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 Stevensons argument was not without a certain nobility. If people want to dismiss him as a hypocrite, they certainly can, but that wasnt 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 Decisions most intimate. They include Butlers 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 wouldnt 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 fights 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 Rigondeauxs 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. Theyve lost everybody close to them, and often theyre 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 theres money in your pocket and a McDonalds 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 hed never seen a check before, didnt even know what it was. The boxing officials took it away from him and gave him his cut $300!
He hadnt really been expecting any money, so he wasnt 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 wasnt 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.