Fidel Castro created the greatest amateur boxing training system the world has ever seen. Known as “La Finca,” the dilapidated boxing schools on Cuba have trained from early childhood some of the best boxers ever to step into a ring.
Unfortunately, because Castro banned professional sports shortly after coming to power — he called the pro ranks a capitalistic exploitation of man — the boxing world has long been denied the pleasure of watching the slick Cuban boxers at the pro level.
With spectacular recent performances from fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Yuriorkis Gamboa, even casual fans these days are beginning to acknowledge how well-trained the Cuban lightweights are. But what they don’t realize is that unlike most other Latin American countries, Cuba has produced some of the greatest heavyweights of all time. On the undercard of Golovkin vs. Stevens, the boxing world was given a glimpse at what one average (by comparison to the great below) Cuban big man could do and in the process reminded many about some of the biggest “what-ifs” in boxing.
Mike “Irish” Perez defected from Cuba in December 2007 and since has earned a perfect 19-0 record with 12 knockouts. HBO pitted him against hard-punching Magomed Abdusalamov, who has taken out each of his 18 opponents before the final bell. For all the talk about Abdusalamov’s menacing power, the story of the fight was the surprising speed of Perez, his technical flare and his own heavy-handedness.
Early into the fight Abdusalamov complained that Perez had broken his nose and repeatedly mentioned pain in his face, which quickly started to swell and bleed. The fight was easily the most enjoyable heavyweight match-up this year because it offered a little something for everyone. In the heavyweight ranks these days, fights tend to fall into two categories. In the first there are slug fests and beat downs devoid of much boxing craft. Although enjoyable to some, it’s often hard for fight fans to not state the obvious: These big men would be decimated by the technicians of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. In the other category of heavyweight fights, you’ve got men like Wladimir Klitschko, who offer fans refined technique devoid of any risk or excitement. These men seem to have sterilized a sport that is inherently dramatic.
Perez vs. Abdusalamov brought technique together with will and maintained an aggressive pace that has been largely absent from the heavyweight division. As Perez used his clearly superior boxing skills learned at La Finca to dissect his opponent, boxing fans were reminded that unlike other Latin American boxing nations, like Mexico or Puerto Rico, Cuba has had heavyweights that could have not only won a world title, but could have redefined the very history of the weight class. Had it not been for Castro and the revolution, here are two Cubans, and the match-ups that never were, that could have rewritten boxing history.