Boxing is a passion in Cuba, rivaling baseball as the country's national sport
Professional sport is outlawed in Cuba, but the country still produces world-class boxers
Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson won three golds between 1972 and 1980
The men's boxing event at London 2012 begins at London's Excel center on July 28
The stands around the boxing ring were mostly empty and the bout was a mere three-round exhibition fight, but Dlandy Regalado Ajete battled as if a title was on the line.
“If you want to be a great boxer in Cuba,” he said, moments after being declared the winner, “you have to be willing to work hard and sacrifice.”
Regalado’s drive isn’t unique for Cuba. Boxing, along with baseball, is a passion that runs deep for many of the island’s 11 million inhabitants.
And despite Cuba’s small population, the country has been a consistent force to be reckoned with at the Olympic Games, winning 32 gold medals in the sport.
Three of those golds went to Cuban boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson. Now 60 years old, Stevenson has lost the quickness in his step and he carries the scars of years of battle in the ring.
But his eyes still light up when he discusses the sport that made him a household name around the world.
“Cubans like to box because of our temperament,” Stevenson said, with a smile creeping across his lips. “Because of our idiosyncrasies and because we have needed to know how to defend ourselves.”
After the 1950s Cuban revolution, boxing was briefly banned by the country’s new leaders. But then – like all sports– it fell under the control of the government. Today that remains the case as there are no professional sports in Cuba.
In the 1960s, boxing trainers – many of them Soviet – were brought into work with fledgling talent such as Stevenson.
Cuban boxers’ amateur status let them compete in the Olympics, but not on the high profile –and high paying – professional fight circuit. Stevenson famously turned a million-dollar offer to fight Muhammad Ali.
Other Cuban fighters have chosen a different path, defecting and earning the huge purses not available to them in their home country.
Despite those losses, Cuba’s boxing commissioner Alberto Puig says there is a deep talent pool to draw from.
“Our strength comes from the heart, from patriotism,” he said. “Our boxers may not have a million dollars but they have 11 million Cubans who support them.”
Puig said despite the country’s legacy of great boxers, he expected countries like Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to provide strong competition at the 2012 Olympics in London.
He believes Cuba’s advantage comes from the government’s ability to identify and cultivate emerging talent at a young age.
“We can say with total certainty that in the farthest corner of Cuba if there’s a talented boxer we know about him and are following his progress,” he said. “So that maybe one day he might join our national team.”
The Rafael Trejo boxing gym in Havana is one of the places where young boxers receive that encouragement from a young age. The students receive lessons as early as eight years old in the gym’s open-air ring.
While the facilities are threadbare, the instruction they receive is world class.
Two-time Olympic gold medal winner Hector Vinent Charon runs the gym, teaching the children how to throw and take a punch.
“What makes Cubans different is the intelligence that we fight with,” he said, “Our aggression, our tactics and the way we move.”
Vinent said most of the children at the Trejo are boxing as an after-school activity. They will pick up the basics of boxing and confidence while never achieving greatness in the ring.
Boxing teaches them skills, he said, they can use in their everyday life.
“We teach them the elements of boxing but also patriotism,” he said. “How you act in the classroom or on the street. It’s not just boxing.”
Vinent is looking for young fighters with drive and something to prove.
Because there among the gangly youths bobbing and weaving in his classes, Vinent said, could very well be Cuba’s next champion of the ring.