A Cuban experience
The sun breaks through the cracks between buildings on the cobbled and potholed road as I walk through the backstreets of Havana. A man in search of the national institution and centre of excellence of Cuban boxers – the Rafael Trejo Gimnasio de Boxeo. A place that’s produced and honed multiple Olympic and World Champions.
Asking along the way in broken Spanish for ‘el Trejo’, everyone knows – old ladies selling chillies, men selling bananas – where the Trejo is. Resisting being beckoned into make-shift bars for a Cubano cigar or Mojito I continue on my pilgrimage to this institution.
Knowing what time workouts are due to start I begin to speed up. 11am prompt I arrive at the gym. The time a Briton in this part of the world would have done their roadwork and be resting before the sun reaches its peak. In Havana, now the gym starts to come alive, ladies first, juniors; then the men. At this time of the day Cuban fighters come to work. This is what separates them from the eastern European and US fighters when it comes to the final round and when the medals are handed out.
I get to the entrance, the lady on the desk says “uno mas hora (one more hour). She points me to ‘the boss’ in her office – a Cubano madam who has seen champions and contenders come and go, too many years I care to mention. The first lady repeats “Come back in an hours time and pay her”. I disappear and take in the sun, but for now resist that Mojito.
I return in exactly an hour as directed, to the buzz of the gym as eight fighters get ready for their workout. I pay my Cuban peso and enter the roofless outside square. The Trejo is a place to behold, a home of champions and hopefuls.
I watch for an hour and more as these young, and not so young hopefuls go through their routine. A bit of jogging, light shadowboxing and fooling around, and then; full on sparring. All as the sun continues to rise and beats down on the sparingly sheltered ring. This environment is what separates this nation from their contenders…what makes the Cuban amateur boxing programme the envy on the world.
They come from villages across this crocodile shaped island to La Habana, the mecca for Olympic selection and the dream of travel to far flung places; and to some, eventual defection to the US. The dreams of many fulfilled by very few. For every Stevenson, Savon, Balado and Gamboa there are hundreds who return to their villages to a normal Cuban life.
But it is the love of the flag, el Commandante (Fidel) and the state that drives them in their early boxing lives. A successful fighter (aka gold medallist) is well looked after. Three times Olympic Champion Teofilo Stevenson’s legendary status was enhanced by his refusal to defect and take the millions of dollars on offer to fight Muhammad Ali. The ‘ultra-hero’ and model of state dedication to all Cubans of a certain vintage. Teofilo was well looked after and revered throughout his career as the flagship of the state system.
And so, as we close in on another Olympic cycle the honour of the nation is at stake again. Now a much more competitive playing field with the break up of the Soviet Union and eastern block. Cubans though again will be the ones to beat. The sheer depth of quality, desire and drive coupled with their state run coaching programme will ensure they are primed to deliver in Tokyo next summer.
An hour after leaving the Trejo I carefully navigate the Havana backstreets after that Mojito I denied myself earlier. I come across a fighter I saw train in the gym. He recognises me and shows me photos of his young children, he tells me he’s a two times World champion. I struggle to recognise his claim or a name to confirm my familiarity. I know a reason why he is showing me pictures but money is not mentioned. I know he seeks recognition outside his island and any pesos coming his way would be welcome. I don’t know his story or understand due to the language barrier, but I know his dream will be Olympic glory and the riches that may ensue.
The new Joel Casamayor maybe, but one thing I know he will do it first for the family and village honour; and foremost Cuba Libre.
Robert Harding 30/8/19