Pic David C. Morgan
By Jerry Glick: I recently had the opportunity to view a video that brought back some grand memories for this old boxing fan, but also brought onto focus the often life and death struggles and hard decisions that come with being a boxer in a communist nation. The film, "A Fighting Chance” by Winner Take All Productions and Throwback Media, is produced by Bobby Cassidy Jr., son of former middleweight and light-heavyweight contender Bobby Cassidy Sr., David A. Schuster, and Fred Rosenberg. Cassidy also wrote, directed and did a fine job of narrating the documentary.
The film puts the spotlight directly where it belongs, on a system that is too ridged for such talented young men who wanted only to bring their skills to the world. Cuban politics stood in their way so these young talented boxers had to take advantage of situations that would allow them to leave their homes and families and go to another country in order to ply a trade that was often times thrust upon them by a government that seizes young athletes and places them in training to do only what they are best at. There is little chance of a well rounded existence. If you can throw and catch a ball, all you did was play baseball. If you could fight, fighting is all you did. By the time these young pugilists were in their teens they were already experienced boxers.
The film examines the careers and lives of some of the greatest Cuban boxers including former Welterweight Champions Luis “El Feo” Rodriguez, “The Cuban Hawk” Kid Gavilan, Benny “Kid” Paret, and Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles are featured along with Featherweight Champion Ultiminio “Sugar” Ramos. Former top middleweight contender Florentino “The Ox” Fernandez, former junior-lightweight NABF champion Frankie “The Cuban Bomber” Otero, and multi-division world champion Joel “El Cepillo” Casamayor are featured as well.
All of their stories have a common thread; they all left Cuba in a quest to find riches in the free world.
Shot on location in Havana, Cuba, Mexico City, Mexico, Miami, Florida, Atlantic City, NJ, Canastota, NY and Manhattan, NYC, the film includes 11 Olympic fighters (all but one a medalist), six won Gold. Nine held world titles. Three were number one ranked contenders, and eight are installed in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Among the young fighters seen in this well thought out, lesson in Cuban boxing are Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Yan Barthelemy, and Odlanier Solis. All of whom are competing in the USA right now. All have adjusted well except Yan Barthelemy who is struggling with life in a new setting.
Some Cuban boxers who remained in Cuba are living legends in their homeland; Teofilio Stevenson and Felix Savon, are adored and Kid Chocolate is revered with a stadium named after him.
It is hard for any film to convey the hardship of leaving your home and family for the last time as these young men were compelled to endure, but Cassidy and company came mighty close to bringing their deepest feelings to the screen.
Rigondeaux’s story is especially difficult. After attempting to leave he was pressured to abandon his plan and return only to be ostracized by his former friends and team mates. Finally he made the move to the US where he is now building a career.
Watching the film allows one to feel the life of poverty in Cuba. How the youngsters still look up to Rigondeaux in spite of his defection. I looked onto the faces of these youngsters and saw children who knew of no other life than the one they lead. It begs the question; will they too feel the need to leave when they get old enough to understand the outside world?
In attendance at Victor’s restaurant where a private screening of “A Fighting Chance” was shown to a select, invitation only group, were Cuban stars, “Sugar” Ramos, Florentino Fernandez, and Frankie Otero. Also on hand was former world champion Juan LaPorte of Puerto Rico and New York.
In addition to the Cuban stars, interviewed on film were former world Champions Curtis Cokes, Carlos Ortiz, Emile Griffith, Jose Torres, John H. Stracey, and Antonio Tarver, high ranking contenders Bobby Cassidy Sr., Howard Davis Jr., Joe Miceli, Charles Mooney, and Gaspar Ortega. Two former Cuban baseball stars were also a part of the story, Connie Marrero and Jose Valdivielso.
The film depicts a gritty slice of life in Cuba. The viewer can almost experience the smells of this tropical island that is about 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
When the film becomes available to the public the viewer will have the opportunity to receive an education of a vast and important part of boxing’s rich history. If you miss it you will have passed on the chance to see and hear things about boxing that you may not learn anywhere else.
In accompanying photo, from left to right: Ramiro Ortiz, chairman of the Florida State Athletic Commission, Sugar Ramos, former world featherweight champion and Hall-of-Famer, Frankie Otero, former NABF junior lightweight contender and Florentino Fernandez, former No. 1 middleweight contender.