Javier Galeano, Associated Press
HAVANA — Lazaro Perez jabs rhythmically at his rival in a steamy Havana gym, dancing, feinting and punctuating each blow with a grunt.
After the final bell, he thrusts a weary arm skyward in triumph, and a proud smile spreads across a face still years from feeling a razor's scrape. Perez has just become Havana's first under-75-pound (34-kilogram) boxing champion in a new age category for 9- and 10-year-olds.
Boxing-mad Cuba is putting its athletes in the ring earlier than ever. The idea is that those who start young will have a critical edge in the sport's motions and techniques when they start competing more seriously down the road.
It's part of a top-to-bottom shake-up aimed at restoring Cuban boxing to its former glory after the national squad returned from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing without a gold medal for the first time in 40 years.
"I started boxing to follow in my father's footsteps," said Perez, a small and wiry 9-year-old in black boxing shorts and blue T-shirt. "I'm not afraid. I'm fast, and I really like it. I want to be great like (Olympic and professional champion Yuriorkis) Gamboa, the boxer I admire most, and win lots of medals like (Felix) Savon."
It's not uncommon for children this age to enter the ring these days. The International Boxing Association sanctions competitive boxing for 15 years and up, but lets national federations set their own rules for younger children. A spokeswoman for USA Boxing said competition starts at 8 years old in the United States, and many begin training at 7.
Since competition in Cuba's new age class began last year, hundreds of boys have been boxing in tournaments like the Jan. 21 city championship at the Rafael Trejo gym in Old Havana, with its splintering wood bleachers and discolored walls.
There are strict rules to keep competition safe for the preadolescent pugilists. A doctor examines them before each fight and referees watch the action closely. Bouts are limited to three 50-second rounds. Only straight punches are allowed, and fighters are supposed to keep their distance. Headgear is mandatory, as in all organized amateur boxing.
"At this young age we teach the basic movements, the basic punches and defense," said Jo De Vrieze, a Belgian-born coach who trains children in the Cerro district of the Cuban capital. "The idea is that the youths arrive at higher levels with a more advanced technical base."
It's a far cry from the "Rumble in the Jungle" or the "Thrilla in Manila," but don't tell that to the kids, or to the parents who crowd the stands and cheer each bout like an Olympic final.
Perez's father, also named Lazaro, yelled encouragement and advice to his son during the title match: "Let's go!" ''Get him!" ''Watch your defense!" he cried, head bobbing and fists pumping as if he were in the ring himself.
"Right here is the future of Cuban boxing," the elder Perez said.
Amateur boxing is second only to baseball as a national sport in Cuba, and it's a point of pride among islanders that their country of 11 million people usually punches above its weight in medal counts during international competitions.
But the island's economic difficulties keep the Boxing Federation from funding its programs at the levels other countries do, and make it hard to replace decrepit equipment and facilities. Meanwhile, some top fighters have defected to turn pro, including Olympic and world champions Gamboa and Guillermo Rigondeaux, sapping the national team of experience and talent.
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