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 theyre 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 dont 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. Thats 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, wasnt the islands 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 dont remember him ever not being intoxicated when we talked, no matter how early in the morning it was Hes been a very heavy alcoholic for many years. Thats 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.