Guillermo Rigondeaux' journey from Cuba, to here and now, to being regarded as one of the best pugilists on the planet, deserves a book.
And what do you know, Brin-Jonathan Butler, an empathic, persistent and talented journo who sees the boxing beat as one most ripe for provocative and evocative stories such as Rigo's, agreed.
His "A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, From Castro's Traitor To American Champions" drops June 3, in bookstores and online. I chatted with the writer, to get a better sense of why he fixated on this subject.
Question from Michael Woods: Tell me how the book came about.
Answer from Brin-Jonathan Butler: The book really came about after I met Guillermo Rigondeaux in a Havana boxing gym in 2007, at the height of his political radioactivity. His failed attempt at defection only a few months before was such an enormous deal in Cuba that Fidel Castro had personally branded him a traitor and "Judas" to the Cuban people. I was training at Rafael Trejo's gym as an amateur boxer and he showed up and it was as if a silent alarm went off and everybody froze. I approached him at the entrance of the gym and to make small talk asked about the gold over his front teeth and he calmly explained he'd melted both his Olympic gold medals into his mouth. That moment was my gateway drug into his story.
Q) Give us a quick bio blast about you, please.
A) I started training in Cuba as an amateur boxer back in 2000, working with two-time Olympic gold medalist Hector Vinent for many years. I used boxing over there as a kind of Rosetta Stone into Cuban culture and politics and then tried to do the same thing with the United States following Rigondeaux and other Cuban athlete's exploration of the American dream via smuggler's boats. From some articles I placed in Salon, an offer of a book deal came from Random House, which led me to two books I've worked on over the last year or so with Picador. The first is A Cuban Boxer's Journey, focussing on Rigondeaux, and the second is called The Domino Diaries, a memoir about my 12 years worth of visits to Cuba living, boxing, and writing.
Q) What was the most surprising thing you learned and you share in the book?
A) The first slaves were brought to Cuba as far back as 1520, after the domestic population of Cuba had been almost completely eradicated by Columbus and company through slavery, genocide, starvation, and suicide. Today, human beings are bought and sold over the same waters nearly five hundred years later. This industry is more lucrative and thriving than ever before. Cuban athletes are the most valuable human cargo on earth.
Q) What should the reader takeaway be, ideally?
A) While more Cuban athletes than at any other time are risking their lives to abandon everything they've ever known in their homeland, less than 1% since 1959 have left. The book is an attempt to understand Cuba's answer to "Sophie's Choice." Instead of the focus being on whether who is right or wrong in making the choice to leave, I tried to explore the human cost on both sides of the shark infested 90 miles of the insidious choice itself.
Ordering info here.