HAVANA – Fernando Galván loaded forward and threw a right uppercut looping. Arlen Lopez, a Cuban boxer who won a lightweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics last summer, took a half step back and faced him with a quick, clinical left hook.
The fist landed on the edge of Galvan’s chin, shaking the boxer’s head, knocking him unconscious and he first threw his face against the fabric of a small boxing ring in the middle of an auditorium in Aguascalientes (Mexico) this month.
Lopez’s elimination showed the mix of power, accuracy, art, science, and violence that has made Cuba’s amateur boxing program the best in the world. The Cuban boxer has won 15 Olympic medals since 2012, and nine in the United States. At the Tokyo Games, the Cuban boxer entered seven weights and came out with five medals – four gold and one bronze.
And yet, Lopez’s expulsion was distinctive, both for him and for his country, as he came on a professional boxing card, the first with the recent support and blessing of the Cuban communist government. Six Cuban competitors fought under the banner of a fledgling Mexican promotion company, the Golden Ring.
For a country that outlawed professional sports in 1962, a boxing card with three major Olympic gold medals represents a significant change in priorities.
The main catalyst for this change, according to stakeholders, is competition. After winning multiple Olympic titles, continuing to improve his boxing meant looking for new challenges.
“At the amateur level, the Cubans are the best boxers in history,” said Julio César La Cruz, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and team captain who knocked out Colombian Deivis Casseres in the second round. But “at the professional level we have to clash with the best boxers in the world to measure strength,” he said.
However, in Cuba, whose top boxers and baseball players often fail to seek professional compensation, money is also important. Under the agreement with the Golden Belt, boxers like López and La Cruz will save 80 percent of their net salary for each fight, with the rest divided between coaches, doctors and the national federation.
Gerardo Saldívar, president of the Gold Belt, did not disclose the boxers’ payments or his company’s restrictions, but said that Cuban boxers would receive “normal market value.”
“They will pay well,” Saldívar said.
However, the team will not give up 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 crucial to maintaining the highest level of sportsmanship, especially since professionals have the right to participate in the 2016 Olympics. “We’re fighting them, but we’re not. I don’t know them, “he said.
But on an island that has long instilled an ethos of amateurs, instead of winning by punching athletes for the glory of the homeland, the decision has far-reaching consequences for money.
“What’s a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Heavyweight Theophilus Stevenson, who won Olympic gold at the Olympics in Munich, Montreal and Moscow, once asked Muhammad Ali for a $ 5 million bid to face off.
At the time of Aguascalientes ’card, there were supposedly lower dollar figures at stake, with an amateurish Cuban boxer show taking part in a professional show.
The fights were scheduled according to weight class, so the small boxers fought Lázaro Álvarez light weight, three-time Olympic bronze medalist and Roniel Iglesias welterweight, two-time Olympic champion, in the afternoon. Lopez, a lightweight, and La Cruz, a cross-country, competed with bigger fighters later, as they would with an international amateur card.
The Cubans also competed in teams, making La Cruz captain. They wore red one-piece trousers, empty, except for a small Cuban flag on one leg and a Puma logo on the other. At professional events, contemporary professional wrestlers often wear trunks bearing the logo of sponsors, an important source of additional income.
The last time Cuban fighters competed professionally, it was customary to wear an unadorned ring.
Before Cuba came out of professional sports, boxing on the island was mixed with the mafia during the 1950s and was seen as too dangerous after some resounding deaths because of the fact that the fighting lasted.
At the time, Che Guevara’s idea of a “new man” – that moral incentives should increasingly replace material incentives as people changed values - was on the rise.
The Cuban Communist Party has long since returned to more material incentives. During the presidency of Raúl Castro (2006-2018), “prosperity” was defined as a legitimate goal of socialism, and a law on “wage stimulation” established the profits of athletes based on the results.
The national team’s basic salary is only 3,500 Cuban pesos a month, the equivalent of a dollar a day. Each time they bring home the Olympic gold boxers, they are paid the equivalent of $ 300 a month ($ 150 silver, $ 75 bronze) for life, also paying for their victories at the Pan American Games and World Championships.
Elsewhere they are poor compared to successful boxers, on an island where the average salary is less than $ 50 a month, Cuban top boxers now live comfortably, and they have to earn a living to do so.
In last month’s Camagüey National Series, they were also brilliant. He left La Cruz wearing a gold chain from the stadium and left in a new Mercedes, the Tokyo Gold Award. It was a small frenzy for a major U.S. professional fighter, but a strict status symbol according to the latest 2012 country census in a country where only about 70 people owned a car. Other vehicles in the barren parking lot included an ambulance and a rusty bus that took the rest of the group to the hotel.
“They have broadened the scope of the pay scale so that they can charge more for talented people, among other things, because they didn’t want to lose people,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at the University of America. “If some earn $ 35 a month, and others drive elegant cars, that’s a very wide pay gap and it’s a little hard to justify in terms of a culture of socialist value,” he added.
Athletes interviewed by The New York Times have expressed satisfaction with the new arrangement, saying the deal is expected to address a wave of defections that has exacerbated the sport in recent years. After leaving, they went on to sign fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara, Luis Ortiz and Yuriorkis Gamboa, and win from there, with American promoters.
It’s not clear if more money will be covered in flooding for those at the top. The island is in the throes of an economic crisis caused by severe US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed emigration to historic levels. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset the federation, as several members of lower-income groups complained about the long hours their families had been waiting in line for food.
Kevin Brown, one of the two boxers who came out of the team at the Pan American Games in Ecuador this March, said he had been offered the chance to fight professionally before, that he would still go “a thousand times”.
Robeisy Ramírez, a flyweight, who left the national team in a training session in Mexico in 2018 before signing with the Top Rank, was skeptical that the boxers would receive the money. “It’s another scam,” he said. “The money is for the country and not for the boxers.”
Cuban boxers are paid in Cuban pesos and “MLC”, an electronic currency linked to the dollar used to buy food and consumer goods. The weight has dropped in the last two years, and the MLC has no value beyond the island.
“You have to spend it or sell it on the black market,” said Brown, a lightweight welterweight.
And while the carrot is plumped, the stick is also tied; a maze of regulations prevents the athlete from jumping the boat.
Fidel Castro likened an athlete who abandons his team to “a soldier who abandons the troops of his comrades in the middle of a fight,” and agents who want to be taken as “sharks” who want “fresh meat.” Like doctors and diplomats, it is forbidden to return athletes like Brown and Ramirez who go on a sports mission “abroad” for 8 years.
Brown, who lives in Ecuador and is trying to get to the United States, said he was “regulated” on the island and had his passport revoked when he traveled with the Cuban group.
That tension sparked speculation about Andy Cruz, the lack of a light gold medal in Tokyo, and a boxer who many viewers consider the best of the current Cuban cohort. Cruz was initially scheduled to compete in the Aguascalientes event, but was removed from the game four days earlier.
Rumors spread that the federation had abandoned Cruz to prevent him from deserting, while official statements described the decision as tactical, strategic or disciplinary.
For his part, Cruz, 26, apologized to boxing fans on Twitter for his delay in his professional debut.
“I wanted it for everyone,” Cruz wrote. “It simply came to our notice then. The dream continues. ‘
Despite the shortcomings, Cuba’s results have not suffered. Now, the question is whether it can lead to professional gaming.
“Even boxing is another sport,” said Saldívar, president of the Golden Belt.
The ring in Aguascalientes was 16 feet by 16 feet, which is accepted by the smallest jurisdictions. This narrowed the gap for Cuban fighters to maneuver, or, as coach Acebal said, to “dance and punch”. In the wake of the fight, the Cuban coach adjusted his training to go from six rounds to six.
This transition can be wild.
“Amateur boxing is more than just touching and scoring points,” said Ramirez, who was thrown by a stranger in 2019 in a few seconds in his first pro fight. “It’s a professional injury.”
Morgan Campbell He reported from Toronto.