Cuba, a nation of around 11 million citizens, has produced more world champions and gold medallists in amateur boxing than any other country in the past 30 years, including the United States and Russia. It’s here, in the open-air boxing gyms in Havana, that the likes of three-time Olympic gold medallist Teófilo Stevenson and six-time World Title winner Félix Savón – titans in the eyes of young boxers – trained and mastered the science of the knockout. Under the watchful gaze of locals, trainers, coaches and fans alike, the next wave of self-made gladiators mix modern conditioning with vintage techniques.
They build core strength by slinging sledgehammers, practise bare-knuckled hooks on gutted punching bags and crush rubber tyres with savage uppercuts.
It is also here that the wildly successful Kid Chocolate, Cuba’s most inimitable pugilist to date, perfected the noble art of boxing. Born in Cerro, Havana, Sergio Eligio Sardiñias-Montalbo – otherwise known as the Cuban Bon Bon – allegedly taught himself how to box by watching old fight films, a home-schooling technique that would eventually garner him the World Junior Lightweight Champion title. Weighing in at 130lbs, the Kid turned pro in 1927 after winning 100 of his recorded amateur bouts in Cuba – 86 by knockout. He went on to make a name for himself in New York City, with seminal matches against Christopher Battaglia, Frankie Klick and Tony Canzoneri, among others.
On 15 July 1931, Kid Chocolate took centre stage as Cuba’s first world boxing champion after knocking out defending World Junior Lightweight Champion, Benny Bass, to take the title, which he held until 1933. With 150 professional fights to his name and only 10 losses, he eventually turned in his gloves, opened his own gym and elected to lead a more shadowy existence after his heyday in the ring. In light of that legacy, you begin to understand the hunger and humility that characterise Cuba’s new crop of diehard inductees.
You begin to understand that the possibility of defeat has nothing on the sweet beckoning of conquest. You begin to understand that this is the rhythm of remembering, the pulse of triumph, the heat of keeping time.
Watching the men train is a lesson in wilful suspense. Voracious yet restrained, they dance across the cement floor and strike at chained punchbags that sway like tethered bodies in the afternoon light.
Their liquid eyes and hardened faces bear an expression of reverential penitence; one young pugilist tilts his head slightly, his fists framing his cheeks as if preparing to wipe away fresh tears.
All said, these next contenders are slated to become more than just the future face of Cuban boxing. They are on course to follow in the footsteps of – and even overtake – Kid Chocolate and their prizefighting countrymen. Theirs is the grit, guts and athletic bravura that births everyday heroes and baptises future icons.
This is Havana. This is fight time. This is when dream transcends legend.