Cuba is the most successful athletic country in the world. No other country on earth has done so much with so little resources. The Cubans’ approach to Olympic sports, especially in boxing, is a testament to the adage that champions are made, not born.
Their dedicated sporting program, known as “La Finca,” is the result of politics as much as it is the dedication of generations of athletes contributing their time and knowledge to developing athletes. But will this intricate system survive the reopening of relations with United States?
On July 1, 2015, President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with the Republic of Cuba. The reopening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba is likely to transform the socialist Caribbean nation far more than the U.S. embargo ever did. And unlike the embargo, the changes are likely to have far-reaching positive social and economic impacts. The changes many have hoped for in the U.S. may be long-deferred dreams come true for some, but they may also unravel one of the most successful sporting programs in history.
Modeled after the intensive Olympic training program created by the former Soviet Union, given the limitations of size and money faced in Cuba, “La Finca” has proven to be more successful long term and per capita than what the USSR accomplished. The program recruits, houses and trains young boys and girls into athletic marvels. At the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Andre Ward [28-0, 15 KOs] broke an eight-year drought of boxing gold medals for the United States when he defeated Magomed Aripgadjiev from Belarus. Cuba had four boxing gold medals in the previous Olympic games and five the year Ward became the lone U.S. boxing medalist.
In the world of boxing, the Cubans were and are (at least for the present) a fierce and feared force. Two-time New York Golden Gloves champion, 2000 Olympic Team alternate and current host for Vice Sports Eric Kelly told us that if he had to fight a Cuban in a tournament, he “wouldn’t have made weight that day.” Although speaking at least partially in jest, Kelly’s words are a testament of how respected a force Cuban boxing has become.
Long before Fidel Castro came to power and the U.S. instituted its embargo, Cuba produced all-time great pugilists like Jose Napoles, Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo (better known as “Kid Chocolate”) and Gerardo “Kid Gavilan” González (the man who brought the bolo punch into the homes of countless Americans through broadcast television). But its contributions to the boxing world prior to the 1959 Cuban revolution pale in comparison to what has been produced since, at least in the amateur ranks.
In the professional ranks today, there are six mainstream (or nearly so) Cubans who are products of “La Finca”:
- Erislandy Lara: 21-2-2, 12 KOs — three-time Cuban National Champion
- Mike Perez: 21-2-1, 13 KOs — Runner-up 2005 World Cup, Cuban National Champion
- Odlanier Solis: 20-3, 13 KOs — Olympic Gold Medalist, three-time World Amateur Champ, two-time Pan-American Champ
- Guillermo Rigondeaux: 15-0, 10 KOs — two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, seven-time Cuban National Champion, 374-12 amateur record
- Yuriorkis Gamboa: 24-1, 17 KOs — Olympic Gold Medalist, four-time Cuban National Champion
- Yunieski Gonzalez: 16-1, 12 KOs — Cuban National Championship Runner-up, 345-27 amateur record
Each was once a child of Cuba who came into La Finca long before he hit puberty. These boxers trained to live and lived to train. In La Finca, boxing became a way of life for them. It’s that single-minded dedication that has produced the super-human abilities of Rigondeaux — and Savon and Stevenson before him. Rigondeaux’s name stands far above the rest on this list, both in the amateur and professional ranks. But the time each spent at La Finca has made each boxer feared, if not at least avoided foes in the pros.
If there is a consistent Achilles heel for Cuban fighters who defect to become professionals, it is the bright lights of abundance offered by the U.S. and other rich nations clamoring for Cuban athletic talent. While under the strict rules of La Finca and the financial limitations of Cuba itself, these fighters are forced into an austere and structured lifestyle that the greatest of successful champions have to work tirelessly to impose on themselves to keep focus. Once exposed to freedoms, possibilities and excess available outside of Cuba, many graduates of La Finca find it impossible to maintain focus.
Odlanier Solís, one of the few men to ever defeat the legendary heavyweight Felix Savon, is a prime example. He’s made an utter mockery of his potential and amateur reputation. Why? How? All reports seem to point in the same direction: He has lost all focus. He once lived in relative poverty, with the dank smells and heat of the boxing ring as his office. Food was controlled; training days long’ and friends, role models and entertainment all tied up somehow in boxing. Now, he seems to eat without regard for his profession and has forgotten the training and lifestyle that led him to so many amateur titles and acclaim.
The bounty of the U.S. is what many immigrants dream of. Families of all kinds come from far and endure all manner of pains, leaving the familiar for the potential this country has to offer. But that same freedom can be deadly to a fighter who needs to live a monastic lifestyle to be his or her best. Do you think Bernard Hopkins has continued collecting fame and championships into his 50s because he’s indulged in all the fruits this country has to offer? No, he’s broken all manner of records because he has rejected such decadence.
In 2003, in an interview with The Tribune, Teofilo Stevenson commented on why he didn’t defect from Cuba to turn professional with the prospect of a mega fight against Muhammad Ali in the wings:
As Cuba’s economy improves, as global entities like McDonald’s and Burger King invade (helping introduce the complexities of obesity among the poor), La Finca will face new and difficult problems. But ultimately, as globalization entwines itself into Cuban institutions and the country shifts toward the political center, the legalization of professional sports generally might be what derails Cuba’s legendary training system.Muhammad Ali (left) with Teófilo Stevenson (right)
Cuba currently does not allow professional sports. Its athletes compete for the glory of country — or so the national rhetoric goes. With the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the aging of the old guard in Cuba (Fidel Castro hasn’t helmed the country in nearly a decade, and his increasingly liberal brother leading the country, Raul, is 84), it is a matter of time before the politics of Cuba change. Perhaps long before the country becomes democratic, the country may finally allow its athletes to join the professional ranks around the world. Doing so, however, will inevitably lure talented athletes away from the harsh training grounds of La Finca before the athletes have reached their true potential.
Iron sharpens iron, and in Cuba, iron sharpens iron from such a young age that once fighters like Gamboa win multiple Cuban national championships, they’re so sharp and hard it’s almost unfair to pit them against other amateurs. Gamboa won his first national Cuban championship at 19, Rigondeaux at 20. Winning those championships is much more difficult than winning the Golden Gloves in the U.S., and here a single Golden Gloves championship is sometime enough to launch a pro career, although usually just a middling one. Faced with financial difficulties, if Gamboa or Rigondeaux had the opportunity to go pro after their first championships, they might have taken it, denying them the time to further develop in a hotbed of elite talent. Removed from the rigors of La Finca so early, they would have forgone the opportunity to compete for gold medals, to elevate themselves from good to great or, in Rigondeaux’s case, from great to legendary.
The future of Cuba and La Finca has not yet been written. The reopening of diplomatic relations undoubtedly will cause ripples in the island nation that will slowly but surely extend from the economic to social, and eventually maybe even into the political. As the country struggles to adapt and define itself within the new parameters it faces, an old, some might even say antiquated, training system may be lost. It’s produced leagues of impressive athletes on little more than heart and hard work. Boxing fans only interested in barroom brawls and haymakers might say good riddance to a system that has embodied a crafty and elusive fighting style they find “boring.” Let’s not forget that the sweetness fans saw in Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali’s fancy head and foot movement, and the thunderous and razor-sharp counters of Archie Moore all belong to the “scientific” side of the sweet science — the art of hitting and not getting hit that the Cubans are known for.
Let’s hope that as U.S.-Cuba relations develop, La Finca will find a way to entice its young athletes to stay long enough to ripen. Once professional sports are allowed in Cuba, if the great minds at La Finca can find a way to incorporate the rules of pro boxing into their system, then the end of the embargo might not be the end of La Finca at all — it might turn out to be a spectacular beginning of a new era.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.