HAVANA TIMES — Cuba and the United States, two of the most bitter political enemies the world has known in the last 50 years, will have a chance to “fight it out” in a few days’ time, when boxing teams from the two countries meet in the ring for the World Series Boxing (WSB) quarterfinals.
These matches will revive the tradition of the so-called “bilateral finals” of the 70s and 80s, when the countries’ best boxers fought alternatively in the United States and Cuba and staged matches that are still remembered by many.
The balance was heavily in favor of Cuba until 1988, when the last match between the two countries was staged in Atlantic City.
At the time, there were unofficial rumors that trainers would tell Cuban boxers that, should they be defeated by an American, they would never again be part of Cuba’s official boxing team. Though not entirely true, this was surely a means of giving boxers a bit of added incentive.
No Cuban boxing team has set foot in the United States since the 1999 Houston World Championship, an experience which was far from positive for Cuba, which left early unsatisfied with the decision of the judges and voiced explicit complaints about how its boxers had been harassed with offers from professional trainers.
But if such tensions aren’t enough, the technical director selected by the United States for this sporting event (to take place on March 28 in Miami and April 4 in Havana) is none other than Pedro Roque, considered one of the best trainers in the history of Cuban boxing, where he worked over several decades.
In fact, for over 20 years, Roque was the head trainer for young Cuban boxers and coached such Cuban amateur and professional boxing luminaries as Joel Casamayor, Guillermo Ridondeaux, Ariel Hernandez, Hector Vinent and Mario Kindelan, to mention only a few.
In 2008, the International Boxing Association named him best trainer in the world, but, the following year, when Cuba lost first place at the Milan World Championship and a considerable number of Cuban boxers left the team to sign professional boxing contracts, he was dismissed from his post.
Months later, Roque retired, immigrated legally to Mexico and crossed the border to the United States, where in 2012 he was appointed head trainer of an amateur boxing team and entrusted with the USA Knockouts franchise.
His presence as the manager of the US team will turn the sporting event into something resembling Kramer vs. Kramer or a fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. In recent years, Cuban athletes have confronted rivals who have been trained by Cubans, most of them working “legally” in Latin American countries. This will be the first time, however, in which they confront a Cuban at the head of a US team.
In truth, it is not exactly an “all-USA” team, as the franchise is full of imported talent, including a number of Latin American boxers. This does not take any of the tension away, however, for Roque was a trainer for the opposite camp not long ago.
What’s more, Roque told the Miami press that he is thinking of getting help from other Cuban-born trainers like Pedro Luis Diaz and established boxers like Rigondeaux, Odlanier Solis and Yudel Johnson, pugilists who left Cuba in recent years.
As far as Rigondeaux goes, it remains to be seen whether he does not hold any grudges over the fact Roque did not stick up for him when he (and Erislandy Lara) tried to abandon Cuba’s sporting delegation during the 2007 Rio de Janeiro Pan-American Games. The two boxers were expelled from the Cuban team as a result of this and their trainer was not at all helpful in this connection. Some time has gone by, however, and perhaps there are no hard feelings, or the boxers understand that Roque did what he had to do to save his job at the time.
“A match with Cuba would be something important that would get people’s attention and fill all Cubans and Latinos with pride, wherever they are,” recently said Roque, who headed Cuba’s boxing team during the 2007 Pan-American Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.There is so much expectation surrounding the match that executives from the American Airlines Arena have contacted the management of USA Knockouts to hold the fight in the current venue of Miami’s NBA Heat this coming March 28.“There’ll no doubt be mixed feelings, because the boxers who are members of Cuba’s selection today were once trained by me, they’re like my sons. However, I have the responsibility of giving US boxing its former splendor back and my work is aimed towards that goal,” the trainer declared.
Raul Fernandez, who acted as Cuba’s head trainer for the boxing match against Kazakhastan’s Astana Arlans, replied to these statements when the date of the match had been sealed.
“We’re going to give it our all. He may know Cuba’s boxing school and some boxers on the team, but he doesn’t know how the boxers have been prepared individually and the strategies for each separate fight.”
Alcides Sagarra, doubtlessly one of the most important trainers in Cuba and the amateur boxing world as a whole, also made a number of statements, saying:
“Like in past decades, there’s a lot of expectation because of how skilled the two teams are and the animosity that has existed between them over time. We took part in those bilateral matches for years and never lost. The United States only managed to tie us once. The matches were regular and awoke much interest in the public back then.”
Referring to the match from the perspective of the sport alone, Sagarra declared he does not believe it will be a cakewalk, even though Cuba is undefeated in its first WSB (9-0) and the United States (4-6) barely managed to qualify for the quarterfinals.
“Today, many people are saying the USA has no skilled amateur boxers, but I believe it’s a mistake to think that. They do have talented boxers and a long history in the sport. Even though their pugilists have tended to move towards professional boxing, they have more than enough talent to give us a good fight.”
As regards Roque’s presence at the event, Sagarra was more diplomatic:
“Peter was a student of mine. He decided to emigrate and live in the United States, and that’s an individual right we all have, the right to live where we wish. Now Peter is working for the USA Knockouts, and I am sure his team and ours will put on a good show in the ring for boxing enthusiasts in both our countries.”
From the point of view of boxing, all bets are on Cuba, which will send some of its boxing stars to the match. The United States must choose its team members, but overall they won’t be anyone’s favorite.
In the first round of matches in Miami, Cuba’s Yobany Veitia (49-kilogram bronze medalist at the last world championship), Yasniel Toledo (64-kilogram Olympic bronze and two-time world silver medalist) and Erislandy Savon (91-kilograms) are expected to win, no matter who their opponents are, while the United States’ hopes for victory lie with those who are to be pitted against 56-kilogram Marcos Forestal and 75-kilogram Ramon Luis, the least experienced of the Caribbean pugilists.
The second is to take place at Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva, where the remaining five divisions are to fight. There, bets are on Lazaro Alvarez (60 kilograms, two-time world champion and Olympic bronze), Roniel Iglesias (69 kilograms, Olympic and world champion) and Julio Cesar La Cruz (81 kilogram, two-time world champion), while the jury is still out on 52-kilogram Gerardo Cervantes and over 91-kilogram Yoandri Toirac.