HAVANA – Fernando Galván charged forward and landed a looping right uppercut. Arlen López, the Cuban boxer who won light heavyweight gold at the Olympics last summer, took a half step back and replied with a quick, clinical left hook.
The punch landed on the corner of Galvan’s chin, whipping the fellow boxer’s head, knocking him unconscious and dropping him face down against the canvas of a small boxing ring in the center of an auditorium in Aguascalientes, Mexico , this month.
López’ knockout showed the mix of power, precision, art, science and violence that made Cuba’s amateur boxing program the best in the world. Cuban boxers have won 15 Olympic medals since 2012, compared to nine for the United States. At the Tokyo Games, Cuba entered boxers in seven weight classes and won five medals – four gold and one bronze.
And yet, López’s knockout was distinctive, both for him and for his country, as it came on a professional boxing card, the first with the recent support and blessing of Cuba’s communist government. Six Cuban competitors fought under the banner of upstart Mexican promotion company Golden Ring.
For a country that banned professional sports in 1962, a professional boxing card featuring three Olympic gold medalists represents a significant shift in priorities.
According to stakeholders, one of the main catalysts for this change is competition. After winning several Olympic titles, continuing to progress in boxing meant seeking new challenges.
“At the amateur level, Cubans are the best boxers in history,” said Julio César La Cruz, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and captain of the team that knocked out Deivis Casseres, a Colombian, in the second round. But “we have to compete against the best boxers in the world at the professional level to measure strength,” he said.
Yet in Cuba, where top boxers and baseball players are often lacking in search of professional pay, money matters too. As part of their deal with Golden Ring, boxers like López and La Cruz will keep 80% of each fight’s take-home pay, with the rest split between coaches, medical staff and the national federation.
Golden Ring president Gerardo Saldívar did not disclose the boxers’ payments, or his company’s share, but said Cuban boxers would receive “normal market value”.
“They will be paid well,” Saldívar said.
However, the national team will not leave amateur boxing. With four more professional events scheduled overseas later this year, competition at the Olympics and world championships will remain the top priority for the country.
Rolando Acebal, the head coach of Cuba’s boxing team, said the decision was also key to keeping the sport at the top, especially since professionals have been eligible to compete in the Olympics since 2016. “We we fight with them, but we don’t know them, he said.
But on an island that has long instilled an amateur ethos, forcing athletes to fight for the glory of the country rather than profit, the decision has significant money implications.
“What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who won Olympic gold at the Olympics in Munich, Montreal and Moscow, once asked after turning down a $5 million offer to challenge Muhammad Ali.
With presumably smaller dollar numbers on the line during the card in Aguascalientes, Cuban boxers put on a professional show with an amateur feel.
The fights were scheduled by weight class so smaller boxers like junior lightweight Lázaro Álvarez, a three-time Olympic bronze medalist, and welterweight Roniel Iglesias, a two-time Olympic champion, fought earlier in the evening. Bigger fighters like lightweight López and heavyweight La Cruz competed later, as they would on an international amateur card.
The Cubans also competed as a team, with La Cruz named captain. They wore matching red shorts, blank except for a small Cuban flag on one leg and a Puma logo on the other. Contemporary professional fighters at high profile events often sport trunks adorned with sponsor logos, an important source of ancillary revenue.
When Cuban fighters last competed professionally, no-frills ring attire was the norm.
Before Cuba retired from professional sport, boxing on the island had become intertwined with the mafia throughout the 1950s and was considered too dangerous after a few high-profile deaths due to long fights.
At the time, Che Guevara’s idea of the “new man”—a notion that moral incentives should increasingly replace material incentives as people changed their values—was in full swing.
The Communist Party of Cuba has long since reverted to more material incentives. During Raúl Castro’s time as president (2006-2018), “prosperity” was defined as a legitimate goal of socialism, and a “salary stimulation” law cemented athletes’ earnings based on results.
The national team’s base salary is only 3,500 Cuban pesos per month, the equivalent of one dollar per day. For each Olympic boxer brought home, he is paid the equivalent of $300 per month ($150 for a silver medal, $75 for a bronze medal) for life, as well as payments for Games victories Pan Americans and for each World Championship.
Although poor compared to successful boxers elsewhere, on an island where the average salary is less than $50 a month, Cuba’s top boxers now live comfortably – and have to win to do so.
During last month’s national series in Camagüey, there were even flashes of bling. La Cruz left the stadium wearing a gold chain and drove off in a new Mercedes, his reward for gold in Tokyo. It was small fry for a top professional fighter in the United States, but a status symbol in a country where only 1 in 70 people owned a car according to the country’s last census in 2012. other Olympic medalists, the only other vehicles in the arid parking lot were an ambulance and a rusty bus that ferried the rest of the team to their hotel.
“They widened the scope of the salary scale so that very talented people were paid more, in part because they didn’t want to lose people,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University. “If some people are making $35 a month and some people are driving fancy cars, that’s a very big pay gap and a bit hard to justify in terms of socialist value culture,” he said. added.
Athletes interviewed by The New York Times seemed happy with the new arrangement, saying they hoped the deal would stem a wave of defections that has increased their sport in recent years. After they left, fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara, Luis Ortiz and Yuriorkis Gamboa all signed and won big with American promoters.
It is unclear if more money for those at the top will stem the deluge. The island is in the grip of an economic crisis brought on by fierce US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed emigration to historic highs. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to irritate their federation, several lower-income team members complained about the long hours their families had to queue for food .
Kevin Brown, one of two boxers who left the team at the Pan American Games in Ecuador last March, said if he had been offered the opportunity to fight professionally sooner, he would still have left “a thousand time”.
Flyweight Robeisy Ramírez, who dropped out of the national team during a training camp in Mexico in 2018 before signing with Top Rank, was skeptical the boxers would get the money. “That’s another jerk,” he said. “The money is for the country and not for the boxers.”
Cuban boxers are paid in Cuban pesos and “MLC” – a dollar pegged electronic currency used to purchase food and consumer goods. The peso has fallen in value over the past two years, while the MLC has no value beyond the island.
“You have to spend it or sell it on the black market,” said Brown, a light welterweight.
And while the carrot is plumped, the stick is also looming; a maze of regulations deters athletes from jumping ship.
Fidel Castro once compared an athlete who abandons his team to “a soldier who abandons his comrades in the middle of a fight”, and agents wanting to take them like “sharks” wanting “fresh meat”. Just like doctors and diplomats, athletes like Brown and Ramírez who go on a sports “mission” abroad are banned from returning for 8 years.
Brown, who lives in Ecuador and is trying to reach the United States, said he was “regulated” on the island and had his passport taken from him while traveling with the Cuban team.
That tension has fueled speculation about the absence of Andy Cruz, the lightweight gold medalist from Tokyo, and the boxer many observers consider the best of Cuba’s current cohort. Cruz was originally scheduled to compete in the event in Aguascalientes, but was pulled from training four days before his fight.
Rumors swirled that the federation had ruled out Cruz to prevent him from defecting, while official statements variously described the decision as tactical, strategic or disciplinary.
For his part, Cruz, 26, apologized to boxing fans on Twitter for the delay in his professional debut.
“I wanted it for all of you,” Cruz wrote. “It was out of my hands. The dream continues.
Even with defections, Cuba’s results did not suffer. Now the open question is whether this can continue in professional play.
“Even though it’s boxing, it’s a different sport,” said Golden Ring president Saldívar.
The ring in Aguascalientes measured 16 feet by 16 feet, the smallest allowed by most jurisdictions. This reduced the room for Cuban fighters to maneuver or, as Coach Acebal put it, to “dance and punch”. As the fight approached, Cuban trainers had adapted training for the move from three to six rounds.
This transition can be abrupt.
“Amateur boxing is more about hitting and scoring,” said Ramírez, who was knocked down just seconds after his first professional fight started by a little-known American in 2019. damage.”
Morgan Campbell reported from Toronto.