Amateurism Still Hangs On in the Cuban Ring

I couldn’t miss this one…

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Long-time political allies took to the ring on Friday night as Cuba’s top five boxers competed against its Russian rivals.  It was set as part of the World Series of Boxing, a round-robin format, in which brackets of four countries square off over the course of the year, with the top two advancing to the playoff rounds.  It was Russia’s turn to visit Cuba and there was a noticeable buzz in the air among sports fans in Havana.  I had the night off so I hopped in a collective taxi and headed to Ciudad Deportiva, Havana’s version of Madison Square Garden, to check out the action.

Ciudad Deportiva, or “Sport City,” looks as worn down as the surrounding houses in Cerro Municipality.  But the place was packed.  The “cola,” or line to purchase tickets, stretched for several dark blocks, and there were rumors that the tickets had sold out.  Desperate, I began my search for scalpers.  Selling tickets on the side is illegal and punishable in Cuba, so there were no overt vendors in the crowd.  One just had to ask around.  In fact the first guy I asked had tickets on hand to sell at 20 pesos cubanos, or 80 U.S. cents, a markup of seven times the original ticket price.  I looked at the long line, and decided the extra 65 cents was worth it.  Another Cuban noticed he was selling and yelled to his friend, “Oye! Él tiene tickets!”  The vendor, obviously annoyed by his indiscretion, yelled back a series of hostile expletives that only a Cuban could understand.

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As I walked into the stadium, I realized that I was unique in the crowd.  Among the 15,000 in attendance I think I was the only foreigner.  The Cuban population is about 40% Caucasian, yet I could count on my hand the number of white faces in the crowd.  Unlike in the U.S., where prohibitively expensive tickets entice mostly white fans, here the fan base is black, and they come in from the poorer sections of the capital, such as Cerro and Central Havana.

I had walked in during the second match, and apparently the workers were more interested in spectating than collecting my ticket.  I could have saved 80 cents after all!  The place was packed, but because it was general seating, I secured a vacated seat on the floor, just forty feet from the ring.  I arrived just in time to see the Cuban lightweight Lázaro Alvárez giving a bloody beatdown of his Russian opponent, as if his anger stemmed from their political breakup years ago.

When Lázaro was just a few months old the Soviet Union disintegrated, and overnight Cuba lost its longtime political and economic big brother, along with 80% of its imports.  Instantly Cuba was challenged with food shortages and constant blackouts, and the 1990’s (dubbed the “Special Period” by Castro) would prove to be the revolution’s greatest challenge.  During this time, the average Cuban shed enough pounds to drop a full level in a boxing weight class.  Fortunately for Lázaro and his cohorts, boxing classes were free, and in place of returning home hungry after school they could spar in the local gymnasium until the streets darkened and it was time to go home.

The current Cuban team of five are all very young, and for good reason.  Amateurism is the only way to athletic stardom in Socialist Cuba, and since the athletes are technically state employees, they make a typical salary of about 15 dollars a month.  It’s no surprise that the entire Olympic Boxing squad from 2012 has defected.  Most are in the U.S., training with the hopes of million-dollar prize fights in Las Vegas.  And so another round of high-school graduates stepped in to the ring to take their place.

Amateurism did not always have a shelf life for Cuba’s best athletes however.  Two of Cuba’s greatest boxers, Teófilo Stevenson and Félix Savón, pursued exhaustive amateur careers, winning three consecutive Olympic gold medals each.  Only one other boxer in the world (Lázló Papp of Hungary) has achieved this feat…ever.  Stevenson probably would have won a fourth if Cuba had not joined the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In response to a five million-dollar offer to fight Mohammed Ali, he refused, “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Upon his retirement, Castro gifted Stevenson a mansion in an up-scale Havana neighborhood.  Savón extended Stevenson’s amateur legacy into 2000, but it wouldn’t be long before most Cubans would fall to the prospects of making “real money” outside of Cuba.

As the matches progressed on Friday, fans realized that Cuba could be up for a clean sweep of their Russian counterparts.  The young Cuban boxers were giving the Russians a heck of a beating.  Even after winning the first three matches, the crowd remained fierce, as if they too wanted revenge for political abandonment by the Russians.  Middleweight World Champion Julio César la Cruz put on a clinic during the final fight, and sealed the sweep for the Cubans.  As the packed crowd cheered the results, I raced out the door to beat the mop to the collective taxis.

I soon found out that I wasn’t racing against anyone.  My taxi was going to Vedado, a wealthier Havana neighborhood, and I had the car to myself.  Even so, most of the other spectators held out for the bus.  The bus costs a few pennies, whereas the taxis cost forty cents, a difference well worth the wait for the common Cuban.

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As is the case for most live Cuban entertainment, it’s not the price of the ticket that is prohibitive, but the cost of getting there.  It’s either too expensive or inconvenient, or both.  Those seeking the bus probably had to wait an hour or so, but if they were lucky they could score a seat next to one of the boxers from that very evening.  Even the performers would have to improvise a ride home, probably to the same worn-down neighborhoods where the fans live.  Such is the life of an amateur world champion.

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