Turning professional: Cuban boxers hope to land a heavy blow
Spirits and expectations are high at Cuba's La Finca national boxing school, where training has intensified ahead of the "Los Domadores" national team's first professional contest since 1962.
Cuba has long been a powerhouse of Olympic boxing, but participation in professional sport was barred by the late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Over the decades, many pugilists fled Cuba and defected to pursue salaried careers.
Then last week, the communist nation's authorities finally gave way, opening up participation in professional boxing competitions.
Members of Los Domadores will fight their first professional bouts in Mexico next month under a deal between the Cuban Boxing Federation and the Golden Ring Promotions company.
"It is what we have been waiting for," team captain Julio Cesar La Cruz, a five-time World and twice Olympic champion, told AFP at La Finca on the outskirts of Havana.
"We have had great generations of boxers, great champions and this possibility could not be given to them," said the 32-year-old, drenched in sweat after three hours of sparring practice.
"But for the first time, it is going to happen with this generation, with these champions and we are going to do it well for all those who could not do it at the time. We are going to represent them well," he vowed.
- 'Solve many problems' -
Cuban boxers hold 80 World and 41 Olympic titles.
La Cruz's team-mate and fellow Olympic champion Arlen Lopez welcomed the prospect of earning a salary. The Cuban Boxing Federation has said that fighters will be allowed to keep 80 percent of the salary due to them for each fight.
"Many of us have families. I am a father of two... so it will help us to raise our socio-economic status and solve many problems," Lopez told AFP.
Cuba is facing its worst economic crisis in nearly three decades due to the coronavirus pandemic and biting US sanctions.
Reigning Olympic and Pan-American boxing champion Andy Cruz, 26, said he was happy because the opening will allow him to test himself against "the best boxers in the world."
Cuba started a slow advance towards joining the professional realm when Los Domadores debuted at the World Series of Boxing (WSB) in 2014. The tournament allowed fighters to retain their amateur status.
The country won three of the five WSB tournaments in which it competed, including the last one in 2018.
Los Domadores trainer Rolando Acebal said he saw no problem with adapting to professional boxing, which in addition to more rounds per bout, also entails harder blows.
"Those issues are being trained," he told AFP.
La Cruz, Cruz, Lopez, Yoenlis Feliciano and Lazaro Alvarez will take part in the Mexican competition, for which Lopez said the training effort was double the usual.
"It is going to be beautiful... beautiful, special and historic," added La Cruz.
- 'Factory of champions' -
The news was also met with enthusiasm from the international boxing fraternity.
"Great news for professional boxing," because "Cuba is a factory of champions," said Spanish Boxing Federation president Felipe Martinez, in Cuba with a group of fighters preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
France's Cuban-born coach Luis Mariano Gonzalez added the move would "further raise the level of Cuban boxing."
World Boxing Association president Gilberto Jesus Mendoza said it was "a new opportunity for Cuban boxers to make a life in their country."
Several Cuban boxers who defected to make a living off their fists are holders of WBA titles, including Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Luis Ortiz.
Acebal believes Cuba's entry into professional boxing could stop the exodus -- most recently this year when Kevin Brown and Herich Ruiz left the Cuban delegation participating in the Pan-American Championship in Ecuador.
The question now is whether US sanctions in place since 1962 will allow Cuban champs to contest the sport's hot ticket events, usually organized on American soil.