Cuba allows its boxers to enter the professional world

HAVANA – Fernando Galván moved forward and launched a uppercut right in loop. Arlen López, a Cuban boxer who won a gold medal in the lightweight last summer at the Olympics, followed in the middle step and signed with a quick and clinical left hook.

The blow hit the edge of Galván’s chin, spraying his opponent’s boxer’s head, knocking him unconscious and leading him to the canvas of a small boxing gang stationed in the middle of an auditorium in Aguascalientes (Mexico) in May.

Lopez’s elimination showed a mix of power, precision, art, science, and violence that has made Cuba’s amateur boxing program the best in the world. Cuban boxers have won 15 Olympic medals since 2012 against the new US. At the Tokyo Games, Cuba ranked the boxers in several weights and won five medals: four gold medals and one bronze.

And yet, Lopez’s expulsion was a hallmark, both for him and for his country, because it is produced on a professional boxing poster, the first with the support and blessing of the recent communist Cuban government. Six Cuban boxers fought under the banner of a new Mexican promotion company, the Golden Ring.

For a country that banned professional sports in 1962, a team of professional boxers with three Olympic-dominated gold medals represents a major shift in priorities.

One of the main drivers of this change, according to the people involved, is competence. After winning several Olympic titles, continuing to improve in boxing meant looking for new straights.

“At the amateur level, the best boxers in history are Cubans,” says Julio César La Cruz, the team captain who twice defeated the Colombian Deivis Casseres twice in the Olympic gold medal and in the second round. But “this clash with the best professional boxers in the world is missing to measure strength,” he said.

However, in Cuba, where the best boxers and baseball players desert in search of a professional salary, money is also important. Under the agreement with the Golden Belt, boxers like López and La Cruz will pay 80 for the net pay per match, and the rest will be distributed among the trainers, doctors and the national federation.

Gerardo Saldívar, president of the Golden Belt, did not want to disclose the boxers’ payments, nor the part that belongs to his company, but said that Cuban boxers will receive “normal market value”.

“Both will be paid,” Saldívar says.

Also, the selection will not exclude amateur boxing. Although four more professional events are scheduled abroad this year, competing in the Olympics and World Championships will be a priority for the country.

Cuban boxing team coach Rolando Acebal has said the decision is essential to keep the sport at a high level, especially as professionals have the opportunity to participate in the 2016 Olympics. “We’re fighting them. . . , but we don’t know them, ”he said.

But on an island that takes a long time to internalize an ethos of amateurs, an island that trains athletes to fight for the glory of their country, and to fight without winning, the decision has important implications for money.

“What’s a million dollars compared to the love of a million Cubans?” Asked the heavyweight Theophilus Stevenson, who won Olympic gold at the Munich, Montreal and Moscow Games, after refusing a five-million-dollar offer to return. Muhammad Ali.

With lower numbers in the match played on the Aguascalientes poster, the Cubans took part in a professional amateur show.

Matches were scheduled according to weight categories, so smaller boxers such as Lázaro Álvarez lightweight, three-time Olympic Medalist, and Roniel Iglesias welterweight, two-time Olympic champion, struggled before the veil. The bigger boxers, López, a lightweight and La Cruz, a heavyweight, then competed in an international amateur fight like his.

The Cubans also competed in the team, with La Cruz as captain. They wore red shorts, with only a small Cuban flag on one leg and a Puma logo on the other. Contemporary professional boxers participating in high-profile events only wear shorts decorated with sponsors ’logos, an important source of extra income.

Cuban boxers competed professionally the last time, it was common for an unadorned quad outfit.

Before he left Cuba for professional sports, boxing on the island was mixed with the mafia during the 1950s, and he described himself as an activity that was too dangerous, due to the length of the fighting and some notorious deaths.

At the time, the idea of ​​Che Guevara’s “new man” —human incentives as people wanted to replace more and more material as values ​​changed — was in full swing.

The Cuban Communist Party has long responded to most of the material incentives. During the presidency of Raúl Castro (2006-18), “prosperity” was defined as the legitimate goal of socialism, and a “salary incentive” law established the income of athletes in the results.

The basic basis of the selection is 3500 Cuban pesos per month, the equivalent of one dollar a day. For every Olympic gold that boxers bring home, they are paid the equivalent of $ 300 a month (150 plates, 75 bronze each) for life, for victories at the Pan American Games and also for every World Championship.

Despite being poor compared to successful boxers in other places, on an island where the average salary is less than $ 50 a month, the best Cuban boxers live comfortably and must earn a living.

In the National Series last month in Camagüey, including the focus of ostentation. La Cruz left the stadium with a gold chain and was in a new Mercedes, the Tokyo Gold Award. It was a trivial matter for a first-rate professional boxer in the United States, but a prominent symbol of status in a country where only one in 70 people owns a car, according to the latest 2012 country census. In addition to the cars of other Olympic champions, the only other vehicles in the empty parking lot were an ambulance and a rusty bus that took the rest of the equipment to the hotel.

“The pay gap has widened so that more talented people can cover more, among other things because they didn’t want to lose people,” says William LeoGrande, a government professor at the University of America. “If some earn $ 35 a month and others are in luxury cars, that pay gap is very wide and a little difficult to justify based on the culture of socialist values,” he added.

Athletes interviewed by The New York Times seemed pleased with the new deal and hoped that the wave of desertions would intensify in recent years. After the march, boxers like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara, Luis Ortiz and Yuriorkis Gamboa signed, and won a lot, with American promoters.

It is unclear what the biggest economic reward for the best athletes will be for the avalanche. The island is in the throes of an economic crisis caused by severe US sanctions and a coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed emigration to historic levels. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset their federation, several members with fewer tickets asked for the long hours they had to wait in line for their families to get food.

Kevin Brown, one of the boxers who left the team at the Pan American Games in Ecuador in March, said he would go “a thousand times” if he had been offered a chance to fight professionally before.

Robeisy Ramírez, a flyweight who left the national team in a training camp in Mexico in 2018 before signing with the Top Rank, was skeptical that the boxers would receive the money. “It’s a bad job,” I say. “It’s a win-win situation for the country and not for the boxers.”

Cuban boxers are charged in Cuban pesos and “MLC” in the dollar-denominated electronic currency used to buy food and consumer goods. The weight has dropped in the last two years, and the MLC has no value outside the island.

“You have to spend it or sell it on the black market,” says Brown, lightweight.

Although the incentive is high, the threat is also closed, as a maze of regulations deters athletes from leaving the boat.

On one occasion, Fidel Castro compared a sportsman who leaves his team to an “soldier who leaves friends in the middle of a fight” and agents who want to be considered “sharks” who want “fresh meat”. In addition to doctors and diplomats, athletes like Brown and Ramirez, who are on a “sports mission” abroad, are banned from returning for a year.

Brown, who lives in Ecuador and is trying to get to the United States, says he was “regulated” on the island and obtained a passport while traveling with a Cuban group.

This tension has fueled speculation about Andy Cruz, Tokyo’s lightweight gold medalist and the lack of a boxer who many observers consider the best of the current Cuban cohort. Cruz was initially expected to compete in the Aguascalientes event, but was removed from the starting lineup four days before the fight.

It was rumored that the federation had abandoned Cruz so that it would not desert him, and official statements described the decision as tactical, strategic or disciplinary.

For his part, Cruz, 26, apologized to Twitter boxing fans for his delay in his professional debut.

“I wanted it for you,” Cruz wrote. “It simply came to our notice then. The dream continues. ”

Even with the desertions, the results of Cuba have not been resentful. Now, the question is whether you can move into the professional field.

“Even though boxing is another sport,” said Saldívar, president of the Golden Belt.

The square in Aguascalientes was four feet by four feet, the smallest of which was allowed to most jurisdictions. I reduced the space so that the Cuban boxers, as coach Acebal put it, could manipulate “bailar y dar piñazos”. In the run-up to the fight, the Cuban trainers adjusted their training to pass six of the three attacks.

This transition can be wild.

“Amateur boxing is a touch, one more point,” says Ramirez, who in 2019 was hit by a little-known American in just a few seconds of his first professional match. “Professional damage is more serious.”

Ed Augustin Reported from Havana Morgan Campbell From Toronto.

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