VERONA, N.Y. – For more than 40 years, some of Cuba’s finest athletes, boxers and baseball players, have sought to flee their restrictive island nation for the shimmering promise of a better life in America or elsewhere. If they could just cross 90 miles of open and potentially hazardous water without being detained or apprehended, their dreams of freedom, not to mention the kind of wealth unimaginable in their Communist homeland, might be fulfilled. A few made it, on makeshift rafts or by procuring illegal passage on somewhat more seaworthy vessels. Others simply walked away from Cuban national touring teams and never returned.
But escape was never a sure thing, and there was often a steep price to pay for even making the attempt. Death by drowning was always a possibility for those who took to the sea. So, too, was capture and censure that stripped plotters of what little they had.
“You are a champion, and it means nothing,” Guillermo Rigondeaux, a two-time Cuban Olympic champion, said in the Feb. 17, 2014, issue of ESPN The Magazine of his seven failed bids to reach the United States before succeeding on the eighth such try. “We are like dogs. After all your time is over, you end up telling stories on a street corner about how you used to be a star.”
For his refusal to accept the impositions placed upon him, Rigondeaux was incarcerated for a time and his most prized possession, a car, was seized. He also was officially stripped of his status as a national hero. But Rigo’s persistence served as a tale of reward as well as risk to other Cubans who might dare to follow him; in the U.S., he went on to capture two world professional titles in the super bantamweight division, a distinction unavailable to so many other great Cuban fighters who have been prohibited from turning professional since 1959, when the Fidel Castro’s Revolutionary government banned pro sports as being somehow subersive.
In 2009, another Cuban fighter of some renown, heavyweight Luis Ortiz, was faced with a similar decision. Stay or go? Since he was a child, watching fuzzy black-and-white images of Muhammad Ali on his family’s small television, he had fantasized of becoming heavyweight champion of the world – the real heavyweight champion. So he bribed his way onto a speedboat captained by a sufficiently shady character, made his way to Mexico and, ultimately, to Miami, Fla., a city with a heavily Cuban section appropriately called “Little Havana.”
At 36, Ortiz (24-0, 21 KOs) hardly can be described as boxing’s hot new discovery. But, in a way, he is just that. The 6-foot-4, 239-pounder took another step toward becoming the first Cuban to win a widely recognized heavyweight championship as a pro when he scored an electrifying, seventh-round technical knockout of highly regarded Philadelphian Bryant “By-By” Jennings (19-2, 10 KOs) here Saturday night at the Turning Stone Resort Casino.
By virtue of his victory, Ortiz – who is ranked No. 1 by the WBA – retained his virtually worthless WBA “interim” belt, the existence of which seems purely arbitrary when one considers that the WBA already has a “super” heavyweight champion (England’s Tyson Fury) and a “regular” heavyweight champion (Uzbekistan’s Ruslan Chagaev). But winning as impressively as he did, in the main event of an HBO “Boxing After Dark” telecast, has to move the man known as “The Real King Kong” closer to a title shot at either Fury (25-0, 18 KOs), who also holds the WBO, IBO, The Ring magazine and lineal crowns, or WBC champ Deontay Wilder (35-0, 34 KOs), of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
“I want to fight the best. Line them up. I’ll fight them all,” said Ortiz, who added he’d be more than pleased to fight Fury or Wilder as soon as possible. “HBO and Golden Boy (Ortiz’s promotional company) will decide. But I think I deserve to be there (at the front of the line for either) because I am one of the best out there.”
Ortiz’s breakthrough performance seems even more significant if stories about his physical condition in the days leading up to Saturday’s bout are accurate. To hear Ortiz’s trainer, Herman Calcedo, tell it, Ortiz spent six of the 10 days leading up to the fight in bed, battling a flu bug that proved more of an obstacle to be overcome than Jennings presented inside the ropes.
“He was really a mess,” Calcedo said of Ortiz, who kept his illness a secret and was determined to go through with the fight no matter what. “He couldn’t do anything. He had a fever, congestion, a runny nose and a cough. We went against the doctor’s orders and took nothing (by way of medication). But we told everyone we had to (including the Oneida National boxing commission) that Luis was sick.”
In addition to overcoming Jennings and that nasty flu bug, Ortiz was determined to restore his reputation as a clean fighter, which took a hit following his Sept. 11, 2014, first-round stoppage of Nigeria’s Lateef Kayode, an outcome that was subsequently changed to a no-decision when Ortiz tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. Ortiz claimed the test result was the result of having ingested horse meat, which is frequently infused with Nandrolone and is a not an uncommon part of many Cubans’ diets.
WBA officials apparently believed Ortiz, for he was allowed to fight again for that organization’s “interim” heavyweight title on Oct. 17 and he again claimed it with a third-round knockout of Argentina’s Matias Ariel Vidondo in Madison Square Garden, a bout also televised by HBO.
With a reported 343-19 amateur record that includes the 2006 Cuban heavyweight championship and the 2005 Pan American Games heavyweight gold medal, Ortiz had unquestionably established himself at the quasi-elite level before he took a leap of faith and made his way to America. But no one in Cuba or anywhere else was ready to anoint him as the best of the best of Cuban big men, nor are they now. It’s just that, well, he appears to be the right guy in the right place at the right time to possibly make history.
With a current population of just 11.27 million, or 0.035 percent of the United States’ population of 318.19 million, it can be reasonably argued that Cuba produces more great fighters per capita than any country. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that placed Fidel Castro in power, the small Caribbean island had produced six world professional champions, including International Boxing Hall of Famers Kid Gavilan, Eligio “Kid Chocolate” Sardinas, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez and Sugar Ramos.
But, beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics – the first Olympiad in which Cuba elected to compete – the success of Cuban boxers almost staggers the imagination. Since that time, Cuba has come away with 34 gold medals, 17 silvers and 14 bronzes, numbers which surely would have increased had not Cuba boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games for politically motivated reasons.
Of the three fighters to have taken gold medals in three Olympics, two are Cubans – legendary heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson (1972, ’76 and ’80) and Felix Savon (1992, ’96 and ’00). Hungary’s Laszlo Papp is the other.
In all of boxing history, one only Olympic champion, American heavyweight Pete Rademacher, made his pro debut by fighting for a world professional title. Rademacher, who took gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was knocked out in six rounds by champion Floyd Patterson on Aug. 22, 1957.
Two of the most intriguing bouts that never happened might have seen Stevenson and Savon achieve what Rademacher didn’t. There was some talk of pairing Stevenson against an aging Ali, which would have been a huge global attraction, and it wasn’t all idle gossip. Longtime boxing publicist Bill Caplan said the Cuban government was receptive to the idea, provided the fight not take place in the U.S. (the likely landing spot was Rio de Janeiro). But the man who was trying to put the deal together, Ben Thompson, mysteriously vanished and no one stepped forward to take his place.
Similar speculation that Mike Tyson might share a ring with Savon was more of a pipe dream, but that bout also would have been immensely attractive had it come off. Stevenson and Savon could have forced the issue had they joined the ranks of Cuban defectors, but they were committed to Castro’s socialist policies and frequently expressed their contentment at remaining in the land of their birth.
While Ortiz is one of several successful Cuban pros in recent years, joining the likes of lower-weight stars such as Rigondeaux, Joel Casamayor and Yuriokis Gamboa, among others, Cuban heavyweights who bolted have been unable to make that breakthrough to the very top. Jorge Luis Gonzalez was knocked out by WBO champion Riddick Bowe in six rounds on June 17, 1995, and Odlanier Solis didn’t even make it out of the first round against WBC titlist Vitali Klitschko on March 19, 2011.
Now along comes Ortiz who, he proudly notes, shares the same birthday (March 29) as the legendary Stevenson, who was 60 when he died of a heart attack on June 11, 2012. Upon the occasion of his death, the British Boxing Corporation pronounced Stevenson as “Cuba’s greatest boxer, and once its most famous figure after Fidel Castro.”
“Yes, of course. They were my idols,” Ortiz said when asked if Stevenson and Savon had had an influence on his career. “In Cuba, they’re everybody’s idols.”
The world as it was is changing, and some of those changes could present the kind of opportunities for Ortiz, or maybe some future Cuban heavyweight, that weren’t available to Stevenson and Savon. The Obama administration has taken steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, or at least reduce decades-long tensions, which could mean the end of dangerous flotillas on rafts in shark-infested waters. It could even mean Ortiz fighting for, or even defending, a world heavyweight championship in Havana.
“It’s a dream of his,” Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez said of Ortiz’s desire to return to his homeland as a conquering hero. “Obviously, with the history of heavyweights in Cuba, with Stevenson and Savon, it would be big – and I mean BIG. We’ve talked about taking him back to Cuba when the time is right. It’s not right yet, but it’s getting there.”
Gamboa (25-1, 17 KOs), a former WBA and IBF featherweight champion, defected while training in Venezuela, making his way to Germany and then on to the U.S. He fought on the Ortiz-Jennings undercard, scoring a 10-round, unanimous decision over Hylon Williams (16-2-1, 3 KOs). But leaving Cuba now does not necessarily mean that Cuban athletes can never go back.
“I trained in Cuba,” he noted, a prodigal returning to home, if only for a little while.