What I remember most is the boy in the blue flowered shorts. He looked no older than nine as he stood in the corner and stared at gloves bigger than his head. When the coach yelled, “Box” he danced to the center with one hand poised to jab, the other held higher and back to protect his face. He was small but mugged with every bit the moxie of Mohamad Ali.
The match took place in a gym tucked behind an archway in a squalid Old Havana neighborhood–formerly the red light district. A simple government sign gimnasio de boxeo Rafael Trejo was the only marker for one of the oldest and most prestigious boxing schools in Havana. I assumed Trejo was a former boxer, one of Cuba’s many champions, but I was wrong. Rafael Trejo was a revolutionary killed in 1930 during an uprising against the dictator, Geraldo Machado. The name was a marriage of Cuba’s two passions: boxing and revolution.
As we walked through the alcove and into the open air gym, I stopped to look at the photos of the champions: Kid Chocolate, Luis Galvani, Orlando Martinez, Jorge Hernandez, Felix Savon. Next to them was a photo of Nelson Mandela visiting the gym with Fidel Castro. The message was clear: Boxing is important to Cuba, and Cuban boxers are champions.
Famously, in the boxing world at least, Felix Savon turned down a lucrative payday to fight Mike Tyson. “What do I need 10 million dollars for when I have the backing of 11 million Cubans.” Since Castro outlawed professional sports in the early 1960s, boxers were compensated with housing or clothes or proceeds from selling their gold medals to tourists. Otherwise, like most Cubans, they scraped by. Savon became a legend.
The back courtyard was small, surprisingly so given the gym’s status. A ring dominated the center–a chest-high platform lined with red ropes under a canopy of corrugated tin. A tattered canvas floor was patched in places and ripped open in others. Fuzzy grey felt, which looked like horse’s hair, poked through the holes. To the left of the ring, boxers pounded a pair of punching bags. Spartan apartment buildings on either side formed the enclosure along with fifteen or more rows of bleachers lining the back.
Music blared. Neighbors sat in their windows and watched. One man wore a ribbed, white tank top and smoked a cigarette. An old woman in a nightgown watched from across the courtyard. It was another hot and humid day, the type which unfolds slowly especially when there’s live boxing to watch. Plastic shopping bags clipped to clothes lines fluttered in the wind—washed, dried, and ready for reuse. There was no glass in any window, not a single pane.
The coach, who introduced himself as Pedroso, reminded me of younger Morgan Freeman with a wrinkled brow and easy, wide smile. He brought one boy up to meet me. “This is Junior Barbaro. He will be our next Olympian.”
Junior appeared about fourteen-years old and seemed confused how to respond when I put out my hand to shake his. “Good luck,” I offered. He scowled. I noticed him earlier leading cheers at the beginning of the day. He was tall and lanky with dark hair cropped short on the sides—a handsome kid in spite of his tough demeanor. While others wore slip-on boat shoes and cheap knock offs, Junior wore real boxing shoes—a few inches up past the ankle. When he walked, he strutted.
I ask Armando how Junior got the money for boxing shoes. “No doubt he has a sponsor. Perhaps a wealthy person in the community. Or the school has purchased them. This school is one of the best.”
In the ring, pairs of boys sparred while Pedroso looked on. Nothing escaped him in or out of the ring. He shouted instructions or stopped the match when too many punches landed to the head. When two spectators shouted something he deemed inappropriate, Pedroso admonished them. The boys flinched as his words landed as sharply as punches. Pedroso immediately swiveled back and refocused on the match.
Around the ring, tiger mothers dressed in hot pants with flashy tank tops cheered. Fathers moved to the side of the ring and thrashed their arms—air boxing. As soon as the fight ended, mothers hugged their sons. One boy buried his head to hide his tears. A father came over and replayed the match, throwing short punches peppered with feedback, “Like this. See. Like this.”
It seemed as though everyone shared the dream, and why not? Families around the world–in little league parks and community swimming pools, on football fields and cricket pitches–pursue this same dream. And for most, even in Cuba, the prize rests exclusively in the pride of being the best.
Let’s return to the boy in the blue flowered shorts. He, I assert, was an anomaly. The poorest neighborhoods in the poorest American cities appear sponsored by UnderArmour and Nike. Coming from a brand-obsessed culture, I was amazed that Cubans were unencumbered by brand awareness and unfazed by flowered shorts. My memories of that young boy will stick with me for a long time
As we walked back to the bus, in the rubble of a corner lot, a man sat in a beach chair and roasted a whole pig over a fire pit. Two of the boxers stopped to watch him. A few of the photographers snapped quick pictures as we ran to catch the bus. When I looked back, the boxers were still standing there, staring—lost in their dreams.
Categories: Central America