June 4, 2001

Cubans flex muscles in world of controversy

Olympic champion Savon has Castro's blessing as he brings compatriots to the amateur fight game's premier event

By Steve Bunce in Belfast. Independent News. 04 June 2001.

Felix Savon won five heavyweight World Amateur Championships in the ring, one outside the ropes and lost another because of the gathering significance of events several thousand miles away, before he had even climbed the six steps to enter the illuminated square.

Savon replaced Teofilio Stevenson, winner of three Olympic golds and three World championships, in the hearts and minds of the Cuban people and the pair, who resembled two bold horses whenever they fought, are icons in Cuba.

Imagine Red Rum on two legs, only taller and with broader shoulders and it is possible to imagine the sight of either Savon or Stevenson in the opposite corner.

Yesterday in Belfast 12 more Cuban boxers joined 400 others from 65 countries and stepped on the scales to enter the 11th World Amateur Boxing Championships, which end on Sunday. Each night Fidel Castro will watch their progress on television back in Havana. Savon, stone-faced and still, was there as coach and he will speak personally with Castro each day.

In 1962, Castro's government introduced resolution 83-A to end professional sport, including boxing, which had been a favourite diversion in the Fifties for visiting mob figures on their trips to the decadent playground that old Havana had become during its days as a haven for vice. Boxing was "vicious, exploitative and corrupt". A perfect diversion.

At the time a young fighter called Alcides Sagarra was contemplating a future in the ring but his ambitions were cut short by the government's action. Sagarra stayed in Cuba but others, like future world champion Jose Napoles, jumped on airplanes for fictitious fights and often anonymous lives away from Cuba. Sagarra would become the head coach for a brilliant 20-year period and he is still travelling with the team.

Sometime in the early Sixties Andrei Chernevenko arrived in Havana at the height of the Cold War. He was a former boxer from Moscow and he started to train a few fighters in the derelict old gyms in Havana's back streets and it was there that he discovered a young kid called Stevenson.

At the time Cuba had never won a major medal at an international boxing tournament but that ended in 1967 when Rolando Garbey won gold at the Pan-Am games. The following year in Mexico the Caribbean Island won its first Olympic medal. In 1972 Stevenson won the gold at heavyweight and the world of amateur boxing was seized by revolution; the red ring, as many outside Eastern Europe referred to the dominance of socialist nations, was about to get a new leader.

The dominance of the Cuban boxers is not under threat but the last two World championships have come close to collapse with controversy on both sides of the ropes. In Houston two years ago the entire Cuban team withdrew midway through the finals after a series of bad decisions and when the Cuban delegation arrived in Belfast from their training camp in Turkey their sports minister Humberto Gonzalez was one of the first off the plane. In theory the higher the dignity the less the risk of ignominy.

In Houston Sagarra received a phone call from Castro after welterweight Juan Hernandez lost to Russia's Timour Gaidalov on points in the final. The Cuban Federation filed an official complaint and Savon was at ringside with his headguard and his gumshield in his mouth ready to box America's Michael Bennett in the heavyweight final. There was a tense and foul-mouthed stand-off with members of the Houston police force beginning to get irritated by the screaming Cubans.

Earlier in the week Sagarra and Jose Barrientos, the Cuban Federation president, had visited with Anwar Chowdhry, the president of the International Amateur Boxing Association, to complain about four decisions against Cuban boxers. Chowdhry promised to suspend any errant officials and a calm was temporarily restored. However, when Hernandez lost on the first day of finals the calm was shattered.

When Sagarra was on the phone to Castro at the back of the arena, shielded from an American camera crew by Stevenson, the Cuban Federation's vice-president, the phone belonging to experienced and highly respected Cuban television commentator Modesto Aquero started to ring. It was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC. Hernandez was still sitting in middle of the ring but in Lucerne and Havana excited people were getting agitated.

Eventually, Hernandez left the ring, the Cubans left the building ­ Savon actually got on the bus in his boxing gown ­ and the championship continued.

Within 90 minutes a five-man jury reversed the decision and awarded the title to Hernandez but it was too late for the Cubans and for Savon. It was an extraordinary reversal.

Bennett, who had served seven years for an armed robbery of a toy shop, accepted his fortunate win with grace but was easily beaten by Savon at the Sydney Olympics where the Cuban won his third gold medal.

In Houston the AIBA jury suspended four of the five judges for life, including one who had voted in Hernandez's favour, and also issued temporary suspensions for Sagarra, Barrientos and Stevenson. At that point in the summer of 1999 it looked likely that Cuba would boycott the Olympics.

Last May in Mexico City at an AIBA meeting Barrientos was banned for four years, Sagarra for one year and Stevenson for one year. Sagarra was placed on one year's observation and Stevenson on a period of observation for three years. Servelio Fuentes replaced Sagarra as head coach after the Olympics.

Sagarra is now head of the team and allegedly waiting for an AIBA appointment.

"We condemn the action," said Barrientos. "We will continue before the appropriate organisations in the sports world to denounce these manoeuvres." Two years before Houston, there had been ugly scenes in Budapest involving Sagarra after Savon was given two public warnings in the final against teenage Uzbekistan boxer Ruslan Chagaev and lost on a narrow decision. "Mafia, Mafia, Mafia!" screamed Sagarra as he was led from the ringside area and away from the Uzbek delegate Gafur Rakhimov, who denies any involement in organised crime in the former Soviet Republics.

"When the Soviet empire collapsed, I was lucky enough to have the instincts to thrive in the new capitalist markets," Rakhimov said. However, he was advised not to travel to Houston, was refused entry to Sydney and will not be in Belfast. Samaranch actually sought an explanation for his exclusion from Australia and had a meeting with PM John Howard to discuss the matter.

He was told it was to protect the "safety and security of the Australian community". Samaranch, a former fascist mayor, accepted the explanation and passed on the message to his good friend Chowdhry.

Back in February 1998 Chagaev was stripped of his world title when it was discovered that he had fought as a professional in Chicago before beating Savon. He received a 12-month ban; Rakhimov offered no explanation. Savon was given the title, his sixth World championship. In Houston they met in the ring and Savon won the finest amateur contest I have ever seen, 9-1. Chagaev will be in Belfast.

Cuban boxing began its rise with the pot-bellied Russian Chernevenko, the disillusioned former boxer Sagarra and a revolutionary leader with a picture of Joe Louis in his office signed: "To Fidel, my fondest wishes, Joe". It was just the start.


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