"His career has flattered to deceive and he hasn't looked great at times, but this could be the night he shines. Cubans were like that in the amateurs. They would labor against an unknown Norwegian in one fight and the next day look sensational against the best Russian."
-- David Price, sparring partner of Odlanier Solis, just before Solis' fight against Vitali Klitschko (Sky Sports)
With so many Cuban fighters having been featured on U.S. TV recently, there has been a growing sentiment that the so-called "Cuban sensations" have been just a bit overhyped in many cases. Though Yuriorkis Gamboa remains a diehard fan favorite, we've seen negative reactions come the way of Erislandy Lara, Yordanis Despaigne, and Odlanier Solis in recent weeks, and a reminder of the existence of Yan Barthelemy, one of the great disappointments of the recent Cuban defectors.
Starting in 2007, Cuban standouts and non-standouts have started to pour into the professional boxing ranks. Some are incoming stars with a mountain of hype, many others are not. But it's those hyped fighters who have drawn attention ever since word of their defections from the island nation became public knowledge that are now increasingly under the microscope, with fight fans starting to judge whether or not they really cut the mustard as professionals, and in some cases, whether or not they even have much future.
Let's take a look at the "classes" of Cuban fighters starting in 2007, for a full scope view of what we really have on our hands as it stands today.
The Class of 2007, the breakthrough class of defecting Cuban stars, was led by amateur standouts Yuriorkis Gamboa, Odlanier Solis and Yan Barthelemy. The three of them managed to sneak away from camp in Venezuela, making their way to Colombia and then Germany. The hyped trio signed with Ahmet Oner's Arena Box outfit once there.
Gamboa had won the gold medal at flyweight in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, with Solis winning at heavyweight and Barthelemy at junior flyweight. As a trio, they've had wildly different professional careers.
Gamboa (20-0, 16 KO), the youngest of the three at 29, has become a TV star, fighting on HBO, Showtime, and ESPN2 in the States. Almost his entire professional career has been televised, and he has become a favorite of a great many boxing diehards for his incredible natural talent. To say he's become the biggest star of this class (or of any of the recent Cubans) would be a gross understatement. In reality, he's become the only legitimate star of the entire lot. And despite the fact that he's had some performances that weren't electrifying (with many that have been, including his most recent demolition of credible Jorge Solis), he may now be right on the cusp of an even bigger push from HBO, the network that has taken the most shine to him. Gamboa is the sort of talent that you can dream, as scouts say.
Odlanier Solis, 30, just lost his first pro fight to Vitali Klitschko, but didn't do so because he wasn't good enough, though that might well have been the outcome had the fight not ended when Solis suffered a knee injury on a knockdown late in the first round. His entire professional career has been a letdown, even though he's 17-1 (12 KO). There has been far more attention paid to his expanding waistline than his talent, which is considerable but marginalized at this point until proven otherwise. He's struggled with fighters like Ray Austin who should have given him no trouble, and despite that he had gotten back down into the 240s for Klitschko, has weighed in as high as a seriously rotund 271 pounds on a 6'2" frame. At this point, anyone would be forgiven for writing off the heavyweight, because he's all but asked everyone to do just that. He looked ready against Klitschko, but we're talking about 90 seconds here.
Barthelemy (12-2, 4 KO) was a tremendous amateur standout for Cuba and has been a flop professional. He just turned 31 on March 5, a couple of weeks before winning on ESPN2 against an underwhelming but game late replacement opponent, in a fight where in fact Barthelemy was supposed to be "the opponent." Barthelemy won his first six pro fights, but then dropped a stunning six-round decision in Phoenix to a club fighter named Ernie Marquez. He would win two more before losing again, this time by stoppage to Jorge Diaz at Madison Square Garden in October 2009. Diaz has become a fairly decent prospect in his own right, but the writing is on the wall for Barthelemy. He's a talented gatekeeper, the type of guy who on the right night could give a prospect hell, but is not going to be a contender.
Also turning pro in 2007 were southpaw heavyweight Henry Fuentes (11-1, 7 KO, 34 years old) and middleweight Reward Marti (6-1-1, 6 KO, age unknown), who defected to Costa Rica.
If Gamboa was supposed to be The Beatles, Erislandy Lara was hyped up as The Rolling Stones. Right now he's looking a lot more like The Dave Clark Five after a hugely disappointing draw against Carlos Molina on Friday night. The successor at welterweight to Cuban legend Lorenzo Aragon, Lara beat out Yudel Jhonson to go to the 2005 World Amateur Championships in Mianyang, where he won the gold medal. Lara had attempted to defect in 2007 with Guillermo Rigondeaux, but was caught and subsequently banned from boxing in Cuba. In 2008, he made it to Mexico on a speed boat, then went to Germany.
His pro career was a success quickly. Like Gamboa, he had some folks drooling over him, though he was never as flashy as his smaller counterpart. He stepped up his competition in early 2010, beating gatekeepers Grady Breweer and Danny Perez, then took a strange step back for four consecutive fights, all of which ended by first round stoppage. That led him to the Molina fight, where he looked entirely unprepared for what turned out to be an actual contest instead of a walkover. Now trained by Ronnie Shields, Lara is a serious talent, but thanks to this fight, will have skeptics coming out in droves.
2008 also saw the debuts of "The Irish Cubans," a trio of star prospects based in Cork, Ireland, and promoted by Brian Peters. Heavyweight Ismaikel "Mike" Perez, super middleweight Luis Garcia and super bantamweight Alexei Collado (formerly Alexei Acosta) have racked up undefeated records to date, but have not taken large steps forward in competition. Glenn McCrory said of the trio in 2009, "Sensational is the only word for them."
Garcia (11-0, 9 KO) is arguably the best of the entire 2008 field, but there are questions about his desire. He stopped faded former contender Byron Mitchell in the second round in November, which was his last fight, and he took a year off between April 2009 and May 2010. But after his 2008 pro debut, Tris Dixon of Boxing News had this to say:
"He has star quality. Timing, balance, footwork, speed of hand and foot, experience, an icy – almost Tyson-like – demeanor and most definitely power to burn."
But some of the early love has died down. Earlier this month, Perez defeated Belgian veteran Ismail Abdoul in a fight in Doncaster, which drew a lousy review from Boxing-Ireland.com:
"Fortunately for those who'd paid to get in, food was getting served at the same time as this fight and they didn't have to endure the mind-numbing chess-like approach.
"The opening round set up the rest of the fight, for all the punches thrown by Abdoul he may as well have been tucking into the Yorkshire puddings too, and by the looks of Perez's waistline, he wouldn't have said no to a plate full either.
"... Perez looks talented but he needs to be put in with somebody who's going to put up a fight, then we can see if he reacts. Perez is now 13-0. We are still waiting for his career to take off."
Perez also notably fought twice on the same show on May 15, 2010, beating his first opponent in 48 seconds and stopping the second on a cut in the third round.
Collado (13-0, 13 KO) is a 23-year-old nicknamed "The Hurricane." He's still a bit rough around the edges and definitely needs to learn to sit down on his punches, but he's the rare Cuban defector who is still very much young enough that he's a genuine prospect learning his trade at this point. Take a look at him for yourself in fights against Felix Machado and Cristian Faccio.
A lesser-hyped potential notable is Angelo Santana (10-0, 7 KO), a 22-year-old lightweight hopeful promoted by Don King. He defected in part to reunite with his teenage sweetheart, and made his pro debut on the Jones-Trinidad undercard at Madison Square Garden, an experience he later noted made him feel like "a complete hillbilly." He was reportedly 180-3 as an amateur. There's really no video of him out there, but here's three minutes of him working the mitts.
Also turning pro in 2008 were non-factors Jessy Cruz (3-3, 1 KO) and Christopher de la Paz (4-1, 2 KO), both based in Florida.
2009: "The Greatest Amateur of All-Time"
Finally, in 2009, the professional debut of Guillermo Rigondeaux. After a failed defection in 2007 with Lara, Rigondeaux made his way to Mexico and then to Germany, where he signed with Ahmet Oner's Arena Box, the same as the preceding Cuban stars had done. The difference this time was that while the others were respected amateurs and even genuine amateur superstars, Rigondeaux's amateur exploits were a cut-and-a-half above his countrymen. A quick glance at his amateur achievements:
- Gold Medal, Olympics: 2000 and 2004
- Gold Medal, World Amateur Championships: 2001 and 2005
- Gold Medal, Pan American Games: 2003
- Gold Medal, Central American and Caribbean Games: 2006
- Gold Medal, World Cup: 2002 and 2005
- Gold Medal, Nations Cup: 2006
- Cuban National Champion: 2000-2006
Needless to say, expectations were high. But it became clear pretty quickly that Rigondeaux, who turned pro just a few months shy of his 29th birthday, was not going to be a thriller professional. Though extremely talented, his cautious style was noted as early as his first pro fight, though most notably in his fourth outing, an eight-round decision win over Lante Addy in New York.
Rigondeaux got his first major exposure in a November 2010 featured undercard fight on the Pacquiao-Margarito show, where he faced respected young veteran Ricardo Cordoba. Though Rigondeaux won a decision, his performance was hardly lauded by the viewing audience, as his safety-first style simply did not endear him to those watching the event, and understandably so. His next fight came in Ireland against Willie Casey, where he plastered the overmatched foe inside of the first round. Now promoted by Top Rank, Rigondeaux is a finished product at age 30 -- a talented fighter, but one who will likely always fail to inspire great admiration among boxing fans.
Defecting with Rigondeaux were super middleweight Yordanis Despaigne (8-1, 4 KO) and junior middleweight Yudel Jhonson (10-0, 7 KO). Both have shown skills, but Despaigne recently lost to prospect Ismayl Sillakh in a spirited fight, while Jhonson stayed unbeaten by stopping Richard Gutierrez on the Lara-Molina card. Both fighters are at advanced ages (Jhonson is 29, Despaigne is 31) and may not seem destined for stardom, but there is a growing sentiment now that the smooth Jhonson might be the Cuban to watch at 154 pounds, not Lara. Despaigne has had some trouble adjusting to the pro game, and it seems as though despite being built like a devastating puncher, his power really isn't special, and he doesn't have a standout key ability.
Another 2009 Cuban debut came from Rances Barthelemy, who signed with Warriors Boxing after living in the States for over a year. He made his debut in August '09, and has moved slowly but consistently since then. At 24, he's one of the younger Cubans. A 5'11" lightweight, he has thus far trounced his weak competition en route to a record of 11-0 (9 KO).
Cruiserweight Yunier Dorticos, 25, has gone 12-0 with each fight ending early as a pro. As an amateur in Cuba, he was behind Yusiel Napoles on the food chain. The jury is out on his professional prospects, but he's young enough to become a factor. Miami-based featherweight Luis Franco (9-0, 5 KO) has recently started upping his competition. He competed at the 2004 Olympics, where he lost to currently-ranked pro Vitali Tajbert. Like Dorticos, Franco generally found himself behind someone else in the Cuban amateur system, and at 29, he doesn't have the advantage of youth.
24-year-old lightweight Yoelvis Gamboa (6-0, 2 KO) is not his brother to say the least. After seeing featherweight Yoandris Salinas (5-0, 2 KO) fight once last year, I came away unimpressed. Also from the class of 2009: Sullivan Barrera (6-0, 5 KO), Umberto Savigne (3-1, 2 KO), and Stalinn Lopez (7-1, 3 KO) are all third-tier.
The prospect with the most upside of the 2010 class is probably welterweight Yordenis Ugas (6-0, 3 KO). He won bronze in the 2008 Olympics, but has had his chin questioned over the years. Other than the beard, though, he's got very good ability.
Heavyweight Luis "Big Thing" Ortiz is 6-0 (4 KO) and has knocked off respected stepping stones Zack Page and Kendrick Releford, but he's 31 years old and in my only experience watching him live, I came away with this impression:
Ortiz fights cocky and keeps his trunks exceptionally high, but he's got skills and already looks like a real boxer, which is more than you can say for most heavyweight prospects these days. He's not Odlanier Solis in terms of talent, but he also doesn't weight 270 pounds. He's good. He's tall, he's got good reach, he's left-handed, he has base skills. But is he ever going to be an elite fighter? It's doubtful.
Also on that show, I came away unimpressed with junior middleweight Inocente Fiz (5-0, 3 KO) and heavyweight Yasnay Consuegra (4-0, 2 KO).
Plenty of now-thirtysomethings in this class: Pedro Rodriguez, Puro Pairol and Glendy Hernandez, are in there with Ortiz and Fiz. 25-year-old Yunieski Gonzalez and 26-year-old Vilier Quinonez round out a field which mostly can't yet be judged, but it's safe to say that we're a long way removed from the ultra hype prospects like Gamboa, Rigondeaux, Solis, Lara, etc. The best of the latest defectors don't even come close to that.
Scott's Current Cuban Top Ten
- Yuriorkis Gamboa. There's no other choice, and if there was even an inkling of a doubt that he's the best of the four-year bunch, his dominance of Jorge Solis should have erased that.
- Guillermo Rigondeaux. This could and hopefully will change, but at this point, I'm sooner going to count on Rigondeaux, whose greatest flaw is that he isn't every exciting, to have a top career than anyone after him.
- Luis Garcia. The talent is obvious. The question is desire.
- Erislandy Lara. The hope here is that the Molina fight was a wake-up call, but there's no arguing his stock took a hit, even considering that Molina is a good fighter.
- Alexei Collado. A lot to dream on with him, but definite flaws and needed adjustments to his game.
- Yudel Jhonson. Stock has risen after graceful and commanding performance against Gutierrez.
- Odlanier Solis. I still say the talent is there. I still doubt if he'll ever put it all together, and the knee injury could be the convenient excuse for a career that never goes anywhere at all.
Mike Perez. Could easily wind up having a better career than Solis, even though he's not as good. Could also easily fall by the wayside.
- Rances Barthelemy. Bad competition so far, but young, tall for 135, and fights consistently.
- Yordanis Despaigne. Someone has to be No. 10. He's already a decent pro fighter, but that's as far as it goes, and at his age, as far as it's going to go. There is no upside with him.
There's only one breakout star, and it's Yuriorkis Gamboa. It is very likely that he will be the only breakout star of the entire group, in my opinion.
The letdowns are very real. For instance, Yan Barthelemy might go from bust to valuable gatekeeper, but even when winning "impressively" against inferior opponents, he's lacking for quite a bit. Odlanier Solis might have gotten himself into better shape to face Vitali Klitschko, but that doesn't change that he was a butterball in previous fights, and he seems like the last guy you want rehabbing an injury. Despaigne is kind of like Barthelemy, but with more a little more gusto; he fights harder, but he's missing a lot of intangibles and just hasn't really translated. Erislandy Lara really might be headed this way, or he could right the ship.
Mental makeup, as with all prospects, is a major concern, but we're also talking about men who have left behind families -- wives, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews. It's a different ballgame with the Cuban fighters in a lot of ways. To pursue professional boxing, they have to leave everything behind. That is a heavy burden for anyone, and I can't help but think that for a lot of guys, it plays a huge role, which could be good or bad depending on the individual.
There's also the oft-repeated belief that the Cubans, particularly the heavyweights, become so thrilled with their newfound freedoms that they totally lose focus with their careers, and a lot of the discipline that goes into being a world-class athlete of any kind. It's easier to spot in the heavyweights because to fight they don't have to make a weight limit. And the three most notable heavies among the current Cubans -- Solis, Perez, Ortiz -- are all a bit soft. Solis is by far the chief offender, of course.
Also, how badly do some of these guys really want to fight? How motivated are they to climb to the top? Is simply defecting really enough? After all, lots of Cubans defect, and they aren't all boxers or baseball players. A lot of these guys, even some of the more talented fighters, may well see boxing as more of a trade than a potential ticket to immortality. Superstardom might not be a real motivation. They're free, they're fighting, it's a living.
Really the only thing that makes the perception of the Cubans different is, in my estimation, the hype, which comes from the "Cuban mystique." Cuban athletes tend to be viewed as kind of a forbidden fruit -- notable baseball players defect for millions of dollars, rarely living up to the hype. The boxers are unlikely to be any different, just paid less. If you picked out 30 or so random prospects from, say, the west coast of the U.S., you'd wind up looking at a group with similar makeup, I suspect. There are some big talents, some blue chippers, some guys who are going to flame out, some guys who are just going to disappoint, and some guys who really aren't prospects at all. The Cuban amateur system has been so highly-regarded for so long that it seems like some people get excited even about second- or third-tier Cuban amateurs, which is not something that applies to any other amateur system in the world. If a second-tier Russian amateur goes pro, there is little fanfare, even just as far as online discussion. But the Cubans don't simply go pro -- they defect, which makes them an instant story, a curiosity we want to know more about, with the hope being that boxing is about to get more great talents. It's not the usual case, though. Most of these guys are just boxers. You won't remember much about them in 25 years.
But Cuban defectors will always be of interest to boxing fans around the globe. As an amateur program, they are admirable villains, in a way; a vision of machine-like, highly-disciplined, well-schooled talents who eat, sleep, and breathe the sport. In the end, they're really all just human beings, same as anyone else, with flaws and imperfections and a desire to eat big steaks and drink too much. There will always be a few elite standouts, of course, who were truly born to box. But I think most of the early attraction, and the disproportionate attention paid comes from the fact that these guys came from a background most of us find truly foreign in concept. It's almost mythical.
I say avoid the hype as best you can and see the boxers and men behind the hype. When you do that, you've still got quite an interesting bunch -- good, bad, and ugly.