By Ed Augustin and Morgan Campbell
Fernando Galván charged forward and threw a looping right uppercut. Arlen López, the Cuban boxer who won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics last summer, took a half-step back and countered with a quick, clinical left hook.
The punch landed on the corner of Galvan’s chin, whiplashing the journeyman boxer’s head, knocking him unconscious and dropping him face first to the canvas of a small boxing ring in the center of an auditorium in Aguascalientes, Mexico, this month.
López’s knockout showed the blend of power, precision, art, science and violence that has made Cuba’s amateur boxing program the world’s best. Cuban boxers have won 15 Olympic medals since 2012, compared with nine for the United States. At the Tokyo Games, Cuba entered boxers in seven weight classes, and emerged with five medals — four gold and one bronze.
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And yet López’s knockout was distinctive, both for him and for his country, because 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 an upstart Mexican promotional company, Golden Ring.
For a country that outlawed professional sports in 1962, a pro boxing card highlighting three Olympic gold medalists represents a significant shift in priorities.
A main catalyst for that change, stakeholders say, is competition. After winning multiple Olympic titles, continuing to improve 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 team captain who knocked out Deivis Casseres, a Colombian, in the second round. But “we need to clash with the best boxers in the world at the professional level to measure force,” he said.
Yet in Cuba, whose top boxers and baseball players often defect in search of professional paydays, money also matters. Under their deal with Golden Ring, boxers like López and La Cruz will keep 80% of the net pay from each fight, with the remainder divided among coaches, medical staff and the national federation.
Golden Ring President Gerardo Saldívar would not disclose the boxers’ payouts, or his company’s cut, but said the Cuban boxers would receive “normal market value.”
“They will be well paid,” Saldívar said.
Still, the national team won’t be leaving amateur boxing. While four more professional events are scheduled abroad later this year, competing at the Olympics and World Championships will remain the priority for the country.
Rolando Acebal, the head coach of Cuba’s boxing team, said the decision was also essential to keep the sport top-flight, especially as professionals have been eligible to compete in the Olympics since 2016. “We’re fighting with them, but we don’t know them,” he said.
But on an island that has long instilled an amateur ethos, drilling athletes to fight for homeland glory rather than lucre, the decision has significant implications surrounding the money.
“What is $1 million compared to the love of 8 million Cubans?” heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who won Olympic gold in the Munich, Montreal and Moscow Olympics, once asked after turning down a $5 million offer to challenge Muhammad Ali.
With presumably smaller dollar figures at stake during the card in Aguascalientes, Cuban boxers participated in a pro show with an amateur feel.
Bouts were scheduled by weight class so that 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. Larger fighters like the light-heavyweight López, and La Cruz, a cruiserweight, competed later, as they would on an international amateur card.
The national team’s base salary is just 3,500 Cuban pesos a month, the equivalent of a dollar a day. For each Olympic gold boxers bring home, they are paid the equivalent of $300 per month ($150 for a silver, $75 for bronze) for life, with payments too for victories at the Pan American Games and for each World Championships.
Though they are paupers 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 need to win to do so.
At last month’s National Series in Camagüey, there were even flashes of bling. La Cruz left the stadium wearing a gold chain and drove away in a new Mercedes, his reward for gold in Tokyo. It was small fry for a top pro fighter in the U.S., but a stark status symbol in a country where only 1 in about 70 people owned a car according to the country’s last census in 2012. Besides the cars of other Olympic medalists, the only other vehicles in the barren car park were an ambulance and a rusting bus which carried the rest of the team to their hotel.
“They’ve increased the scope of the wage scale so that highly talented people get paid more, partly because they didn’t want to lose people,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University. “If some people are earning $35 a month, and others are driving around in fancy cars, that’s a very wide wage differential and a little hard to justify in terms of socialist value culture,” he added.
The athletes interviewed by The New York Times seemed pleased with the new arrangement, saying they hoped the deal would stem a wave of defections that has risen their sport in recent years. After leaving, fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux, Erislandy Lara, Luis Ortiz and Yuriorkis Gamboa have all gone on to sign, and earn big, with American promoters.
It is not clear whether more money for those at the top will plug the deluge. The island is in the mire of an economic crisis brought on by ferocious U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed emigration to historic highs. Speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to anger their federation, several lower-earning team members complained of the long hours their families faced standing in line for food.
Kevin Brown, one of two boxers who walked out on the team during the Pan American Games in Ecuador this March, said that had he been offered the opportunity to fight professionally earlier, he would still have left “one thousand times.”
Flyweight Robeisy Ramírez, who abandoned the national team during a training camp in Mexico in 2018 before signing with Top Rank, was skeptical the boxers would receive the money. “It’s another con,” he said. “The money is for the country and not for the boxers.”
And while the carrot is being plumped, the stick also looms; a labyrinth of regulations deter athletes from jumping ship.
Fidel Castro once likened an athlete who abandons his team to “a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the midst of combat,” and agents wanting to snap them up as “sharks” wanting “fresh meat.” Just like doctors and diplomats, athletes like Brown and Ramírez who leave during a sporting “mission” abroad are banned from returning for eight years.
Brown, who lives in Ecuador and is trying to reach the U.S., said he was “regulated” on the island and had his passport taken away when he would travel with the Cuban team.
That tension fueled speculation about the absence of Andy Cruz, the lightweight gold medalist from Tokyo, and the boxer many observers consider the best of the current Cuban cohort. Cruz was originally slated to compete at the event in Aguascalientes, but was pulled from the lineup four days ahead of his bout.
Rumors swirled that the federation sidelined Cruz to prevent him from defecting, while official statements variously described the decision as tactical, strategic, or disciplinary.
Even with defections, Cuba’s results have not suffered. Now, the open question is whether that can carry into the professional game.
“Even though it’s boxing, it’s a different sport,” emphasized Saldívar, the Golden Ring president.
The ring in Aguascalientes was 16 feet by 16 feet, the smallest most jurisdictions allow. That cramped the space for Cuban fighters to maneuver, or, as the coach Acebal put it, to “dance and thump.” In the run-up to the fight, Cuban coaches had adapted training for the transition from three rounds to six.
That transition can be brutal.
“Amateur boxing is more about touching and scoring points,” said Ramírez, who was knocked down just seconds into his first pro fight by a little-known American in 2019. “Professional is about doing damage.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.