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Cuba vs. USA: beyond boxing

Cuba vs. USA: beyond boxing

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on March 18, 2014

The last image of a Cuban boxing team in the United States wasn't the most pleasant. Fifteen years ago, in Houston, the twelve athletes and the coaching staff that participated in the 10th edition of the World Championship decided to withdraw from it because they considered the judges' voting had been biased.

The feeling of resentment remained and in the following edition of the Championship in American territory, in Chicago, 2007, The Cuban Federation adduced 'safety reasons' to decline participation. Time has passed and much has changed, and now even an Antillean team, Los Domadores (The Tamers) will travel to Miami, the city with more Cuban immigrants, to face the USA Knockouts in the first part of the quarter-final's match in the IV World Series of Boxing (WSB).

The world of amateur boxing has gone through several modifications in the last years. For instance, the International Federation chose to eradicate the term 'amateur' of its name and now it is just 'Inernational Boxing Association' (IBA). In addition to this, its managers approved many changes in the rules that, although they haven't been officially stated, intended to narrow the differences between this kind of boxing and the professional one.

And thus is how headgears disappeared, because they would make it harder for predatory strikes to happen and of course, this measure lowered KO decrease; jerseys were also eliminated so the usually impressive upper bodies of the opponents remained exposed. The voting system changed in such a way that the total number of strikes was no longer recognized; only won rounds matter. One of those fundamental changes was the creation of the World Series of Boxing (WSB), a 'semi - professional' tournament comprised by 'multinational' teams in which boxers from all over the world could participate as long as they had less than twenty professional fights.

For three years the Cuban Federation did not show interest in such event. The nearness between rules of professionalism and its commercial nature seemed to be against the principles the Cuban authorities defended, and who forbade, in 1962, the professional practice of the sport; however, due to the decline of boxing competitions and the need of raising funds, the Federation reversed its decision and the participation in the WSB IV edition was allowed.

This veredict was celebrated by the IBA's managers. ''We are glad to welcome Cuba to the WSB'', said its President, Ching-Kuo Wu. ''With 116 world medals and 67 olympic ones, Cuba has always been on the top of our sport'' admitted the Taiwanese headperson.

According to Alberto Puig, President of the Cuban Federation, a participation would allow fighters to ''make money without losing their amateur sportsmen condition (...) In that World Series were the best boxers on Earth, so the main objective in Cuba's insertion is our athletes' training with the best rivals they can have'' stated Puig. Another advantage of the WSB was that the six best fighters of five different division would ensure a ticket to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016.

For José Luis López, a journalist specialised in the field from Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) newspaper ''the insertion of Cuba has been more than positive not only for our franchise, but also for a better world - wide appreciation of the WSB. Traditionally, Cubans have imposed hegemony in the world and this won't be the exception'' he declared.

Nevertheless, the Cuban presence in the WSB met some strong criticism between fans and boxing specialists. In the words of the well known expert Elio Menéndez, who has written about this sport for more than four decades, the WSB has failed to show good boxing. ''If Cuban fighters don't have other tournaments, they have to participate in this one. The gym is boxing's worst enemy, so you have to look for fights, incentives for the athletes; but the Series is like a circus, demeans a serious championship, it is not well structured, teams use fighters from different nationalities, boxers change constantly. It's a fun fair environment that I honestly do not find attractive. It's a show to make money'' concluded Menéndez.

Los Domadores passing.

The IV edition of the WSB had twelve teams from countries highly familiar to the sport; such as Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, USA, Italy, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Poland, Algeria and Germany.

The Cuban team adopted the name of ''Los Domadores'' and although this franchise was in the hardest group - group B, also called 'death group' for the extreme quality of its opponents - from the very beginning when they faced Los Guerreros de Mexico (Mexican Warriors) to the last confrontation with the Russian Boxing Team, the Cuban fighters showed a clear superiority.

Statistics indicate that Domadores was, by great difference, the most remarkable team in the classification phase. Of the then matches that were held, nine were won by the Cubans, six of them by wipeout (5 -0). They only lost a duel to Russia (2-3) on the last day. Of the fifity combats, fourty-one were won by the Cuban team.

Individually, the most outstanding fighter was the burly Erislandy Savón (91 kilograms) because he triumphed in his five presentations and he accumulated 747 points, the maximum number had by a combatant.

Another undefeated leader of his division was Yosbany Veitía (46 - 49 kilograms), 5 - 0 and 737 points. Four other Cubans made it to the top of their respective divisions: the twice world champion Lázaro Álvarez (60 kilograms) 4 - 0, Arisnoidys Despaigne (69 kilograms) 3 - 0; Ramón Luis (75 kilograms) 4 -1 and also a double champion; Julio César de la Cruz (81 kilograms) , 3 - 1, who was able to recover from an armed attack at the eairlier this year. The main negative element was the expulsion due to missbehaviour of Robeisy Ramírez (Olympic holder in London), of 56 kilograms.

Domadores moved forward in group B, hence, it was time to confront the fourth place of the other group. During most of the event, the USA Knockouts had been out of the classification zone, but a final upturn allowed them to place themselves in the fourth position, with only 11 points by winning four matches and losing six.

This was, without a doubt, the best news for the organizers of the WSB - who give 500,000 USD to the champion team -because over the ring there would be historic rivals, and, as an extra attraction, the first part will be held in Miami, hometown of the USA Knockouts, a city chosen by more than a million Cubans. To increase the appeal of the match even more, on the American corner will be Pedro Roque, who used to be a coach for national Cuban team before he decided to go to the States and being hired by the USA Boxing.

Background of a historic rivalry.

For the first time in History, the Cuban and American boxing teams will clash in an agreed match of ten combats, of five rounds each, with rules similar to professionalism. This duel could exacerbate a sport rivalry extended for decades.

For eleven years, between 1977 and 1988, the national federations of the two countries made a 'bilateral top' with mutual visits. In these combats, the Cubans present their great figures (olympic and world champions) while the American team also called their best men but they seldom repeated names, since those who stood out would play professionally.

According to the superlative coach Alcides Sagarra, creator of the 'cuban school for boxing': ''we faced those bilateral combats for years and Cuba never lost, the only thing the USA did was to tie a top, but the encounters were very often and always raised a lot of interest''

The first top was in 1977, in Houston. where Cuba won 7 - 4. The most even fight was that of 1980, when the Antillean won 7 - 5, while in Havana, in 1982 and 1983 the Cubans swept the board with 11-1, 12-0 victories. As a fun fact, in the top of 1984. celebrated in Reno, a very young Evander Holyfield (81 kilograms) fought, who would later become a professional boxing star.

The last duel was held in 1988, in Atlanic City. The Cubans' domain was demolishing because they won in 92 combats, and lost only in 26. After that date, it has been impossible to overcome that top, as it did happen with baseball. Yet, the rivarly is still alive and that will be demonstrated, once again, in Miami.

How do they get to the duel?

Given the deep historic rivalry in sports, baseball and boxing particularly, and the political clashes had for more than half a century, the match between the Domadores and the Knockouts wouldn't need, in a first glimpse, any extra 'ingredient' to make it spicier; but that 'ingredient' exists and will be on the American corner: Pedro Roque.

Roque has been considered one of the most complete coaches in Cuban boxing. For more than two decades, 'Peter' - as he is called - helped in the training of both, professional and amateurs fighters, from Guillermo Rigondeaux to Héctor Vinent and Mario Kindelán. After yielding the leading position in the XV World Championship, held in Milan in 2009, the Cuban Federation decided to find aa subtitute for Roque. For some time, nothing was known about Roque. Finally, in 2012, USA Boxing announced that it had hired Roque to work as boss of the technical amateur collective, responsible of the Knockouts franchise.

Roque's presence with the Knockouts was commented by Sagarra: ''Peter was my trainee”. He decided to emigrate and live in USA, and that is an individual right we are all entitled to, the right to live wherever we want to. Now Peter's doing his job with the USA Knockouts and I am sure that both counterparts will give a fantastic show for boxing fans of the two nations.''

Roque could face a complicated situation. ''There will certainly be mixed feelings, because all those boxers who are now part of the team were once in my hands, they're almost my children, but I have the responsibility to give back the splendour American boxing once had and my work is focused on that goal'' he stated.

The Knockouts didn't show off in the past classification phase. For the first clash against the Cubans, American managers called five fighters from overseas, and two of them will be regular first- team players: the Chinese Lu Bin (49 kilograms) who got the World Youth Title in 2012 and the Dominican Carlos Adames (64 kilograms), bronze medal in 2013 Panamerican Championship; while Portorican Anthony Chacón (49 kilograms), Guatemalan Juan Reyes (56 kilograms) and Ecuatorian Mario Delgado (75 kilograms) will be reserve. The American Stephen Fulton (56 kilograms), Caleb Plant (75 kilograms) and Joshua Temple (91 kilograms) will also be regular first-team fighters.

Cuba is travelling to South Florida with a team of ten combatants being the regulars Yosbany Veitía (49 kilograms), Marco Forestal (56), Yasniel Toledo (64), Ramón Luis (75) and Erislandy Savón (91); and the reserves: Santiago Amador (49), Norlan Yera (56), Luis Oliva (64), Yasiel Despaigne (75) and Fran Sánchez (91).

The venue of Miami's duel is not yet confirmed, although it is suspected that it will be held in the American Airlines Arena (AAA), home of the current champions of the NBA: Miami Heat. In their classification matches, the Knockouts fought in the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, in the South -West of the city; but given the great interest that the match against the Domadores has arisen, it is quite possible that the WSB organizers make more pressure to get the AAA for its capacity for almost 20,000 people. The next combat will be in the Colisseum of the Ciudad Deportiva (Sport City) in Havana, hometown of the Domadores.

Favourite?

There is optimism about a Domadores' victory in Cuba. For José Luis López, ''Cuba must win the match without major setbacks, although the USA Knockouts has foreign players that have achieved great results in the IV World Series. I think this match's scoreboard will be 7 - 3, in favour of the Domadores''.

Sagarra was more cautious in his predictions: ''We will always think that our rivals are good, because when you think your rival is bad, that one will beat you. The boxing quality may vary from one season to the other. Now many are saying that they don't have good quality amateur fighters and I think it is a mistake to think like that. They do have good level sportsmen, apart from a fantastic historic and even when their athletes are moving towards professionalism, they do have enough talent to give good fights'' said the old coach

In the meanwhile, Roque chose not to take parts in the prediction: ''a clash against Cuba would be something important that would generate attention and would make us all proud: Cuban and Latin people in general, wherever they may be''

In the other three matches of quarter finals the Ukraine Otomans will fight against the Russian Boxing Team, a sport event that could also be of great political significance. The other fights will be Dolce & Gabbana Italia Thunders vs. Azerbaijan Baku Fires and the Astana Arlans Kazakhstan vs. Germany.

If the Domadores leave the Knockouts behind, as everyone expects here, they would clash in semi-finals with the winner of Ukraine vs. Russia.

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