People lament that this is no Golden Age of boxing writing. Hogwash, I say.
Ok, maybe not Gold, but Silver perhaps. Some of the stuff on the Net doesn’t get love because we are a more fringe sport than back in the day. But the cerebral treatments of the sweet science from mere “bloggers” is a head above most of the uninspired stuff you used to see in big city dailies. And you also see some rock-solid journalism and wordsmithery out there, if you know where to look. I recommend writer Brin-Jonathan Butler; principled, intelligent, and can collect big picture thoughts and philosophy and render it accessible. He has a new book out, “The Domino Diaries,” which I asked him about.
What brought you to cover boxing so much? Why boxing?
When I was 11 ran into an incident with bullying that turned into a swarming that drastically impacted my life. I was afraid to leave my front door for the next three years. By accident I caught an interview with Mike Tyson talking about his history with bullying and how it traumatized and tormented him and humiliation defined much of his childhood. Boxing was his way out. At that point I knew nothing about boxing but Mike Tyson was obviously one of the most nightmarishly intimidating figures in the world. It turned out he’d created that image as a construct on the basis of what a world class victim he’d been as a kid. After watching that interview, the next day I went to two places I’d never been before on my own: a boxing gym and a library. Both of these places inexorably changed and saved my life. The courage and generosity of boxers as a group is something that marked me for life. That initial admiration I felt for them only increased as I got more and more access to understanding them both as an amateur boxer and later on interviewing so many luminaries in the sport: Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, and Guillermo Rigondeaux and many others. Incredible people doing things I never cease to marvel at.
Why Cuba…what about it lured you?
Cuba had many of the best boxers in the world turning down millions to leave and it had Ernest Hemingway for the last 20 years of his life along with the highest literacy rate in the world to appreciate my other passion besides boxing: literature. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet what I’m most gluttonous for. Also, I think a lot of writers feel like advocates for the underdog in a fight. Cuba picked a fight with the most powerful nation on earth and, somehow, managed to keep going for well over 50 years. My own lens into that struggle was meeting many of their finest fighters from the 1970s all the way to young kids who were already national champions tempted by vast fortunes to come to the states. Conflict was all over the place with nearly every life you encounter lived at the extremes. Also, nobody enjoys a party more than Cubans. It’s a place and a people who only get richer the more you try to bring something of value to the equation with understanding and keeping your ears and heart open to really listen. Cuba doesn’t get much of that in our society and I think it’s a shame.
And Cuba now being opened up…will it improve things for them, or screw em up, make em more like us, in a bad way? Will it be no longer true that “every Cuban is a good mechanic?”
Where the Bay of Pigs failed to topple the government, tourism may prove to be the fatal invasion at least in terms of toppling how the society functioned. All Cubans want change, but tourism is always a mixed blessing. Where does the money go? It helps many and divides a great deal for everyone else. I think on the whole, given what my friends back on the island are telling me, the divide is growing between have and have nots and it’s made the island for many Cubans a less hospitable place to remain. Then again, I’m confident Havana couldn’t become anything else even if it wanted to. From 1492 until Fidel took power, there wasn’t a single Cuban steering the ship. They’ve struggled through some inhumanly tough times since then but I’ve never met a more courageous, proud, decent people than them. So I’m very hopeful they can find their own way with the changes that are so desperately yearned for. But will it be easy? Not a chance.
Rigo…has America corrupted him…too many whisperers in ears of promises of more and better?
Rigondeaux was the saddest face I ever encountered in Cuba and it looked even worse when I met up with him in the United States. He’d been disowned by his father and his mother had died back home. He was forbidden to return for her funeral. He’d also left behind a wife and two children. I wondered how much money would it take to offset the searing agony of what was required of him to just step foot on American soil after what he described as the most traumatic experience of his life traveling in a smuggler’s boat at gun point. Cubans are the most expensive human cargo on earth. One of the reasons I sought to tell his story was the fact that slaves were first brought to Cuba in 1520 and, even today, human beings are bought and sold on the marketplace for top dollar when they flee to the United States. Guillermo Rigondeaux, along with tens of thousands of other men, women, and children each year, had to endure grotesque torment no people should ever have to endure. The decision these Cubans make is the real villain and I place the blame on policies on both sides of the 90 miles separating Cuba and the US.Rigo gets a fair bit of criticism in the media for a being a safety-first fighter in the ring… this man risked his life and left behind everything he ever cared about just to have a chance to step inside a ring. And there’s nothing unique about his dynamic compared to all the other Cubans who left the island to gain opportunity in the US.
Have any of your takeaways of your time there changed since you finished the book? What do you want, ideally, for the reader to take from your fine book?
My biggest takeaway from arriving in Cuba was how nothing I’d read prepared me for the reality of what I encountered. That made me question a lot about where I come from and our values feeling threatened by Cuban society. If money isn’t the bottomline to fulfillment and happiness and success human beings have to calibrate those things in other ways that I believe are vital and we could learn something from. Family, community, compassion, decency where things I found in incredible abundance in Cuba despite enormous hardships. Women felt safe and valued without advertising struggling to make them feel awful and inadequate without consuming some product. I was told to prepare for the poverty of Cuba before I first visited. On a materialist level, that’s absolutely true. If you look in a lot of other ways though, what you discover the poverty we have back home in terms of so many things we’ve lost that don’t make good headlines because they essentially are fine print unless you’re living them. You simply can’t look at the struggle of Cuban boxers without looking at the dignity and courage of all Cubans struggling and it’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve been privileged to witness and share with this book the best I could.”
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