In 1962, Fidel Castro banned professional sports in Cuba. This presented a hard choice for boxers: stay in Cuba and fight for national pride and glory or defect to a country where their talents could make them rich.
1967: Enrico Blanco, age 15, wins gold at the Pan American Games in Canada. Shortly after the match he becomes Cuba’s first boxer to defect.
The Rosetta Stone to understanding boxing starts with a secret every boxer is trying to keep from you: they’re all more afraid of being embarrassed than they are of getting hurt.
“Heroes and cowards feel exactly the same fear. Heroes just react to it differently.”
1993: Giorbis Barthelemy swims 11 miles to U.S Guantanamo Bay Naval Base attempting to defect. After being captured and jailed on his first attempt to reach Guantanamo, he succeeds on his second try.
I’ve been boxing since I was 15.
I caught an interview that summer where Mike Tyson was in jail for raping a beauty pageant contestant and was being asked by a French interviewer why there were reports of him reading Hemingway, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Dumas, and Victor Hugo. I called my mom over. Tyson tilted his head and with a kind of tender embarrassment admitted it was probably out of boredom more than any quest for knowledge. My mom smiled, “What kind of man is this?”
I’d never read a book of literature up to that point, but I wrote down all the names from the interview. I went to the main library and took out six biographies on Tyson and a handful of books from the writers he’d mentioned. It took a while, but after I got through those with the help of a dictionary, I picked up biographies on all those writers to see what they read. I wrote a lot more names down and went back to the library. I’ve been playing catch up ever since.
Tyson’s story as a kid got to me. We came from very different neighborhoods, but we’d both been bullied. We shared the same millstone of women around our necks. We both made attractive victims and felt some comfort identifying with that role. There was substance abuse in our families. We shared a terror and fascination of violence.
We reacted to violence a little differently: I became something of a shut-in for two years while he became the heavyweight champion of the world.
The main thing that caught my eye was how one of the world’s legendary victimizers had led a childhood being serially victimized by everyone around him.
No wonder he was so skilled at it.
“All things truly wicked start from innocence.”
Anyone could look at his face and tell that story. You could hear it in his voice. You could see it in the style in which he fought, as if someone had stolen something from him. You could feel it in his words:
“I’ll fuck you till you love me faggot.”
I’ve only lost consciousness twice in the ring: my first time sparring and my last fight competing as an amateur.
The initiation procedure at my first gym was baptism by fire and they tossed all the new kids into the ring to have their heads taken off in front of everybody. I wasn’t an exception. It had taken up most of my courage that night just to enter the neighborhood where the Astoria Hotel was located and walk down those dark old stairs into the stink of that basement where they ran their gym.
They say the worst blows are the ones you don’t see.
When you’re a beginner you see them coming and you still can’t do anything about it. You don’t know how. If you’re out of shape or new, the ring can be one of the loneliest places in the world.
No, the worst blow, for my money, is that first one that hasn’t hit you yet, it’s just hanging there on the way to hitting you.
I’d say you have roughly the same idea what it’s going to feel like as you do with sex the first opportunity you have to put your dick inside a girl. The notable difference is, you can’t learn to take a punch. You have a glass chin or you don’t and you have no way of finding out without testing yourself. And the news is going to go public in a hurry.
They put me in there with a Golden Gloves champion and before too long I took a couple of right hands on the jaw I saw coming that turned out the lights. I was still on my feet, but I’d checked out. The impact was a surprisingly euphoric sensation. As I came to, glassy- eyed and goofy, I was still on my feet with a blurry man I’d never seen before dancing in front of me, dipping one shoulder in preparation for a left hook to finish me off.
When I realized where I was and what was going on, I hugged him and wouldn’t let go. He drove me back into a corner. In the clinch he called me a faggot. “Leggo you fucken faggot!” he yelled again. But I didn’t. My head still wasn’t clear so I considered his appraisal. At 15 I hadn’t kissed a girl yet. I’d never been attracted to a man but then maybe what my opponent was suggesting was that I simply hadn’t met the right one. I couldn’t rule it out. It was indeed possible. How could I know?
The bell rang and the trainer stepped into the ring and removed my headgear and gloves. By this time my head was throbbing and I couldn’t breath normally.
“Take it easy, kid. Take it easy,” the trainer smiled. “So we’ll see you same time Thursday?”
The trainer at that time was a judge who sent as many troubled kids as he could through that boxing gym instead of sending them to juvenile prison. For this measure of goodness he felt more than entitled to savor the suffering and humiliation of others in the context of boxing.
I rode home on the bus with a swollen cheek pressed up against the window trying to soak up as much of the winter chill outside as I could. It wasn’t hard to imagine them still laughing at me back at the gym. That sadistic fuck trainer was probably egging them on. My jaw was too sore to enunciate the words, but I swore a thousand times on that ride I’d never go back.
Then the next day I was more pissed off at him than sorry for myself and did go back on Thursday.
Only once you went back did they look after you.
It took me a while to clue in that just maybe this was by design. They’d really been looking after you the whole time. If you couldn’t come back after a beating you were wasting your own time with boxing as much as theirs.
In 1994, five Cuban boxers defect:
The Castillo Brothers, Eliseser and Eliseo watched sharks attack
their flotilla as they drifted for days. Alexis Barcelay walked through
a minefield to get to Guantanamo Bay. Diobelys “The Oriental Kid”
Hurtado defects during a layover in Miami. Mario Iribarren defects to
Denmark after a competition.
“Ring magic is different from the magic of the theater, because the curtain never comes down–––because the blood in the ring is real blood, and the broken noses and the broken hearts are real, and sometimes broken forever.”
I train people myself now. The narratives behind the people vary: old men trying to stay in shape, teenage girls worried about rape prevention, university professors getting out of their heads, abused wives determined to not let it happen again, and picked on kids trying to build themselves back up. It’s intimate and vulnerable business. Everyone’s drawn to boxing for a different reason and usually afraid of it for the same two: you have to hit and be hit by someone.
A fighter’s struggle used to have greater significance to society than it does now.
In his book Why We Can’t Wait, first published in June 1964, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:
“More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: ‘Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…’”
Joe Louis is only Joe Louis because his mother hated boxing. She tried to get him interested in playing an instrument. He hid his gloves from her in his violin case. When it came time for his first amateur fight, Joe Louis Barrow omitted the Barrow when he signed the register to keep his boxing pursuits a secret from his mother. The name stuck.
He also lost his first fight.
1996, Joel “El Cepillo” Casamayor becomes Cuba’s first Olympic boxing medalist to defect, giving up a chance to win gold in Atlanta. Ramon “El Nino” Garbey, the 1993 world amateur light heavyweight champion, also defects and struggles as a professional.
At Rafael Trejo, where I’ve boxed in Havana since 2000, two or three old women guard the entrance. There are different sets, but they always remind me of the Macbeth witches. Past the entrance the sun blazes down on you and there are rows and rows of bleachers behind and in front of you. For warm ups the students race up and down them and it’s as loud as a New York subway until they quit. Car tires are set against an iron railing and boys practice their combinations snapping their punches. There’s a hung sack for a punching bag next to the tires. A tractor tire lays in the shade under the far side bleachers where an instructor swings a sledge hammer over one shoulder and then the other, plunging the hammer down and showing a kid the proper technique of incorporating the entire body with each swing and the mechanics of the weight transfer involved. The ring is the center piece of the gym with the canvass blood and sweat-stained with a little neighborhood mud smeared here and there. There’s a lucky kid who lives next door who spies down on the action below from his window.
My trainer’s name is Alberto Brea. He’s a multiple-time National Cuban Boxing Champion and has helped train the South African Olympic team. Currently he’s one of the coaches for Havana’s team at the National Championships. He likes their chances. Brea is six feet tall, a few happily removed weight classes from his former fighting weight, and is in his early fifties with a thick mustache and stopwatch hung round his neck.
Brea’s name is hollered whenever we walk down the narrow streets of Old Havana before or after boxing. He shakes a lot of mens’ hands and kisses the cheeks of even more women and introduces me to each person. It’s as if Castro passed a law that all Cuban citizens shall be fans of Brea. Those hands he can’t shake or cheeks of women he can’t kiss, say people calling down from roofs of apartments, he raises a hand and his face glows as the ends of his mustache raise in a smile. He whistles and talks dirty in a growling whisper to every breathing woman that crosses his path. It interrupts nearly every sentence he tries to get out in conversation. I once saw him talk dirty to a paraplegic female. I must have stopped dead in my tracks. “Brinicito, we all need love.”
Every time his name is called he looks over at me and repeats the same thing, “Brinicito, what can I do? Brea! Brea! Siempre Brea! Everywhere lo mismo, Brea!”
Brea is Sisyphus, and the boulder of his victimization-by-fame routine only pleases me more with each complaint about how he’s helpless against his fate of acknowledging even more friendly faces who admire him for the rest of his days.
While we train, he often likes to practice his English. It doesn’t stretch very far so he instead boils it down and manipulates it like a Rubik’s Cube. There’s rarely if any symmetry with what I happen to be doing:
“C’mon. Hey! Wazza matta? Slow down. Despacio. Berry important: leedle-by-leedle.”
This is far and away his favorite line. It applies to scoring with women, the path to Christ, defecting, living harmoniously in the country under the system, growing old, getting out of relationships and, at the moment, my left hook after slipping a punch.
“Little-by-little?” I repeat, having gained the understanding over the years that this is one philosophy in life we all apprentice and never master.
“Leedle-by-leedle. Okay. Venga!”
I pay him $7 a day to work with me. He drives in from 50 miles outside Havana to work with me 4-5 times a week. During his lifetime, Brea’s salary has never been more than $25 a month.
We meet at our mutual friend Montalvo’s house three blocks away from the gym in Old Havana. Jose Marti’s original home is five minutes walk from us, across the street from a train station. They’ve converted it to a museum. I walk past it everyday on the way to the gym. The neighborhood is San Isidro which used to be one of the great thriving prostitution districts. Alberto Yarini Ponce de León, the most famous pimp in Cuban history, was murdered here.
Montalvo and the wife of Montalvo look and act a helluva lot like Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad except under distinctly Cuban circumstances. They always get a kick playing Barry White for me every time I return to Cuba in revenge for me jokingly referring to him as Barry Blanco. Which started a whole clusterfuck of fun with translation: “Would you like to hear some juicy 1970′s Al Verde?” Their toilet has been broken for years. Their son has fled to Miami. The father of the wife of Montalvo fought in the revolution and after its “success” became disenchanted and began to drink heavily and womanize to the degree that even Brea blushes in discussing his exploits. The old man sits in a rocking chair perpetually begging for rum as he fans himself with a peacock feather.
Brea arrives at the same time as my friend Lesvanne. Lesvanne has a new shirt.
“What’s her name?” Brea asks.
“Who?” Lesvanne asks.
“Que va! The gringa tourist who gave that to you!”
Lesvanne raises his hand and flicks his wrist making a snap between his fingers.
“Where’s she from?”
The whole house goes wild.
Montalvo, Lesvanne, Brea and I start walking over to the gym. Brea is called over to shake someone’s hand.
Lesvanne asks me if I’m still fighting back home. I shake my head.
“What happened with your last fight?”
“I was hit in the balls three times in a row. They stopped the fight. Finito.”
“They allow this in your country?”
“The referee didn’t see it.”
We’re meeting a new friend at the gym today. Herry Biembe is an African middleweight fighter living in Switzerland training for the Beijing Olympics at Trejo. I met him a few days before and we lined up training together today. A tourist snapped this photo of Herry below:
2006: Three more Cuban gold medalists defect while training in Venezuela. Yuriorkis “The Cyclone” Gamboa remains undefeated after 16 professional matches. Yan Barthelemy sells his gold medal to feed his family. Odlanier “The Shadow” Solis remains undefeated as a professional and is ranked in the top 10 among heavyweights.
2007: Angelo Santana leaves Cuba on a raft to follow his high school girlfriend. He achieves far more than just romantic success. Guillermo Rigondeaux, two-time Olympic gold medalist, loses chance to win record third gold medal after attempting to defect in Brazil.
2008: Erislandy Lara is sent home in disgrace and banned from boxing after attempting to defect from Brazil.
We enter the gym and spot Herry and his bleached-blond head sitting on the ring apron talking with a sullen shirtless Cuban in jeans smoking a cigarette. Herry waves while the man he’s with pays me a dirty glare as his customary form of welcome.
The man Herry’s talking with trains many of the children off the street at Trejo. He used to be one of them. His name is Héctor Vinent Cháron.
There was a ceremony at the National Championships where they brought out all the famous ex-champions of Cuba and lined them up before the crowd. Apart from the roar of applause, there were tears in the eyes of some people when the names were announced. This man, along with his name, was included in the ceremony.
He won gold at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics for Cuba. He’s a two-time World Champion and six-time National Champion.
What caught my eye most at that ceremony was how Héctor was the only ex-champion who seemed tremendously uneasy being there and paraded around as an example for others about character and believing in the gains of the revolution.
I’d asked some questions about him and found out he’d desperately wanted to leave but was afraid about the repercussions against his family from the government. For starters, he could never come home. Jobs and employment opportunities for anyone connected to him could be removed or badly diminished. The systematic, comprehensive shaming of his family, teammates, and legacy would be considerable. There was an enormous price to leaving and the cost would be shared with those that this man loved.
So he stayed.
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald