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‘The People’s Fighter’: 50 Years of Cuban Boxing

NBCSN will air a documentary chronicling the Cuban School of Boxing.

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Wil Esco is an assistant editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2014.

Tomorrow, May 31st, NBCSN will be debuting a feature documentary film in conjunction with the Olympic Channel entitled The People’s Fighter directed by Peter Berg. The film is the second installment in the Five Rings Films documentary series and covers 50 years of Cuban boxing, one of the most successful programs in any sport the world over.

In particular this documentary highlights the long line of Olympic Gold Medal winners from the country, from Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon all the way through current standouts like Guillermo Rigondeaux. But more importantly, and impactfully, the film covers the political and cultural context surrounding boxing in Cuba which was developed under the regime of Fidel Castro.

“Over the past 50 years, Cuba – an impoverished island nation of just 11 million people – has produced more Olympic boxing medalists than any other country on the planet. “The People’s Fighters” explores the political relations of Cuba, Russia, and the United States during that period and documents the legendary careers of gold medalists Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon.

“The film also traces the triumphs and challenges faced by Cuban boxing, and spotlights the rising local talent - such as 2016 gold medalist Julio Cesar De La Cruz - that is paving a future for the sport. Featuring exclusive archival footage, interviews, and remarkable access in Havana and beyond, acclaimed filmmaker Peter Berg examines recent Cuban history through the lens of the country’s unrivalled legacy and passion for boxing.”

In anticipation for the release I was provide with early screening access to the film, which I would highly recommend to anyone who truly wants to understand what the Cuban School of Boxing is all about. The film begins by essentially outlining Castro’s investment into Cuba’s amateur boxing program as a pretext for popularizing his revolution around the world, and showcases how it developed and declined over the many decades since.

Fighters such as Teofilo Stevenson would become icons in their nation, and Stevenson would eventually be linked to an epic fight against Muhammad Ali, but terms for that bout could never be reached as the sides couldn’t agree on the rules (being that Ali was a 15 round professional and Stevenson fought and trained in the amateur system). The political divide between the U.S. and Cuba made bridging that gap essentially impossible.

Of course despite the countless gold medals Cuban boxers would bring home over the years, it’s wasn’t a completely glorious existence. As the economic stability of the Cuban nation declined, so too did the opportunities for athletes to take care of themselves and their families as there is no professional boxing in Cuba. Many of the greatest Cuban fighters of all time died penniless.

Those conditions eventually lead to an exodus of Cuban boxers, defecting from their home country to pursue financial stability for themselves and their families in the U.S.

One notable defection was that of two-time Gold medal winner and amateur legend Guillermo Rigondeaux, who had a failed defection in 2007 and was returned to his country branded a traitor, kicked off their boxing team and prohibited from talking to any Cuban athlete. Rigondeaux would eventually defect to the U.S successfully in 2009 and speaks about his experience and hardships with the decision.

“When you leave Cuba to turn pro, you know you can’t return for at least 8 years. That’s tough for the family. I’ve been away for 8 years and 6 months. I have a son there...My parents passed away and I couldn’t go because not enough time had gone by.

“I don’t think I betrayed my country, I’ve always been proud to represent my country. Wherever I live, I’ll always be Cuban.”

Catch The People’s Fighter tomorrow on NBCSN.

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