Cuba’s love affair with Amateur Boxing

¡Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

As the cigar smoking, fatigue sporting, rifle toting 26th of July movement rolled into Havana on the 3rd of January 1959, they did not just bring with them a promise of hope for a new socialist Cuba but also a vision of Cuba as a global sporting superpower. As the combined forces of commandants Ernesto ‘Ché’ Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos entered Havana there was jubilation, as the ordinary Cubans celebrated the downfall of the repressive Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro, leader of the movement, took power on the 16 February 1959 and began rapidly transforming the landscape of the island of Cuba, and with it, the landscape of world boxing.

Cuba was no stranger to boxing, having hosted the heavyweight title fight between Jess Willard and Jack Johnson in 1915 and had built a considerable stable of professional fighters in the United States.Gerardo “Kid Gavilán ” González, Benny “The Kid” Paret, and Eligio “Kid Chocolate” Sardinas had all, at that time been world champions in America and were hailed as national heroes by many Cubans despite their juvenile monikers. They and other American stars had fought in mob controlled, racially segregated venues in Havana and had brought in thousands of dollars for foreign US capitalist interests. This idea of professional boxing was diametrically opposed to Castro’s vision. One of the first things he did was round up and imprison the mob henchmen who extorted and bullied ordinary Cubans, he closed their casinos and raided their brothels. As the revolution burned a fire through Cuba, slot machines were thrown out of second floor windows and gaming tables taken for firewood. Overnight the Mafia had lost its favourite playground. Meyer Lansky, the famous gangster and chief accountant for the New York Mafia, who had invested heavily in Cuba’s Casinos, would later say “Castro absolutely ruined me”.

With this banishment of American influence and mob infiltration into Cuba came a ban on professional boxing. In 1961,with the governments more overtly communistic approach becoming clearer, Fidel pronounced that professional boxing was to be banned. It was deemed to be decadent and corrupt and susceptible to American influence. They couldn’t ban the sport completely though, with its deep cultural roots, the revolutionary vanguard instead moved to promote the Amateur code. The Cuban amateur team had been a lacklustre affair up until this point. They had never won any international accolades and were seen as just having a small diminutive copy of the United States Amateur system. Like everything American though it was banished.

As Castro shedded all diplomatic and political relations with the United States, he had also shedded all sporting ties between the two countries. This meant that Castro would have to look elsewhere for help in constructing his new boxing programme. He reached out to his newest and most powerful ally, the freshly appointed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Known for his policies of destalinization and his more open outlook towards the rest of the world, this new link looked promising. It was however, more fruitful than either nation could have imagined. The Soviet Union sent over one of their best Amateur coaches, Andrei Chervonenko, who alongside Cuba’s best coach, Alcides Sagarra, set up a new national recruiting and training program based on the Soviet system. Castro’s government funded this project as a way to prove, on the world stage, the successes that could be achieved through a socalist government.

The key policy that led to the huge successes in Cuban boxing and that gave Chervonenko and Sagarra their unlimited pool of talent was Castro’s drastic overhaul of the Cuban education system. Before Castro and the revolution, 22% of Cubans were totally illiterate and 60% more were only semi literate. Education in Cuba had been, under various dictators, a privilege afforded to an elite few in the aristocracy. Before 1959, almost no female, black or rural cubans had any formal education at all. This all changed when Castro announced mass nationalisation of schools, bringing them all under state control and mandating that every single cuban child must attend school. This had a drastic effect on Cuban society with literacy rates rising sharply and continuing to rise, in 2019 Cuba had a literacy rate of 99.87*, far higher than the UK and US. It had the same drastic effect on Cuban boxing. Sport became a key part of the curriculum like never before and it included boxing. This meant that thousands more children were exposed to the sport and became more well versed from an early age. The athletic talent pool too was greatly increased, as millions, who before the revolution, would have had no exposure to competitive sport, were now in education and thus participating in sport. National level coaches now had unfettered access to the best athletic talents in every Cuban school, they had a direct line to regional coaches and talent scouts. This meant that every child with a talent for boxing was found and developed to their full potential.

Teófilo Stevenson sets up his trademark right hand.

The most demonstrative example of this, is the man who would go on to become considered by many the greatest ever amatuer boxer, Teófilo Stevenson. Stevenson was a Cuban regional champion and was brought by Chervonenko to the newly established Escuela de Boxeo in 1968. He had quit boxing because he couldn’t make enough money doing it, but inspired by the new programme, he came back into the fold and began to represent his country in competitions all over the world. Unlike many nations, where amatures are only paid a small stipend by the sports authority, in Cuba at this time, Boxing was a career like any other. Therefore, Stevenson and his national team compadres were paid full salaries by the government. This allowed all of the boxers in the team to focus on their craft rather than work other jobs or cut corners in training to save money. At the 1972 Olympics, Stevenson was mesmerizing; he knocked out everyone he faced and was awarded the Val Barker Trophy as the best boxer of the Olympics. At this point, where most American boxers turn over and become professional, Stevenson couldn’t and therefore simply continued to box in the Amateurs. For the rest of his career, he would stay in the amateur ranks and become the hero of a nation in doing so. He won two Olympic gold medals in 1976 and 1980, he won three World Championship gold medals in 1974, 1978 and 1986, he won two Pan American games gold medals in 1975 and 1979, he also won eight central American and Caribbean games gold medals across his career. He is only one of three men to win three Olympic gold medals in boxing. While Muhammad Ali ruled the professional ranks in the Heavyweigh division, Teófilo Stevenson ruled the division in the amatuer’s.Many have speculated about how good a bout it could have been if Stevenson had renounced his Cuban citizenship and alleigence to his governemnt and taken the reported $5 Million dollars he was offered to fight Ali. Don King, the man doing the offering, said “Stevenson would have been phenomenal as a pro, he could have been in the same class as Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier. But we’ll never know,”.Stevenson however, was not one for speculation, all he said of the offer was, “What is one million dollars, to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Stevenson and Ali Joke around, thinking about what might have been.

Stevenson settled into retirement in 1988, initially coaching the squad himself alongside his long time coach Alcides Sagarra before moving into the Cuban Parliament and eventually becoming vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation. He had however, inspired the next wave of Cuban boxers, one in particular, who would soon pick up exactly where Stevenson had left off. Félix Savón was born in San Vicente, in the Guantánamo Province and after seeing Stevenson annihilate all competition across the 1970’s, he picked up the gloves and began to box too. Growing to 6”5 and having almost exactly the same dimensions as his idol Stevenson, he was heralded by Castro as Stevenson’s successor, despite being unable to compete in the 1988 Olympics due to a political boycott of the games. He made up for lost time though, winning gold at the three games with ease in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Félix Savón then won 6 world championship gold medals for good measure. He beat big names such as David Tua, Micheal Bentt, Axel Schulz and Ruslan Chagaev. As with Stevenson though, Savón was an ardent supporter of the Cuban cause and repeatedly refused big money offers from the US to fight the likes of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, instead choosing to proudly represent his country and the socialism of the Castro brothers. He articulated this saying, “Cuba, since 1974 has been the king of amateur boxing in the world…That is why the media of other countries keep asking why we don’t box professionally. Professionalism will abolish humanism and society.” Savon said amateur athletes are revered in Cuba. “Athletes are the most important thing in Cuba since Castro took over. We practice sports from the age of 8.” Savon and Stevenston remain today two of the only three people to win three olympic medals for boxing.

Savon chases a terrified foe

These two phenomenal talents are the crown jewels in an amateur system that has culminated in 2019, to include 19,000 amateur boxers, 81 of whom are world level, training out of 185 facilities across the island. Stevenson and Savón are the tip of the iceberg. Cuba has won 67 olympic medals in boxing since Fidel Castro’s revolution, 34 of them have been gold. They sit 2nd in the all time boxing medal table. Only the United States, a country with 30 times more people in it, that has been sending boxers to the games for twice as long, has more. Castro and the government of the Cuban Communist Party has established Cuba as the pound for pound undisputed champion of amatuer boxing. As well as this, Cuban exiles brought up in the amatuer system, has created world champions and household names in the west. Names like Luis Manuel Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yunier Dorticos,Yuriorkis Gamboa and Erislandy Lara, all of whom have achieved stunning success in the professional ranks.

Since its inception, the Socalist state in Cuba has inspired fierce loyalty and within that country, the disilpine of amatuer boxing and the state are inextricably linked. Those loyal to the Castro vision of Cuba have stayed absolutely loyal to amateur boxing and thus they have managed to cultivate and retain some of the greatest boxing talents of the last 60 years. What the west may have been denied, street kids from Havana and Santa Clara, Guantanamo and Santiago, Camagüey and Cienfuegos have been able to provide for their families through boxing. They may not have brought in millions in fight purses. They may not have sold thousands of Pay Per Views. They may not have earned lucrative sponsorship deals. They have however, fought for the dignity of their nation, to win the heart and soul of the country they call home. They, the victorious few, have earned the respect and adoration of 11 million of their countrymen, a feat very few pugilists can truly claim to have achieved.

Ewan Breeze Of SimBoxx

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