In Havana, Boys Come of Age in the Boxing Ring

No 37

Your gloves
cocked before a squirrel-quick body
and the punch in your smile!

— Nicolás Guillén, “Small Ode To a Black Cuban Boxer"

In Cuba, boxing is more than just a sport. Like baseball, it is a national passion, an arena through which the tough realities of life in this politically isolated nation flow in and out, occasionally to the point of overflow.

Triumphs have solidified the pastime's status. Cuba has punched well above its weight in the ring for decades, its boxers winning more gold medals on the international circuit than those of any other country. But Cubans have always fought as amateurs. The revolutionary government banned professional sports sixty years ago, a regulation that is for the most part still in place.

The state sports system has traditionally given Cuban boxers an advantage. As the celebrated sports writer S.L. Price observed, "No athlete in the world lives in a place more dedicated to discovering, nurturing and celebrating great athletes. If you are a dirt-poor, ten-year-old phenom buried somewhere in Cuba's deepest backwater, you will be found. You will win. You will be a national hero."*

One thing you will not necessarily be, however, is a rich man, and thus the temptation to flee Cuba (for the United States, most often) and cash out is a constant one. Those who opt to stay earn a special place in the pantheon. One example is the Olympic heavyweight champion who turned down a seven-figure offer to defect and fight Muhammad Ali with the immortal lines: “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"

Boxing first took hold in Cuba in the early 20th century, when North American prizefighters would come to Havana and compete during the tourist season. The Cuban style of boxing that has developed since then is notable for its elegance—it emphasizes speed and footwork, and breeds boxers so chiseled they seem to be cheating their weight class.

The promise of youth has long fueled the sport, a fact evident in the names of early boxing legends Kid Gavilán, Benny “The Kid" Paret, and Kid Chocolate. (National poet Nicolas Guillén celebrated the latter in verse.) By turning to coaching later in life, many former champs ensure the continuity of the tradition.

  • See Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports. University of Florida Press, 2000: p. 7.

Credits

  • Cinematographer - Laurent Tixhon
  • Editor - Ben Louis Nicholas
  • Text - Darrell Hartman

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