The Cuban boxing program has, for decades, either been the best or among the very best in the world. But until this year, they had never scored a gold medal in the men’s light heavyweight division. Julio César la Cruz changed that in dominant fashion, sweeping through his fights in Rio, ending his run with a one-sided win over Adilbek Niyazymbetov of Kazakhstan.
La Cruz, 27, was the tournament’s top seed, and it was easy to see why every time he was in the ring. In the round of 16, he handled Turkey’s Mehmet Nadir Ünal with ease, doing the same in the quarterfinal round against Brazil’s Michel Borges. A tougher test was expected against France’s Mathieu Bauderlique in the semifinal, but it didn’t come. Once again, the Cuban team captain stylishly dominated his opponent.
Niyazymbetov, 27, was the silver medalist four years ago in London, and the No. 2 seed in Rio. He handled Mikhail Dauhaliavets of Belarus in the round of 16, then defeated Teymur Mammadov of Azerbaijan, a 2012 bronze medalist at heavyweight, in the quarterfinal. An outclassing of powerful Joshua Buatsi of Great Britain in the semfinal gave him another shot at gold, but La Cruz was simply too good.
It’s alarming, really, how severely La Cruz outboxed his opposition. Niyazymbetov is a fantastic boxer, and he was really never in the fight. Sure, he’d clip La Cruz occasionally, but never with any consistency. La Cruz shuffled defensively, caught Niyazymbetov reaching over and over, and was just too good for a very good fighter.
La Cruz’s win, and the fashion in which he won all of his fights in Rio, should make him a strong contender for the Val Barker Trophy, given every four years to the fighter judged to be the overall best in the entire competition.