Cuba’s boxing culture.
At the Rafael Trejo boxing gym. Photo: Brandon Downey, Monster in the Ring, 2013.
In Old Havana, the names of the streets before the revolution provided a glimpse into the city’s state of mind. You might have known someone who lived on the corner of Soul and Bitterness, Solitude and Hope, or Light and Avocado. After the revolution, they changed the names and put up new signs, but if you asked directions from a local today you’d get the old names. They all meant something personal to the people who lived on those streets. That avocado grew in the garden of a convent. That hope was for a door in the city wall before it was torn down. That soul refers to the loneliness of the street’s position in the city. Sometimes these streets lead you to dead ends and other times you stumble onto cathedrals, structures built with the intention of creating music from stone. The sore heart Havana offers never makes you choose between the kind of beauty that gives rather than the kind that takes something from you: it does both simultaneously.
While guidebooks might tell you that time collapsed here, another theory says that in Latin America, all of history coexists at once. Just before the triumph of the revolution, progress took shape in ambitious proposals made by American architects to erect grand skyscrapers all along the Malecón seawall offering a fine view and convenient access to a newly constructed multicasino island built in the bay. To accommodate the gamblers, vast areas of Old Havana were to be demolished and leveled for parking access. In 1958, Graham Greene wrote, “To live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor belt.” Yet this beauty the people of Cuba unquestionably possess walks hand in hand with their pain. Whoever you might encounter in this place lacking the ability to walk or even to stand for whatever reason will inevitably remain convinced they can dance. When Castro was put on trial in 1953 by Batista’s government and asked who was intellectually responsible for his first attempt at insurrection, he dropped the name of the poet José Martí. From the little I’d learned of it, the revolution’s hold on Cubans resembled not so much poetry as the chess term zugzwang: you’re forced to move, but the only moves you can make will put you in a worse position. Cuba had become an entire population of eleven million people with every iron in the fire doubling as a finger in a dike.
I hitched a ride in a gypsy cab most of the way to the boxing gym with a black Cuban who gave me the dime tour of the greatest potholes in Havana. He was literally serenading the potholes before we could even see them. Out my window there were lineups and police icily keeping their eyes peeled. “¿Último?” someone shouted as they joined the line, followed by another “¡Último!” confirming who was the last person in the line. This was how people found their place in queues all over the city. The driver told me what was clearly an old joke: stop anywhere in Havana for five seconds and you’ll start your own lineup.
I looked up at clotheslines strung between columns, women in curlers leaning against the railings of their balconies. I saw tourists snapping photos of the architecture of a building where Lesvanne took me to visit a friend. We had coffee while his family complained incessantly about the broken stairwell and leaky roof. Finally the harbor came into view with the waters that in the early twentieth century were banned to fishermen because of all the bodies being thrown from the Morro Castle by government thugs. Trumpet players on the Malecón blew at sea puddles on the pavement. A policeman checked a man’s identification while staring at a cruise ship coming in on the horizon. We drove a little farther and the whole colonial theme park faded in the distance.
The driver lit a cigarette and reached back to press play on a little broken-down ghetto blaster in the backseat, and Nat King Cole’s voice came overenunciating in Spanish through the speakers. The driver imitated it and grinned wide: “Pen-sannn-doh. I luuuv it. He recorded it in Havana. My father saw him in a nightclub perform before the revolution.
“My friend, did you know they needed three tries to find Havana before they got it right?” he asked me.
I looked at his face and asked him for one of his cigarettes.
“Did you know that originally Cuba was named ‘Juana’ after Juana La Loca, the insane daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella? They were Columbus’s patrons. All of that little girl’s relatives have been screwing with our lives ever since. We can stop for a beer and I could tell you more.”
“I’m training at the gym very soon.”
“But you’re smoking.”
“I’m a very complicated man.”
We shared an uneasy silence for a moment or two.
“I could pick you up after your training. My friend, I know some great girls I could introduce you to. Any color you like. I have a business card.”
He conducted a frantic search of the vehicle before he produced the business card, but he was clearly quite proud of it once he straightened out the wrinkles with the side of his hand against the dash.
“My friend, I like to drink Hatuey beer. I once drank a beer with Ernest Hemingway in San Francisco de Paula when I was a boy. Do you like our beer?”
“I don’t drink.”
“My father was an alcoholic, too.” He winked. “But you get over it eventually. Let me tell you a story about my favorite beer. When the Spanish first came here an Indian chief named Hatuey sailed from Hispaniola to warn the people. The resistance was brave but it wasn’t much. Hatuey was burned at the stake. Just before they burned him they offered him a last-minute conversion so he could enter heaven. Hatuey asked whether there were any Christians in heaven. After they assured him that there certainly were, he told them he’d rather go to hell than anywhere where there were people as cruel as the Spaniards. In Gringolandia Pocahontas was a little friendlier when John Smith arrived. Maybe all there is in this world is underdogs and whores.”
“They named your beer after this person?”
“Can you imagine a greater honor to bestow?” The silence went by a little smoother this time. “My friend, I can introduce you to some very nice, clean girls.” “My schedule is a little booked. I have a backlog of about 4,500 ‘very nice, clean girls’ I already have to meet.” “You haven’t seen my girls. You have my business card.”
My boxing gym, Rafael Trejo, was located in what was once the cheapest red-light district in the city, only a few minutes’ walk from José Martí’s childhood home, now converted into a museum. One of the largest funeral processions in Cuban history was for the notorious pimp Yarini Ponce de León, who was shot in a duel in the area.
These days most of the prostitution in the city is run, curiously, by cab drivers. Right after the revolution they reformed most of the prostitutes into cab drivers. Job reorientation. Now cab drivers are mostly composed of lawyers and doctors looking to scrounge enough tourist dollars to cover the basic needs of their families that their wages as professionals can’t accomplish.
About the only thing you can trust in this neighborhood is that nothing is trustworthy to an outsider. I had my boxing gloves hanging off my bag and some of the small kids joyously raised their fists at me while their older siblings eyed my belongings. The neighborhood was a maze of narrow streets closely monitored by thieves. I figured if I was going to be passing through on a daily basis for appointments at the gym, I might as well just accept being robbed soon enough and probably with the use of a blade of some kind. All I brought with me was the money I owed Héctor and my gloves and skipping rope, as I didn’t want to enter this place with suspicion or even caution. I elected to give into whatever toll the neighborhood expected from me and just said hello to anyone who looked me in the eyes no matter who they were. While, as anyone, I’ve never enjoyed being played for a sucker, I also can’t remember experiencing anything worthwhile without trust regardless of how little trust was warranted. Trusting the world is a risk, while not trusting it is a guarantee you’ll be left with nothing.
Trejo is one of the oldest boxing gyms in Cuba; it’s outdoor, and every great champion the country has produced has passed through and was forged in the open air. Different sets of the same mildly sinister women who look like the Macbeth witches guard the entrance from tourists and procure a toll for entry, snapshots, or stories. The witches rest their chairs against a wall of photographs under portraits of great world or Olympic champions who spent time staining Trejo’s lone ring with their blood and sweat.
Cuba’s answer to Muhammad Ali, Teófilo Stevenson, was featured among the portraits, along with Félix Savón, who turned down even more millions than Stevenson to leave Cuba, but this time to fight Mike Tyson. Also José “Mantequilla” Nápoles, Kid Chocolate, and some other names I didn’t recognize, and finally there was Héctor, attached by scotch tape in his Olympic heyday with his arm raised in victory. I paid the witches to tell me the stories behind the faces and in their words, always, more than any achievements in the ring, these boxers’ greatest legacy was the money they refused to betray the revolution. It was strange to see the gleam of pride in their eyes as they envisioned the kinds of lives these men had forgone in favor of embracing their role as symbols of a cause greater than any individual. These men stood for the highest literacy rate in the world, universal health care, free education, better lives for their children and all Cubans. I listened and absorbed the reports of their virtues, but I knew full well that most Cuban champions were so desperate for money that many had sold off all their Olympic medals and even uniforms to the highest tourist bidder. That part of the Cuban sports legacy was omitted from their tales. So were the defections of boxers starting in 1967, five years after Fidel Castro banned all professional sports from the island. All those who had tried to leave, successful or not, had essentially committed social suicide: they ceased to exist in their native land.
Cuban eyes often look close to tears. Tears never seem far away because both their pain and their joy are always so close to the surface. There’s an open wound that defines the national character and the tide of emotions is always raw and overwhelming. Kid Chocolate was my gateway drug into those emotions. They didn’t have enough money for a bell to clang to announce the fights or declare the beginnings or ends of rounds, so they used an emptied fire extinguisher and a rusty wrench instead. My high school gym had more money sunk into it than the most famous arena residing in Cuba’s capital city. Did that detract from the atmosphere or impact? Donald Trump named everything after himself while nothing in Havana, not even a plaque, had Fidel’s name attached. Who would history remember? Nobody fighting there was paid to fight any more than anyone watching had paid to attend. Cigar and cigarette smoke curled into the rafters as bottles of rum were passed around and swigged in the audience. The place was packed and at first I assumed everyone was forced to attend these matches the same way seven-hour Fidel speeches invariably had hundreds of thousands of bored, nodding-off citizens in attendance at the Plaza de la Revolución. But it wasn’t the case. All the faces still carried the same strain from what was going wrong outside Kid Chocolate, but they also knew they were watching sports in a way that the rest of the world could only dream about. That’s why what I was looking at, at first, didn’t even register as Cuban; it was an American wet dream of sport. At least while the fights lasted, it was pure.
No interviews. No cameras. No advertising. No commercial breaks. No merchandise. No concession stand. No thanking of sponsors. No luxury boxes. No Tecate or Corona ring girls. No autographs. No VIP seating. No scalpers outside. No venue named after a corporation or corporately owned anything, anywhere. No air conditioning or even fans to mitigate how fucking hot it was in there. No amenities of any kind, but instead you had a full auditorium of intensely proud people who didn’t require cues to cheer or applaud. Without the incentive of money, I watched people fight harder in the ring than anywhere else I’d ever seen. And they fought this way before an audience who cheered louder than anywhere I’d ever heard. And nothing separated them. The best of the boxers might have lived on the same block as anyone in the stands. Sport wasn’t an opium for these people; their culture was an opium for sport. Who walked into a museum anymore without asking how much the masterpieces had sold at auction for? If van Gogh captured the world’s imagination in part for never being able to sell some of the most treasured works of human expression ever put to canvas, he was certainly trying to sell them. This society’s experiment went further and they knew it: heroes weren’t for sale. But how long could that last? How long could anyone resist not cashing in? And if no price was acceptable to sell out, what was the cost of that stance?
During the last fight of the evening, a hometown Havana kid was beating another boy from Sancti Spíritus terribly. So badly, in fact, that someone in the crowd raced down from the rafters and threw his bunched-up towel into the ring since the Sancti Spíritus coaches had refused to throw in their towel.
He’d cupped his hands to scream at the referee, “All right then you son of a bitch, I’ll spend the night in jail for your crime, you motherfucker!”
The crowd ignited as they watched that towel leave the man’s hand in a sweaty clump and sail unfurling under the lights toward the ring, with the referee conspicuously unaware of the attempt on his life.
Héctor had arranged for me to sit ringside next to one of the trainers named Alberto Brea, along with the rest of the Havana team, and all of us betrayed our team’s fighter in the ring to cheer on the heckler. When the towel found its target and compressed like an accordion against the referee’s ear and we heard every last sweaty drop behind the wet slap of its impact, Brea nudged me: “This man is a noble martyr for Sancti Spíritus. If I was his father I would be proud.”
Another coach turned to Brea: “What makes you think you aren’t his father?”
Brea was delighted by this possibility—along with every other child on the team who heard it and doubled over laughing—but conceded, “He didn’t get an arm like that from me. Béisbol was never my game.”
As the protester stood on the stairs glaring at the referee and screaming obscenities, with both hands high over his head gesticulating wildly, the referee calmly halted the fight to pick up the towel and contemplate it in his hands for a moment before attempting to locate the heckler. Even the judges at ringside were having trouble keeping a straight face.
The rest of us in Kid Chocolate watched as the uniformed policía stormed down the steps to arrest the protester. He didn’t flinch when the four cops grabbed his arms, shirt, and pants and began hauling him toward the exit. He kept his eyes on the referee in the ring and kept talking to him as though he were microphoned.
The referee patiently held on to his new towel while the commotion was dealt with.
But then something magical happened, after which nobody in the arena had a harder time holding their composure together than the referee.
Another towel entered the ring and lightly—almost obediently—touched down on the canvas near the referee’s feet. Sancti Spíritus had finally had a chance to inspect the damage on their fighter and quit on his behalf.
There was agonized panic to get this point across to our arrested towel thrower before it was too late. The protester was in the doorway of the exit when he broke loose of the police grip long enough to look back over his shoulder and grasp the full meaning of the moment. Everyone collectively forgot to breathe as we all waited to see what he’d do next. Suddenly his hands shot up as he wailed with vindication, and even the police laughed as everybody got to their feet to whistle and cheer his achievement.
The referee gazed toward the arrested man, shook his head, and smiled as he waved the fight off.
Excerpted from The Dominio Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin-Jonathan Butler, published June 9, 2015 by Picador USA. Copyright © 2015 by Brin-Jonathan Butler. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved.
Brin-Jonathan Butler is a writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in ESPN Magazine, Vice, Deadspin, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, and The New York Times.
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