Forgotten champions: the struggles of Cuba’s pro boxers

Cuba has produced some of the most technically dazzling fighters currently active in professional boxing. Experts marvel at the skills of the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara and Yuriorkis Gamboa. They praise the natural rhythm, ring generalship and outstanding defence evident in the Cuban style. But for all their talent, Cuban fighter’s seem unable to win over the wider boxing public. Avoided by rivals, branded “boring” by critics, and unable to command large audiences in America, there is a definite sense amongst Cuba’s elite level boxers that they are being undervalued.

Guillermo Rigondeaux

Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux is ranked amongst the best pound for pound fighters in the sport but remains relatively little known

When it comes to amateur boxing, few nations can claim to have a greater mastery of the sport than Cuba. The small Caribbean nation of 11 million currently sits second in the all time Olympic medal table with 54 golds, beating out far larger and wealthier rivals. Cuba’s ability to punch far above its weight in international amateur competitions comes down to an implicit understanding of boxing’s fundamental principle; the ability to hit without being hit. The Cuban style emphasises movement and defence. It encourages its students to craft openings, to manipulate angles, to score points then remove themselves from danger.

Cuban premier Fidel Castro with legendary Cuban amateur Teofilo Stevenson

Cuban premier Fidel Castro with legendary Cuban amateur Teofilo Stevenson

For a long time, boxing fans were deprived the opportunity to see this style in the pro ranks due to Fidel Castro’s ban on professional sports, imposed on the island since 1962. In the last decade though, numerous Cuban boxers with outstanding amateur records have successfully defected from their homeland in order to begin a career in the tough but potentially lucrative world of prize fighting. Those who leave pay a heavy price. The Cuban regime is quick to brand defectors as traitors and the consequences can also leave a heavy burden on family members left behind. But the pull of the professional sport, with all it’s perceived glamour and financial rewards proved too tempting for some of Cuba’s greatest fighters. With news of these high profile defections, boxing fans around the world looked on in keen anticipation, ready to see how these amateur legends would fare in 12 round bouts against the world’s best.

Perhaps the most celebrated of these fighterd is Guillermo Rigondeaux, who turned pro in 2009. Standing just five foot four and a half, Rigondeaux, or Rigo as he’s nicknamed, fights at super bantamweight, not traditionally one of boxing’s most celebrated divisions. But while he may not be the most physically imposing boxer around, there are many within the sport who regard him as one of most technically accomplished fighters in the world today. The Ring Magazine, the so called “bible of boxing,” puts Rigondeaux fifth in its pound for pound rankings. As an amateur he won two Olympic gold medals. As a professional he is currently WBO champion and WBA super champion of his division. Freddie Roach, one of the best known and well respected coaches in boxing, declared Rigo probably the greatest talent he has ever worked with. HBO’s commentary team were left in awe by the diminutive Cuban’s win over Nonito Donaire. Taking all this into account, Rigondeaux should presumably by now have established himself as one of boxing’s most revered figures, a big name draw with all the associated rewards of money and fame.


Rigondeaux won olympic gold at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004

But, unfortunately for Rigo, it isn’t quite as simple as that. Rigondeaux has unquestionably been successful inside the ring. He is undefeated and a champion. Less certain, however, is his appeal to the casual boxing fan. His style may attract high praise from the purists, but it also has a tendency to draw yawns from those less enamoured with the finer points of boxing technique.

Rigondeaux does not lack power or killer instinct. Of his 16 victories, 10 have come by knock out. Neither is he entirely untouchable, having been knocked down more than once over his professional career. But in general his approach is calculated dominance. He frustrates opponents, always trying to stay out of trouble while accumulating points. It is an approach that wins but not one that seems to capture the imagination of crowds and viewers. They, for the most part, yearn to see drama, violence, toe to toe exchanges. Rigondeaux’s skill is in avoiding these things. He can use his superior technique to secure victory without taking the risks other, less refined, boxers expose themselves to. Against Donaire he put on a masterclass, nullifying the threat of a highly dangerous opponent. The watching crowd, however, did not seem impressed. A loud chorus of boos could be heard during the later rounds.

The Donaire fight represented the paradox that hinders Rigondeaux’s success; the better he is, the less appeal he seems to have. Even some hardcore boxing fans admit, though they can appreciate the talent evident in Rigondeaux’s performances, they don’t necessarily enjoy them.

It is a criticism that must have a grating familiarity to Rigondeaux’s fellow countryman, the light middleweight, Erislandy Lara. Another successful amateur who defected in 2008, Lara built up an impressive professional record and managed to secure a fight with Mexican superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. In the bout, Lara adopted an elusive style, sticking and moving around the less mobile Alvarez. Despite largely frustrating his opponent’s attempts to hurt him and landing blows of his own, Lara lost the fight on the judges scorecard. The key to Alvarez’s victory, commentators explained, was that he showed more aggression. The general consensus of the viewing public appeared to agree. Boos could be heard as Lara circled the ring during the bout. Critics dubbed Lara a runner and scorned him for not being willing to stand and fight. Alvarez’s team quickly dismissed any talk of a rematch, disparaging Lara’s style and pointing to the lack of public appetite for another bout. To their minds, Canelo had shown himself the real fighter, an embodiment of the proud values of Mexican boxing; endurance, daring, machismo. Lara was just an also ran who had provided a tricky but ultimately passable test. Canelo and his people gave short thrift to Lara’s talk of the superiority of the “Cuban boxing school” or his claims of being robbed by the judges. “No one wants to go to his ‘school,'” quipped Canelo.

Erislandy Lara is another Cuban defector turned champion

Erislandy Lara is another Cuban defector turned champion

The problem with Lara and Rigondeaux’s styles is both are designed to mitigate risk and minimise danger. It is tactically masterful and at times a joy to watch for those who appreciate the more technical aspects of the sport. But it also diffuses the dark excitement that draws more casual fans to boxing. It shuns ferocious aggression in favour of a more carefully crafted offense. It is often effective but not always explosively entertaining. Instead of heart quickening brawls, fans are presented with a chess match. However skilful it may be, it just doesn’t lend itself to the sort of blood and guts displays that seem to capture the public’s imagination.

This lack of appeal has a knock on effect on the level of opposition Rigondeaux and Lara are able to attract. In the eyes of their competition, there’s a lot to lose by fighting them but not a lot to gain. Neither man will sell out arenas or set records for pay per view buys. Suffering even one loss can be a big blow to a fighter’s status these days and when the financial rewards aren’t there or the opponent isn’t a big name, the risk doesn’t seem worth it.

Take, for example, the lack of interest Carl Frampton showed in facing Rigondeaux. After Frampton won the WBA belt from Scott Quigg in February, Rigondeaux was declared mandatory challenger. Rigondeaux was clearly desperate for the fight, making repeated less than subtle attempts to goad his Northern Irish counterpart into the ring via Twitter. Frampton, however made it clear he had no intention of accepting the match up and was subsequently stripped of the title earlier this month. The fact that Frampton would rather give up a world title he had only just won rather than fight Rigondeaux demonstrates the Cuban champions lack of commercial clout. Lara too has complained of being ducked. Saul Alvarez’s decision to fight him went against the advice of his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, who regarded it as bad business. There were less challenging obstacles and bigger pay days to be had elsewhere. De La Hoya made it clear the fight was not his choice. Lara should feel some gratitude, therefore, towards his Mexican rival who was at least willing to take the fight on. The fact remains though, that there are not many in his division rushing to get in the ring with him.

The only option, then, is to make do with what is available, however unspectacular. With the biggest names in the super bantamweight division unwilling to face him, Rigondeaux has been forced to take whatever matches he can. Just last month he found himself on the undercard of Flanagan v Matthews, a British domestic clash, facing off against Jazza Dickens. Though he holds a decent enough record, with only one loss in 23 fights, Dickens can hardly at this point be considered world class opposition. Even this modest fixture ended in farce for Rigondeaux however. After failing to arrive in the UK in time, the Cuban champion’s fight was called off due to visa problems. The mix up and sudden cancellation will have done nothing to enhance Rigoneaux’s standing in the eyes of fellow boxers or fans.

The sorry Dickens episode demonstrates another pitfall that has hampered Cuban boxers (although they are far from the only victims in a sport where crooks and chancers abound) ; poor management. Yuriorkis Gamboa, another Olympic gold medallist, initially excelled upon entry to the professional ranks in 2007. By 2010 he had already won the WBA and IBF featherweight titles. His impressive rise then stalled amidst a backdrop of contract disputes, legal problems and allegations of performance enhancing drug use. Gamboa managed just one fight a year in 2012 and 2013, before losing by technical knock out to the highly rated American, Terrance Crawford, in 2014. Initially signed to Top Rank, Gamboa parted ways with the promotion company in 2012 following a lengthy and bitterly contested legal battle. Unfortunately for Gamboa, his management problems didn’t end there. Choosing to sign with rapper 50 Cent’s newly created promotional company, SMS, Gamboa quickly found himself facing the same problem as Rigondeaux and Lara; no one wanted to fight him. Placing the blame on Fifty’s failures as a promoter, Gamboa once again finds himself going through the courts in another drawn out legal battle to end his contract. In between the two contract cases, Gamboa found himself under the spotlight for using banned substances and in jail on a charge of domestic abuse involving his ex-wife.

Yuriorkis Gamboa has shown flashes of great talent but too much of his career has been tied up in legal disputes

Yuriorkis Gamboa has shown flashes of great talent but too much of his career has been tied up in legal disputes

Although he lost the fight with Crawford, Gamboa showed considerable talent and intelligence against one of the most highly rated prospects in boxing today. It’s a shame to see such a promising athlete consigned to inactivity and doomed to spend yet more of his career embroiled in court proceedings against his own promoters. He won his two subsequent fights after Crawford, but at 34 years old time is quickly running out for Gamboa if he wants to make any further impact on the sport.

It’s hard to diagnose just exactly what is holding back the careers of Lara, Rigondeaux and Gamboa. In some regards there is nothing to suggest they are failures. All three have held multiple world titles in there respective divisions and have fought against some of the biggest names in boxing. But there remains a chip on the shoulder of all three men, a sense of frustration and resentment that they have not been given their fair due. In interviews all three give off the impression that their talents have been misunderstood, underestimated and ignored. Perhaps, ultimately for them, the dream they risked being branded traitors for has not turned out quite as it was supposed to. With all now over thirty, they may never get the acclaim and rewards they believe they deserve.

In the long run though, the future of Cuban boxing looks bright. After decades of isolation and sanctions, Cuba’s relations with the US are improving and it looks as if the regime is becoming more moderate. Perhaps it will not be long before the ban on professional sports is lifted and talented Cuban boxers will no longer have to defect to test themselves against the world’s most famous fighters. If that day does come, they would do well to learn from the careers of those who came before them. Some may feel it doesn’t get the credit it deserves, but there will always be a great deal of respect within the boxing world for what Cuba has been able to achieve in the sport. And, while the tradition that has seen a tiny island become a boxing giant survives, there are surely many more Cuban champions still to come.


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