Posted May 16, 2005 by Cubana in Cuba Culture.
By David Smith, Evening Standard
13 May 2005
Although Amir Khan is brimming with confidence ahead of his clash with Mario Kindelan in Bolton tomorrow, Britain’s new boxing sensation is facing mission impossible. The 18-year-old has fuelled pre-fight hype by insisting he now possesses the strength and skill to beat his Olympic conqueror at the third time of asking.
Yet a study of the history of Cuban boxing confirms there can be only one result when a comparative novice goes up against a 33-year-old veteran generally acknowledged to be the best pound-for-pound exponent of the amateur discipline.
It is no fluke that since 1968, Cuba has won 89 Olympic boxing medals - 32 gold, including two for Kindelan, 30 silver and 27 bronze.
Shannon Briggs, once a top American amateur who later lost to Britain’s Lennox Lewis in a world heavyweight title challenge, was 19 and giving away five years’ experience when he fought Cuban Felix Savon, then still a legend in the making, at the 1991 Pan-Am Games.
Briggs recalled: “I’ll give Savon his credit, he won. 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.”
Kindelan comes to his final fight - 34 is the maximum age for amateurs and he turns that age in August - having lost just 21 of his 359 bouts. He remains unbeaten since 2001.
So if he is that good, why did he never turn pro? After all, Sugar Ray Leonard and Evander Holyfield both offered him $1million (£540,000) to turn professional. “I thanked them, but money cannot buy what I have,” he said.
So what does he have? In Cuba one of the greatest lightweights ever lives in a humble house with no running hot water. There are none of the trappings enjoyed by the successful professionals because, by dint of a national decree signed by President Fidel Castro in 1962, professional sports are banned in Cuba.
“Professional sports enrich the few at the expense of the many,” said Castro, Cuba’s communist leader. But some have found it impossible to accept Castro’s doctrine. Tonight Cuban-born Elicier Castillo seeks his 28th win in 35 professional fights when he takes on Puerto Rican heavyweight Alex Gonzalez in Florida. Aged 17, Castillo bucked the system and fled to Panama.
Then there is Joel Casamayor, who defected before the Atlanta Games of 1996. He went on to enjoy the kind of wealth shunned by Kindelan by winning the world superfeatherweight championship.
Savon, winner of three Olympic gold medals and six world amateur championships, was once offered $10m (£5.4m) by Don King to join the exodus. His answer was succinct: “What do I need $10m for when I have 11 million Cubans behind me?”
Cuba’s other great heavyweight, Teofilo Stevenson, was of like mind when refusing American cash. He was so highly regarded in the Seventies that Muhammad Ali conceded the result would probably have been a draw had they fought.
So is this loyalty to those Castro doctrines or a result of indoctrination? Consider Kindelan’s reply to questions about why he never fought for pay. “If I left my country I would be betraying my homeland and my family,” he said.
The father of the Cuban boxing system is professor Alcides Sagarra. Steeped in communism, Sagarra claimed professionalism was “the worst exploitation of man by man”.
Yet there is a certain irony in the fact that many Cuban youngsters are attracted to boxing, and the other national sport of baseball, because success brings material reward. Maybe better times are just around the corner. Professional boxing is ready to exploit any loosening of the ties that bind their sport to the amateurs in Cuba. But for now, however, the country’s boxing production line continues to roll out amateur champions.
Sarbelio Fuentes, Sagarra’s protege and successor as national coach, insists Cuban boxers can beat the five golds won in Athens when the next Olympic Games are hosted by China in 2008.
“We are working to fulfil the expectations of our people,” he said. “We are aiming for all 13 medals.”
The Cubans will keep coming. Khan has been warned.
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