three-round fighter”, intimating that the Cuban amateur would not be able to endure the rigors of a 15-round professional match.
It can therefore be accepted that current Cuban amateur champions would likely not be able to immediately compete with world-class pro fighters under professional match conditions. The operative question thus becomes: How would the Cubans do with the benefit of professional-style training and experience? As it happens, there are some examples that can be used for analysis. A number of Cuban fighters have managed to obtain political asylum in other countries and have immediately turned professional. Some have attained tremendous success. Juan Carlos Gomez was undefeated in 34 fights as a Cruiserweight and held the WBC title from 1998-2002 before moving up to Heavyweight. Joel Casamayor reeled off 20 straight victories on the way to winning the WBA Super Featherweight title, which he successfully defended eight times. Both fighters demonstrated that the hallmarks of Cuban amateur boxing – superior boxing skills and outstanding conditioning – were no less potent in the professional realm.
The Cuban Heavyweights that have slipped through Castro’s grasp have produced less impressive results. The first prime contender to land on the pro scene was Jorge Luis Gonzalez. His amateur credentials were stellar – he held victories over future Heavyweight champions Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, and had become Cuba’s top heavyweight by dispatching the legendary Teofilo Stevenson in national competitions. After conquering his first 23 professional (albeit lower-tier) opponents, Gonzalez was KO’d in the 6th round by his former-amateur foe Riddick Bowe. Gonzalez appeared shell-shocked by the defeat, and was subsequently beaten regularly by fighters with lesser credentials. Brothers Elicier and Eliseo Castillo have operated on the fringes of heavyweight contention for a number of years, but each has been beaten decisively whenever he stepped up to face a legitimate contender. The current Cuban Heavyweight in the professional mix is a slightly-heavier Juan Carlos Gomez, whose Cruiserweight success is noted above. Although Gomez started strong in his campaign for a Heavyweight title, he suffered a shock defeat at the hands of unheralded fellow countryman Yanqui Diaz, and his subsequent progress has been hampered by alleged drug and discipline problems.
In all likelihood, these fighters do not represent the cream of Cuba’s Heavyweight crop. The best Cuban Heavyweights are probably still in Cuba – and likely under close supervision – but the examples above indicate that being a product of the Cuban system does not by itself guarantee professional success. Ironically, in many cases the fighters who arrive from Cuba appear to get derailed by the very freedom they risked so much to attain. With no authoritarian coaches to force them to train, and with the abundance of distractions available to world-class athletes in the West, the primary freedom of choice is often the freedom to avoid the gym altogether. It seems that for many expatriate fighters, the rigid and regimented Cuban system they despised was the key element of their personal success, and without it there is a loss of psychological focus required for top-level performance.
As Fidel Castro passes his 80th birthday and appears increasingly frail, there is much anticipation regarding the future of Cuban boxing after his eventual departure from power. Will the new regime give its blessing for Cuban fighters to compete professionally? Or at least make it easier for fighters to leave the island to compete elsewhere? There are numerous scenarios that may allow for more Cuban exposure to the professional ranks. Given the country’s need for hard currency, the lure of lucrative sporting events in the country may be enough to revive Havana’s days as a prime locale for professional boxing. If nothing else, allowing top Cuban fighters to leave the country to win professional purses will increase the flow of remittance dollars that helps keep the state system afloat. Whether or not the success of Cuban amateurs can be duplicated in the professional ring will depend on numerous factors, but it would appear that these fighters possess the superior fundamentals and competitive mindset that true contenders require. Given the inexorable spread of globalization in every facet of life, it is likely that we shall soon have the opportunity to see for ourselves.
For excellent insights into the world of Cuban boxing, see S. L. Price’s book “Pitching Around Fidel”, and John Duncan’s “In The Red Corner”, which provides in-depth observations of the Cuban boxing scene while recounting the author’s quest to arrange a fight between Felix Savon and Mike Tyson.