Lara gets advice from trainer Shields leading up to his scrap with Martirosyan. (Chris Farina)
It is training day.
Over in the corner of the expansive Plex fitness center, where athletes of all shapes and sizes travel from far and wide to hone their skills, sits a boxing ring. The blue floor remembers men who’ve already dared to grace it in its short life (Plex Boxing has only existed since summertime), and they are some of the very best fighters in the world.
This is Ronnie Shields’ gym, and Ronnie only trains the best.
Today, a slender but sturdy figure is sitting in a chair in front of him. Shields has wrapped the hands of some of the very best champions the sport has seen, men like Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker. Today is no different, even if people don’t yet recognize it.
Shields works slowly. The hands he wraps appear strong, but he cares for them carefully. He’s a surgeon, meticulously caring for his patient. It is a solemn affair. When one dares enter such a scene, he should be happy to be but glanced upon. It is a silent ritual.
Erislandy Lara waits patiently.
I snag pictures of the two as they work. It must be strange for them, a grown man sitting on the floor of the gym taking pictures of something they do every day, but I seem to go unnoticed. Lara’s eyes seem to drift…
There he lay, in the middle of the ocean. He is on a boat with twenty strangers. He is property of smugglers now, and soon they will realize who he is and how much more he is worth than the fifteen thousand dollars they first asked for.
For now, though, Lara waits.
The boat rocks back and forth. There are many ways to drift in the ocean and today the seas are choppy. The six-hour trip from Cuba to Mexico takes eleven more when trying to go unnoticed, partly because the travelers must wait for the safety of night. They must not be seen. They must not be caught. He must not be caught. Not again. Not this time. Not today. Today, he will escape Cuba. Today, he will be free.
Lara and Shields are up now. The two head over to the ring, and I’m waved over by Shields. It is time to shadowbox. Shields squares up to Lara, and the two begin a rhythmic dance across the floor. Lara stabs his strong southpaw jab out towards his trainer and follows it up with a short cross.
Back and forth, the two men go. Sometimes, Shields plays the aggressor, coming forward as Lara moves away effortlessly with counters.Sometimes, Shields is in retreat. Lara moves steadily in and out of range all the while. His wide stance would give tremendous power to his punches should this be more than just a dance, but he’s quick and nimble nonetheless.
He’s at his peak, this Erislandy Lara. At twenty-nine, his body is as fast and strong as it will ever be, and his skill level is as good as any competitor in the sport today. He’s been fighting all his life and it shows. He’s the real deal.
Lara was born in 1983, a product of one of the poorest areas of Guantánamo, Cuba. It is there he learned he’d have to fight for his life, one way or another. He never met his father. His mother, Marisol, struggled with alcoholism which left Grandmother Silvia with everything else. She did her best to keep tabs on young Lara and his sister, but she worked all day to try and make ends meet so the kids were often left to fend for themselves.
Such is life for the impoverished in Cuba.
On his own Lara learned to do what the other kids did. He’d brawl on the street, sometimes mimicking his country’s national heroes, sometimes out of sheer necessity. Often times, it was a bit of both.
When Grandmother Silvia died, Lara was just eleven years old, but knew he had to make a change in his life.
"She was my favorite person,” Lara told Tim Elfrink of miaminewtimes.com. “When she was gone, I had to do something different to cope with it.”
What was different was boxing. Yes, boxing is fighting, and to the untrained eye it may seem similar, but boxing is different. It takes the same kind of courage, but it also takes science and skill. It is a craft; a trade. The best boxers in the world treat the hammers of their fists with the scientific exactitude of a scalpel.
Lara began boxing in Cuba’s youth competitions, where his quick hands and natural instincts served him well long enough for old fashioned grit and determination to do the rest. Before he knew it, he was a teenager moving up the ranks and vying for Olympic spots on the best boxing team in the world.
Soon enough, Lara was captain of the Cuban national team and poised to become a national hero. He might have been considered one already, but no matter – soon enough he’d be ready to leave. Soon enough, he’d be labeled a traitor.
After three rounds of boxing shadows, Lara is ready to punch something real. Shields grabs two padded mitts and the two are back at it. Lara lets out grunts with each hard shot. Booms reverberate fiercely through the room as each punch makes its mark.
Three men stand near the corner, two nodding in improvement. One is Lara’s manager, Luis Decubas, Jr., who’s guided Lara’s professional career from near the beginning. The other is Lara’s strength and condition coach, Edward Jackson. Both men seem pleased with what their fighter is doing.
The other person in the corner is me, and I’m just trying to stay out of the way. Fight week is fast approaching.
“Everything is going as planned,” Decubas tells me. “We’ve been with Ronnie for three years now. It’s our tenth fight with him. We’re just doing what we do.”
Jackson concurs. Standing in the middle of one of the more impressive fitness centers the world has to offer (a place where elite NFL, MLB and NBA athletes surround us as we are speaking), Jackson remains unmoved. He’s an old school man training an old school fighter.
“A gym is a gym,” he says. “We’ve got what we need here. We need bags and a ring. We get the same work wherever we are. We could be out there on that football field. What we do is what we do.”
Lara comes over to the corner between rounds. He swishes water in and out his mouth and spits it into a big, rusty bucket. He’s working hard today.
Lara’s first attempt to defect from Cuba happened during the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil. One fateful evening, he and teammate Guillermo Rigondeaux slipped quietly past the guards (tasked with keeping them from doing such things) for a night on the town. Once out, they were met by German boxing promoter, Ahmet Oner, who had perhaps-not-so-coincidentally helped Yuriorkis Gamboa and Yan Barthelemy defect from Cuba a short time earlier.
After having a few drinks together and deciding to make their move to Germany that very night, the two would-be defectors were hidden away by Oner in a safehouse until they could be smuggled safely out of the country.
It was more difficult to escape than they thought.
The two languished for three weeks, fugitives in a strange land. Cuba worked diligently with Brazilian authorities to search for the missing boxers. In the end and contrary to popular belief, Lara and Rigondeaux decided to turn themselves in (they were never caught). What had seemed like a good plan turned to ruins in an instant alongside their careers as boxers for their home country of Cuba. Castro would not be pleased.
Upon their return, the two were branded traitors. Lara was stripped of his team captainship and placed on indefinite suspension (i.e., forever).The men were then confined to their homes, and earning enough money for even simple family necessities became more difficult than ever.
Being no longer allowed to participate in the sport he had mastered had its consequences, none of which more revealing than Lara being forced to sell the remnants of his 2005 World Championship run. What good is a boxing medal if you can’t eat?
“It was a pointless existence,” Lara later told Gerhard Pfeil.
He works out for around two hours today, but everything seems to move by so fast. After his ring work, Lara climbs through the ropes and heads over to the mat. He smiles and laughs with Decubas before reaffirming his scowl. There is still work to do. Now it is time for some stretching and core strengthening.
Decubas asks Jackson about how many crunches Lara does per day. Another fighter of his was asking, he says, and Decubas had never really thought about it.
Oh, I don’t know,” Jackson says. “Probably like six or seven hundred.”
The two keep talking and then I make a joke about how I did thirty or so myself yesterday at my local gym. Everyone laughs but Lara who is on the floor doing his routine at a fevered pace. He’s been doing crunches the whole time, likely meditating on his opponent’s promise to break his ribs come fight night.
Four months after Brazil, Lara was back at it. After making contact again with Oner and company, Lara decided he’d give it another go. This time, he said to himself, he’d make it no matter what. He’d do anything. He’d make it even if he had to do it alone. He’d make it even if he had to leave his family behind for now. He’d travel rough and choppy seas with twenty strangers under the cover of night if he had to, and he’d even pay the smugglers ten times the amount they had previously agreed upon to take him, but he’d make it.
“It was a very difficult decision to leave Cuba which is why it took me so long to leave, but I did it for the right reasons,” he told me after his six or seven hundred stomach exercises. “I did it to better my life and better my family’s life and that is what I’ve done. I came here to work hard and fight and obviously my ultimate goal is to move my family in Cuba over here to the United States.
Lara has four children. Two of his children remain in Cuba to this day, along with his mother who he keeps in contact with and hopes to have come to live with him now in the United States. His other two children are with him in Houston, where Lara now lives with his wife. The two met during Lara’s two-year, two-fight stint in Germany under the management of Oner. Lara says the two didn’t see eye to eye on important matters, so he signed with Decubas afterwards, who was then working with longtime fight manager Shelly Finkel, and moved to the United States. He lived and trained in Miami for a bit, but ultimately wanted to move to Houston so he could work with Shields more and have his family in a more hospitable environment.
Fight fans know the rest. He’s essentially undefeated, having only a draw versus the crafty Carlos Molina in what was Lara’s sixteenth professional fight paired with a disputed decision loss to Paul Williams that subsequently earned the judges of the bout unprecedented suspensions by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.
Lara is finished with his work for the day. I am motioned over by Decubas who tells Lara in Spanish who I am and why I am here today. We talk about a lot of things. He’s getting ready to take on undefeated prospect Vanes Martirosyan in the headliner bout of an HBO Boxing After Dark telecast scheduled for November 10 so there are no shortage of questions about it. How’s camp? What do you think of your opponent? Who do you want to fight next?
To finish things up though, I ask Lara about America: is it everything he thought it’d be especially in comparison to all he did to get here? The rough and choppy seas…the hours and hours of waiting…the smugglers and the strangers….was it all worth it?
“Yes, yes, yes,” he says without hesitation. “No question…it is more than I expected. It is the American dream. In this country, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. In America, we have freedom and opportunity.”
Lara is about ready to leave. He makes it a point to shake my hand not once but twice so I use my freedom and opportunity to ask him what it was like on that boat that and how it shapes his life today. Lara’s eyes drift again but this time he looks thankful.
“Being on the sea, not knowing whether you are going to live or die—whether I’d make it or not,” he says. “I’m grateful to God I was able to pass that stage of my life and now that is why I work so hard in this country to make the most out of my life. I believe that God put every human being on this planet for a reason.”
And after being at the gym with him for just a couple hours and listening to his story, I do think I agree because one way or another, Erislandy Lara was born to fight.