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If promising Cuban boxers flame out here, they can’t go home

It was roughly this time three years ago when Luis DeCubas brought a bunch of Cuban defectors – five altogether- just off the boat to fight at Planet Hollywood.

These Cubans were mostly unheard of, though one had a fantastic amateur record. And I remember DeCubas saying that in two years this one with the fantastic amateur record would be world champion.

This is what all boxing promoters say.

But within two years Guillermo Rigondeaux was, indeed, WBA super bantamweight champion. In roughly the time it takes the well-heeled to smoke a fine Cuban Cohiba, Rigondeaux was on top of the division. It took him all of 18 months.

Also appearing on that Planet Hollywood card was a welterweight from Cuba named Yudel Jhonson, who earned a unanimous decision in one of those four-rounders for neophytes. It’s possible I might have seen that fight. It’s just as possible I missed it because I wasn’t paying attention.

(I do recall there being a lot of commotion during the undercard because Mike Tyson had shown up, and he was signing autographs and posing for photos, and he had this wacky tattoo on his face.)

Anyway, now DeCubas is telling me that Jhonson is going to be a world champion, too. Kid can fight, DeCubas says. Not the fastest guy you ever saw. But he has this uncanny knack for punching the other guy in the face a split second sooner than the other guy tries to punch him in the face. This is important in boxing.

Kid won the silver medal at Athens in 2004. Kid’s got a rep. Kid’s 12-0 with eight knockouts. Kid can fight.

Kid fights Willie Nelson – not the one with the braids and guitar and Internal Revenue Service problems – in the main event of Friday night’s “Shobox: The Next Generation” card at Texas Station.

This Nelson kid is 17-1-1, and did I tell ya he’s from Cleveland? Kid can fight. Earnie Shavers was from Cleveland (or thereabouts). That kid could fight, too.

Still, most eyes at ringside will be trained upon the Cuban kid who can fight. Unless Tyson shows up signing autographs and posing for photos again.

Boxing people are curious about the Cubans. Have been since Teofilo Stevenson punched out the lights of Big John Tate and Duane Bobick and a bunch of guys with flat noses from Romania and Poland on his way to mining Olympic gold in Munich, Montreal and Moscow.

But unlike Rigondeaux and Jhonson and Joel Casamayor and Yuriorkis Gamboa and Kid Chocolate back in the Depression, Stevenson did not come to America seeking (more) fame and fortune. Perhaps this was because they didn’t have powerboats that could outrun the authorities on the Gulf of Mexico in his day. Or perhaps it was because Castro made him the national boxing coach and built him a mansion on a hill.

I read where 56 Cuban exiles now are practicing the sweet science out of sweaty American and European gymnasiums. Not all have succeeded. Some, like Jhonson, still are working at it.

The pressure on the Cuban fighters to succeed must be incredible. Not only must they leave those near and dear and everything else behind, but when some kid puts them flat on their keister and they flame out, then what do they do? Then where do they go?

Boxing sometimes is celebrated for its mean streets paved with broken dreams and front teeth, for its poor boys who squander their resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, as Paul Simon said, and who could say it better than Rhymin’ Simon? But even a guy such as Leon Spinks can return to St. Louis and get a job at a carwash or crash on a cousin’s couch. And he can see his kids.

Some guys in the fight game wear emotions on their sleeves. The 30-year-old Jhonson wears his on the waistband of his trunks. HELEN it says in bold, block letters.

Helen is the name of the daughter who Jhonson won’t get to see again, unless the government changes back home. Jhonson is an enemy of the state. Unlike the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans and the South Americans and Leon Spinks, he cannot go home.

And so he fights and tries to become world champion and tries to hang onto enough of the mumbles in his pocket so he can send a few home in an envelope to those he misses and loves.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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