Prior to Fidel Castro’s hostile takeover of Cuba in 1959, it had been an island paradise for the rich and famous. It was also a breeding ground for scores of championship fighters, including Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilan, Luis Rodriguez, Sugar Ramos and Jose Napoles. Once Castro thrust the country into a totalitarian regime, he compared the immorality and corruption associated with professional sports to the American organized crime networks that had flourished in the country prior to his ascension. Just a few years after taking over the country, he outlawed all professional sports.
If future Hall of Famers like Gavilan, Rodriguez, Ramos and Napoles or the extremely popular middleweight contender Florentino Fernandez chose to continue boxing, they would have to relocate to other countries such as the United States or Mexico. Even though they realized there was no guarantee that they’d ever see their beloved families again, they did just that.
Miami, Florida, which is only 90 miles from Havana, Cuba, became the newest breeding ground for Cuban boxing greats. As the boxers plied their trade, becoming fan favorites throughout America and beyond, they hoped to earn enough money to someday get their loved ones out of their beleaguered native country.
A powerful documentary film called “A Fighting Chance chronicles the pain, sorrow and desperation of Cuban boxers – then and now. It was written and directed by former TSS contributor Bobby Cassidy Jr., whose father, “Irish Bobby Cassidy, lost a split decision to Rodriguez in Miami Beach in 1971. The film was produced by Cassidy Jr., Fred Rosenberg, and David Schuster.
Shot on location in Havana, Mexico City, Miami, Atlantic City, New York City, and at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, the filmmakers spoke to scores of fighters, including the great Teofilo Stevenson, a three-time Olympic heavyweight gold medalist who Bob Arum once offered $10 million to box in the United States. Stevenson declined, prompting a reporter for the state newspaper to claim that the immensely proud Stevenson would rather have the love and adoration of 10 million countrymen than $10 million.
While the film succeeds in being extremely objective, there is no doubt that Castro’s presence still elicits fear amongst the country’s citizens. Stevenson was a polite and gracious host to the film crew, but he refused to grant the producers an “official on-camera interview. He only answered questions when the cameras weren’t rolling.
When Castro’s name was mentioned to Joel Casamayor, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist who defected on the eve of the 1996 Olympic Games, the usually stone-faced and outwardly fearless two-division professional champion immediately halted the interview and walked away from the camera. Even local people extolling the virtues of Communism insisted upon having their identities concealed.
The film offers a great social history lesson, even as it follows the current paths of top prospects Guillermo Rigondeaux, 5-0 (4 KOS), and Yuriorkis Gamboa, 18-0 (15 KOS), both of whom defected from Cuba despite being Olympic gold medalists. The featherweight Gamboa, who has appeared several times on HBO, left Cuba after being forced to sell his gold medal on the Havana black market so he could generate the funds to throw his beloved daughter a birthday party.
While local legends like Stevenson and fellow Olympic heavyweight champion Felix Savon, who have been described as the “twin pillars of the Cuban amateur system, and live in relative comfort in housing provided by the government, the defectors are a much greater source of national pride to the average Cuban.
Frankie Otero, who twice fought Ken Buchanan, recently visited his beloved homeland after living in Florida for many years. He emotionally described it as being like a once beautiful woman whose skin is now sagging, her beauty gone forever. He said he could still sense that the island’s people were still “proud and well-educated, but said he was unable to ignore the “desperation in the air.
Because HBO seems committed to developing the always exciting Gamboa into a network star, this compelling film would make a wonderful lead-in to one of his fights. Viewers who have grown weary of all of the shenanigans and dirty politics associated with the current state of the game, would realize that boxing is not just a sport that arguably exploits its participants.
In the cases of the Cuban fighters, the sport is so much more than a means to an end. It is very often the very basis for survival.