The sociology of sport

To fight for the revolution or for money — tough choice facing Cuban boxers

 

A new film looks at Cuban boxers, some of the best in the world, and the wrenching choice that each must ultimately make.

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

Teofilo Stevenson — the pride of Fidel Castro’s revolution, the three-time Olympic boxing champ who turned down millions of dollars to defect to the United States and turn pro — didn’t know the camera was rolling. “Tell this guy he has to pay, or there is no interview,” he said in Spanish to his pal who had agreed to act as translator for the gringo director.

“But how much do we ask for?” replied the translator, keeping the conversation in Spanish.

“You tell me,” Stevenson shrugged. “You have experience in this. Give him a number.”

“I say we ask for $80, maybe $100,” the translator said, hopefully. “I’m broke.”

“OK, but I’m worse than you,” Stevenson reminds him. “And if he says no, there’s no interview.”

The director, New York-based Brin-Jonathan Butler, forked over the money and the interview continued. But nothing in it matched the candor or irony of those first furtive comments by the man who once breezily dismissed a contract to fight Muhammad Ali with the question, “What’s a million dollars for the love of eight million Cubans?”

The interview, the last one known to have been given by the 60-year-old Stevenson before he died this summer, can be seen in Butler’s forthcoming film Split Decision, which probes the paradox of a country that produces some of the most talented boxers in the world but doesn’t permit them to fight professionally: Should they stay on the island, fighting for the glory of the revolution and the appreciation of friends and family? Or bolt for the bling-and-babes life of champs in the rest of the world?

“It’s not an easy choice, and not everybody comes down the same way,” says Butler, who has just finished a rough cut of the movie and expects to screen it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “That’s why the film is called Split Decision. How can anybody make a choice like that? It requires more wisdom and more courage than I can imagine.”

NOT JUST BOXERS WHO MUST CHOOSE

The choice isn’t unique to the island’s boxers. “That’s a Rubicon that all Cuban athletes have to choose to cross, or not,” says Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price, author of Pitching Around Fidel, a 2000 book about sports under Castro. “Some athletes decide to stay, even though they’re critical of the regime, but they won’t leave their families — it isn’t a political decision. There are some who leave for economic reasons, some who leave because they want to get away from the government, and some who leave because they want to get away from their families.

“And there are certainly those who stay because they want to show support for the government.”

But the skill of Cuban boxers (they’ve won 34 Olympic medals over the past four decades) combined with the numbers who’ve fled the island in recent years (at least 54 are known to be fighting professionally, more than double the number of Cuban baseball players under contract in the United States) makes them a unique case.

“Cuba is becoming a significant force in professional boxing,” says Enrique Encinosa, a longtime Miami broadcaster and an editor at the online boxing encyclopedia Boxrec.com. “Cubans have won 13 world championships and the vast majority have come in the last 15 or 20 years.”

Cuba starts building its boxers from childhood, sending them at age 10 or 11 to live on a training camp known as La Finca — the farm — located outside Havana in the town of Bejucal. By the time they’re old enough to compete in the Olympics and other international tournaments, their skills have been honed in hundreds of bouts, a level of training unmatched anywhere else in the world.

But the resources invested in their intense training also make the government view them as tangible propaganda assets with a duty to honor the system that produced them.

“One of the complicated things about Cuba where athletics are concerned is that there are no superstars,” Butler says. “The system itself is the superstar. And it forces them to decide if not turning pro and collecting a lot of money is a greater sacrifice than the sacrifice of others who may have contributed to their success.”

Split Decision offers unusually intimate insight into this topsy-turvy mix of sports and ideology, including interviews with Cuban boxers — both inside and outside the country — who don’t often speak with the press. Butler, once an amateur boxer himself who began visiting Cuba regularly in 2000 to train, got the idea to make a film while working out in a gym with Hector Vinent, a former Olympic gold medalist. Suddenly Vinent pulled Butler close to whisper in his ear. “That’s the greatest boxer who ever lived,” he murmured.

“The guy who walked in turned out to be Guillermo Rigondeaux, who won two gold medals in the Olympics, but had been caught trying to defect during a visit to Brazil during the previous summer,” Butler says. “He was denounced as a traitor to the people and a Judas, and Fidel banned him from Cuban boxing forever.”

Rigondeaux, a bantamweight who at one point had won 140 matches in a row, wasn’t the island’s first boxer to try to defect since Castro banned professional sports on the island in 1961. But his attempt was the first to win widespread support from Cubans, at least on a public basis. “It turned out he was a canary in the coal mine — more people thought the Cuban revolution had betrayed him, rather than the other way around,” Butler says. “That fascinated me.”

STEVENSON AN ELUSIVE SUBJECT

Working covertly while using visas for tourism rather than journalism, Butler began assembling interviews. The most difficult to obtain was with Stevenson, legendary for both his prowess in the ring and his devotion to Castro outside it.

Once a treasured spokesman for the revolution and the place of sports in it, Stevenson had fallen on hard times. His acute alcoholism, though an open secret on the island, was not one the regime was willing to share with foreign journalists. And even when Butler tracked Stevenson down on his own, the boxer was erratic and unreliable.

“He scheduled interviews 10 times, then backed out of every one,” Butler says. “And I don’t remember him ever not being intoxicated when we talked, no matter how early in the morning it was … He’s been a very heavy alcoholic for many years. That’s not something Cuban state media wanted to let out. Just to show him in the state he was in was a political statement, an indictment. He was always an emblem of the success of the revolution, so his state now showed the frailty of that system and its broken promises.”

Stevenson even drank a half-bottle of vodka during the 9 a.m. encounter when he finally sat down with Butler for the interview that began with a demand for payment. Once he had his $100, the boxer continued bragging that fighting for any compensation beyond the honor of the revolution was a betrayal.

Butler, while acknowledging what he calls the “double-think” of the interview, says Stevenson’s argument was not without a certain nobility. “If people want to dismiss him as a hypocrite, they certainly can, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make,” Butler says. “His view — that the boxers who leave are forgetting the benefits they received from the revolution, that they were betraying its ideals — is held by a lot of people.”

Among those Butler interviewed at the other end of the spectrum was Rigondeaux, who became an unperson after attempting to defect. He tried again in 2009, this time successfully, and was soon fighting for world championships and purses of more than $100,000. Rigondeaux, who makes his home in Miami, scorned the idea that he had betrayed anybody.

“A traitor is someone who goes to war and joins a different army,” he told Butler. “But this is a sport. I never turned my back on Cuba to fight against it.”

The scenes with Rigondeaux are among Split Decision’s most intimate. They include Butler’s rollicking account of his trip to Ireland to watch Rigondeaux fight Irish champ Willie Casey. After being robbed of most of his cash, Butler was down to his last $1,000 and feared he wouldn’t be able to finish the film. He put all his remaining money into a bet that paid 20-to-1 odds if Rigondeaux could knock out Casey in the fight’s first round.

“When I told Rigondeaux what I was thinking about, he just waved his arm and said, “Sure thing! Bet your life savings!” Butler recalls. When a referee stopped the fight two and a half minutes into the first round, awarding Rigondeaux a technical knockout, Split Decision shows the fighter at ringside, playfully shouting at Butler: “Pay me now!”

But the film also shows shots of Rigondeaux’s wife and child in Havana, wistfully wishing they could join him, followed quickly by a scene of him hiding out with a new girlfriend in Miami.

“A lot of the boxers who leave, when I saw them later in the United States, just seemed like terribly sad figures to me,” Butler says. “They’ve lost everybody close to them, and often they’re being exploited by contracts with managers that they signed for $50 or $75 and which they barely understood … They are so well-equipped to fight in the ring, and so ill-equipped to function outside it.”

A DIFFICULT TRANSITION FOR ALL

Many longtime boxing observers agree with Butler that the transition from socialist hero to boxing superstar is shaky at best for young fighters fleeing Cuba. “You come from a system in which getting three meals a day is difficult and all of a sudden there’s money in your pocket and a McDonald’s on every corner, even something as simple as keeping on your training diet is very difficult,” says Miami banker and boxing historian Ramiro Ortiz.

But many take issue with the argument that the boxers are no better off in the United States than they were in Cuba.

“One of the first guys in the wave of boxers to leave Cuba in the past 20 years was Joel Casamayor, who won a medal at the Olympics when he was just a teenager,” says Encinosa. “It was, I think, the first Olympics where the winner got paid, and Casamayor brought a check for $25,000 to Havana. He told me later he’d never seen a check before, didn’t even know what it was. The boxing officials took it away from him and gave him his cut — $300!

“He hadn’t really been expecting any money, so he wasn’t too upset. But he was expecting a gift for winning. They told him it was outside, and he went out the door to see his car. Except it wasn’t a car, it was a Chinese bicycle. At that moment, Casamayor understood the difference between capitalism and communism without ever having read a single word of Milton Friedman.”

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