Protective headgear has been the rule of the ring for more than 50 years in Cuba, which banned professional boxing shortly after the 1959 revolution.
Back then, professional boxing was deemed corrupting and exploitative, and the big purses not in line with socialist egalitarian ideals.
Now the island is on verge of relaxing the monopoly of amateur boxing by joining a semi-pro league in which athletes are paid by sponsors and fight pro-style bouts, but still retain the Olympic eligibility that is all-important to Cuban sports authorities. Boxers also would fight without the headgear they have grown accustomed to.
While officials caution that no decision has been made yet, it could offer island boxers a chance to earn more money, gain more exposure in high-profile competitions and help staunch the flow of defections that has robbed Olympic delegations of some of Cuba’s brightest talent and resulted in disappointing medal counts in recent years.
“It motivates me. It’s something new. It’s a challenge,” world amateur featherweight champion Lazaro Alvarez told reporters at a local tournament in an Old Havana gym. “I would really love to take part to be able to show the world what I am, what Cuban boxing is really all about.”
The World Series of Boxing was launched in 2010 by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and consists of a dozen teams in two divisions.
During four months of league play that begins each fall, semi-pro franchises, such as the Algeria Desert Hawks and the USA Knockouts, face off in home and away matches, with a post-season playoff in the spring.
Several teams are backed by national boxing federations, while others receive at least partial private sponsorship: the Dolce & Gabbana Italia Thunder team, for instance.
Fighters earn between US$1,000 and US$3,000 a month plus bonuses ranging from US$500 to US$2,000. Bouts are five rounds, unlike three in amateur, with a point system similar to the pros. That would mean a big raise for Cuban fighters, the most successful of whom collect lifetime stipends of between US$100 and US$300 a month after winning Olympic or world medals. Others presumably earn an amount closer to the national average salary of about US$20 per month.
In January, World Boxing Association president Wu Ching-kuo of Taiwan visited Cuba for talks with local authorities and announced that they were seriously considering their own franchise.
“We have all the elements so that those who must make a decision have the pros and cons,” Cuban Boxing Federation president Alberto Puig said.
Juan Hernandez, a 44-year-old four-time world amateur welterweight champion who now works as a trainer, was optimistic that the island would join the league and breathe life into the sport.
“Cuba seems to be close to taking part in the World Series,” Hernandez said. “I would have liked to participate in a tournament like that, of course. It’s a great challenge and opportunity for the boxers of today.”
If Cubans live for baseball above all other sports, boxing probably ranks second. The first bout took place in 1912 and the annals of Cuban greats include the likes of Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan, both winners of professional titles, plus other colorful names like “Lightning” Saguero, “Butter” Jose Legra, the “Las Tunas Kid” and “Puppy” Garcia.