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Changing Cuba may alter the face of boxing

In a nation with boxing gyms on almost every block, boxing is a way of life in Cuba. AP Photo/ Javier Galeano

It is a common belief among many boxing people, if a mostly unspoken one, that Fidel Castro has ruined more fighters than have drink and dirty promoters combined.

By steadfastly prohibiting Cuban boxers from competing as professionals on the world's largest sporting stages, he effectively doomed all of them to lives of a sort of enchanted torture.

They know they are among the best on the planet at what they do but can neither prove it against other professionals, nor use it to better their lives in a substantive way.

There may not have been a more dominant heavyweight fighter in all of history than Teofilo Stevenson, the bomb-throwing, three-time Olympic gold-medal winner. His successor, the mighty Felix Savon, also won gold medals in three consecutive Olympic Games. Either one would have made millions as a professional heavyweight competing against the best big men of his era.

Other Cuban stars, too numerous to name, continue to burn up their primes in international competition and excel as members of the most feared and successful amateur boxing team in the world.

Except for the brave few who defect, the world remains mostly closed to them.

Castro's resignation last month as Cuba's leader has led some to hope that there will be a gradual loosening of the restrictions around professional sports in general and boxing in particular.

"For now it's going to stay the same, but eventually it will ease up," said Louie DeCubas, who handles U.S. operations for Germany-based Arena Box Promotions. DeCubas has worked with virtually every Cuban fighter who has defected in the hope of bettering his life through boxing.

"With the three last guys that defected, and then the two that were over in Venezuela, that's five gold medals lost," he said. "So there are going to be some changes. It's going to get better -- it has to."

DeCubas is talking about standouts Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa, who defected while training in South America and are now fighting professionally in the United States to mostly fawning reviews, and Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, who were arrested last August in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for overstaying their visas. Both have denied they were trying to defect; most believe they are lying. Castro reportedly has confiscated the houses and cars they had been given, and also said they would no longer be permitted to box for Cuba. That's in line with punishments mandated for such offenses in the past.

There is a long list of Cuban amateur stars who have defected over the past 20 years, some more successful in their pro careers than others.

World lightweight champion Joel Casamayor is probably the most accomplished, at this writing, and despite a miserable performance last time out against Jose Armando Santa Cruz, he has yet to be decisively beaten in 39 fights. Running a close second is Juan Carlos Gomez, who had a very long run as a cruiserweight titleholder fighting almost exclusively out of Germany. He's currently fighting at heavyweight, where his merit is yet to be determined.

Others didn't live up to expectations. Junior welterweight Diosbelys Hurtado was a solid top-10 contender for years, but failed in three world title fights, each time by knockout. After building a long undefeated streak and a fearsome reputation, heavyweight Jorge Luis Gonzalez was knocked out by Riddick Bowe in 1995 and retired in 2002 after several more losses. More recently, heavyweight Ramon Garbey, whom DeCubas describes as one of the greatest fighters he's ever seen, proved undependable as a pro, losing several fights he was expected to win, the last to 9-4-1 Kendrick Releford. He hasn't fought since 2006.

Given their amateur pedigree, why don't more Cuban defectors excel as professionals?

"A lot of these guys, after they come off the island, after living under Communist rule, they can't handle the abundance of freedom in America," said veteran trainer Joe Goossen, who worked with Hurtado and was, for a long time, Casamayor's head trainer. "When they're 5 years old they come off the milk rations and then when they're 15 they go into indoctrination camps and then what? They can't go anywhere or do anything; they're in jail. Then they come here and have a hard time reining in their freedom."

Goossen says the temptations of nightlife, especially in Miami, where many Cuban expatriates settle, are no good for a fighter, especially one who's had no experience with money. Casamayor, famously, was given a bicycle by Castro in recognition for having won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. He traded it for a pig so he could feed his family.

"There are a lot of things to do here besides train, which is all they can do in Cuba," Goossen said. "Then you put some money in their pockets and they can buy a lot of things they couldn't buy in Cuba. The living is fast and hard and it tends to take away that edge they had as amateurs. These young guys come over here and it's a brand-new world."

DeCubas agrees.

"They can't stay in Miami. Miami is terrible for fighters. It swallows them up," he said. "They have to leave that town to train. Casamayor is the only one that had the [guts] to do that -- he went out to Los Angeles and that's what saved him."

Still, DeCubas is more upbeat about what Cuban defectors have been able to accomplish and notes that even the less accomplished defectors are able to make their mark in the pro game. He cites heavyweight Elieser Castillo, who he says was the last guy to make the Cuban team, wasn't a particularly highly regarded member of that team, and still managed an important upset
win over Lawrence Clay Bey in 2003.

The bigger question is what happens if the ban on professional sports is lifted in Cuba and the floodgates are opened.

"If Cuba breaks [down the sports embargo], it'll save professional boxing," DeCubas predicted. "That's all the kids do in Cuba -- play baseball and box. There are boxing gyms on every block. The amateur team won't be as great because they'll all turn pro, but you'll have 300 pro fighters right now. In every division there are so many fighters and they're all good."

Some of the great fighters of the past 50 years were born in Cuba: Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, and to a lesser extent, Luis Rodriguez, who had a wonderful series of fights with Emile Griffith in the 1960s. There might well be new versions of those guys working out right now in gyms in Havana.

We should hope we get to see them soon, and that they don't have to defect to make it happen.

The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like The Pros" with Joe Frazier.