Posted on Thursday, 03.21.13
Cuba eyes semi-pro league to reinvigorate boxing
By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA
AP Sports Writer
HAVANA — Protective headgear has been the rule of the ring for more
than 50 years in Cuba, which banned professional boxing shortly after
the 1959 revolution.
Back then, pro boxing was deemed corrupting and exploitative, and the
big purses not in line with socialist egalitarian ideals. Now the island
is on verge of relaxing the monopoly of amateur boxing by joining a
semi-pro league in which athletes are paid by sponsors and fight
pro-style bouts, but still retain the Olympic eligibility that's
all-important to Cuban sports authorities. Boxers also would fight
without the headgear they have grown accustomed to.
While officials caution that no decision has been made yet, it could
offer island boxers a chance to earn more money, gain more exposure in
high-profile competitions and help staunch the flow of defections that
has robbed Olympic delegations of some of Cuba's brightest talent and
resulted in disappointing medal counts in recent years.
"It motivates me. It's something new. It's a challenge," world amateur
featherweight champion Lazaro Alvarez told The Associated Press at a
local tournament in an Old Havana gym. "I would really love to take part
to be able to show the world what I am, what Cuban boxing is really all
The World Series of Boxing was launched in 2010 by the International
Boxing Association and consists of a dozen teams in two divisions.
During four months of league play that begins each fall, semi-pro
franchises such as the Algeria Desert Hawks and the USA Knockouts face
off in home and away matches, with a post-season playoff in the spring.
Some teams are backed by national boxing federations, while others
receive at least partial private sponsorship: the Dolce & Gabbana Italia
Thunder team, for instance.
Fighters earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month plus bonuses ranging from $500 to
$2,000. Bouts are five rounds, unlike three in amateur, with a point
system similar to the pros.
That would mean a big raise for Cuban fighters, the most successful of
whom collect lifetime stipends of $100-$300 a month after winning
Olympic or world medals. Others presumably earn an amount closer to the
national average salary of around $20 per month.
In January, World Boxing Association president C.K. Wu visited Cuba for
talks with local authorities and announced that they were seriously
considering their own franchise.
"We have all the elements so that those who must make a decision have
the pros and cons," said Alberto Puig, president of the Cuban Boxing
Juan Hernandez, a 44-year-old four-time world amateur welterweight
champion who now works as a trainer, was optimistic that the island will
join the league and breathe life into the sport.
"Cuba seems to be close to taking part in the World Series," Hernandez
said. "I would have liked to participate in a tournament like that, of
course. It's a great challenge and opportunity for the boxers of today."
If Cubans live for baseball above all other sports, boxing probably
ranks second. The first bout took place in 1912 and the annals of Cuban
greats include the likes of Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan, both winners
of professional titles, plus other colorful names like "Lightning"
Saguero, "Butter" Jose Legra, the Las Tunas Kid and "Puppy" Garcia.
But in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution, all professional
sports were banned and the very concept has been anathema to the island
government's Marxist ideals ever since.
"In our eyes, sport is not just another instrument of the market … nor
of profit for promoters, agents and all manner of parasites that feed
off the athlete's hard work," Fidel Castro said as recently as 2005.
Cuba nonetheless devotes a considerable amount of its scant resources to
developing amateur talent and has punched above its weight at
international competitions, scoring relatively high in the medal tables
for a nation of around 11 million people.
Former pugilists Felix Savon and the late Teofilo Stevenson are among
the three boxers in history to win gold medals at three Olympic Games,
and Cuba took seven gold medals out of 11 possible at Barcelona in 1992.
Yet low wages, decaying facilities and the lack of opportunities for
athletes to test themselves against the best fighters on the
professional circuit have all contributed to a long, slow decline and
After Olympic champions Odlanier Solis, Yurioski Gamboa and Yann
Barthelemy walked away from training in Venezuela in 2006, the Cuban
boxing delegation was left short-gloved two years later in Beijing and
went home without a single gold for the first time in 36 years.
The debacle set off a flood of national soul-searching, with Castro
himself calling for a frank and honest reappraisal of "every human and
material resource we dedicate to the sport. We should be profound in our
analyses (and) apply new ideas, concepts and knowledge."
In 2011, the country lowered the age of competition from 11 to 9 years
old, beginning with a pilot program in Havana, in line with many other
countries' boxing programs, and going semi-pro could be the next step
toward regaining Olympic glory.
In 2015, World Series league fighters will be battling for 30 automatic
tickets for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro the following year. AIBA
will also hold an individual competition with 70 automatic bids.
Cuban defectors have already shown they can be successful at any level.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, who fled in 2009 after a failed defection attempt
two years earlier, holds the pro title in the super bantamweight class,
and Gamboa was world featherweight champion in 2010.
Island boxers interviewed by the AP were hesitant to talk about money,
but their eyes lit up when asked about the league and what Cuba will
bring to the competition. They spoke of having to learn to be more
defensive as the lack of headgear would leave them more exposed to
knockout, but expressed confidence that they're up to the task.
"I think that without boxers from Cuba it wouldn't be a great
championship due to our country's skill at this sport," said Julio Cesar
La Cruz, world titleholder in the light heavyweight class. "It would be
part of my arsenal. It would be good to test myself there with the same
goal (as always), which is to be an Olympic champion in Rio."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.