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Cuba’s Embargo On Professional Boxing, Part I

By Dave McKee: Fidel Castro banned professional sport in Cuba in 1962. This was in keeping with Soviet ideology, which rejected the capitalist implications of pro sports and sought to harness amateur sports for their jingoistic value as displays of national athletic prowess. This embargo on professional sport affected all athletes in Cuba, but the prohibition on boxing had far reaching implications affecting professional and amateur boxing worldwide. National Decree 83a, the document that sealed boxing’s fate on the Communist island nation, also took a toll on fighters and their families, forcing those who felt a calling to the sweet science to consider the terrible option of defecting.

Long before Castro’s revolution, Cuba had a proud tradition of pro boxing. Kid Chocolate was the first Cuban to win a world title, knocking out Philadelphia’s Benny Bass to take the National Boxing Association (NBA) world super featherweight title in 1931. Twenty years later Kid Gavilan followed in his countryman’s steps by breaking the jaw of Chicago’s Johnny Bratton and taking the NBA world welterweight title via unanimous decision.

These giants of boxing are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHoF) with three other Cuban greats: WBC/WBA welterweight champion, Luis Manuel Rodriguez; WBC/WBA featherweight champion, Ultiminio ‘Sugar’ Ramos and WBC/WBA welterweight champion, José Nápoles. Rodriguez, Ramos and Nápoles were all successful boxers when Castro came to power, and all three were forced to flee their homeland to continue in their careers.

Though Castro’s rise meant a death to professional boxing in Cuba, professionalism in boxing (or at least effective technocracy) flourished under his rule. Talent is identified very early in Cuba. Children in grade school are handpicked for their talents and placed in sporting programs according to their perceived skills. From this point they are trained under a meticulous regime in preparation for representing their team and their country in an activity that, under any other circumstances, would be viewed as an individual sport.

This system, run through the Escuela Cubana de Boxeo (Cuban Boxing School) was conceived by Dr. Alcides Sagarra. Sagarra looked to East German professor Kurt Rosentil for assistance in developing his training methods. The Soviet Union gifted Sagarra with boxing coach Andrei Chervonenko. These men created an amateur program of unmatched distinction. Sagarra would eventually retire in 2001, but his legacy has proven quite durable. Five Cuban nationals won gold in the 2004 Olympics, two won silver and one took bronze. Four silver medals and four bronze were awarded to Cuban fighters in 2008.

This only begins to tell the story of Cuba’s domination of amateur boxing. Cuban heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson won gold at the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics. He matched these with three gold medals in the World Amateur Championships plus two gold medals and a bronze in the Pan American Games. Fellow Cuban, Félix Savón, followed Stevenson to take three Olympic gold medals of his own. In the World Amateur Championships, Pan American Games and Central American & Caribbean games he amassed a staggering thirteen gold medals and one silver.

These boxers in particular raise serious questions concerning the implications of the Cuban system and the Cuban ban on professional boxing. It is clear that a state sponsored program that trains fighters from a young age will create an advantage in international competition.

More concerning is the fact that those boxers who choose not to defect can remain in the amateur system well into their twenties and early thirties. While early success is a matter of being better than one’s international peers, as each four-year cycle passes these boxers begin to look more like professional boxers in their experience and in their skills. Add to this the fact that they have multiple significant amateur competitions in which to compete. The advantage over younger challengers is dramatic.

Teófilo Stevenson was once offered five million dollars to meet Muhammad Ali in the ring. He deferred, choosing his homeland over money. This matchup in particular has been the subject of much debate. Could the highly decorated amateur perform well in the more grueling environment of professional boxing, sans gloves and facing long minutes like miles ahead of him as he fought? Some think he was as talented as Ali, but would that talent have translated? What of other fighters, such as Savón?

With the fall of the Soviet Union, many boxers have arisen from the ashes of former Soviet domination. A look at the August 2011 Ring Magazine ratings for top heavyweights alone is telling:
Champion: Wladimir Klitschko –Ukraine
#1Vitali Klitschko – Ukraine
#2Tomasz Adamek -Naturalized American from Poland
#5Ruslan Chagaev – German, from Uzbekistan
#7Alexander Dimitrenko – Ukraine
#8Denis Boytsov –German, From Russia
How impactful could Cuban fighters be if they were allowed the freedom to fight professionally on the world stage. The evidence from former Soviet nations is compelling. Cuban defectors have offered clear answers to this question as well.

Part two of this article will address the impact of those fighters on the sport, and the weight of their decisions to defect on them and their families.

August 9, 2011

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