Cuba looks to kids to recover faded boxing glory

By Anne-marie Garcia

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Four years after Cuban boxers won five gold medals at the Athens Olympics came the Beijing fiasco. Cuba had another subpar performance at the World Championships in Italy the following year, and hit rock-bottom in 2010 at the Panamerican Championships, when host Ecuador toppled Cuba from its long-held throne as best in Latin America.

Humiliated sports authorities vowed a total overhaul to get Cuban boxing back on track. The first move was to bring in a new coach, Rolando Acebal, who renewed emphasis on discipline, rigor, toughness.

"The change was decisive," said Savon, a heavyweight legend who hung up his gloves in 2000 and now works for the Boxing Federation. "Under Acebal, some things reappeared that had gotten a little lost."

Officials also stressed recruiting and scoured the island for new talent. Savon, who along with countryman Teofilo Stevenson, is one of only three boxers to have won gold medals at three Olympics, personally scouted his native province of Guantanamo.

The result is a promising new crop of youngsters who so far have done well. Cuba took two gold medals and a silver at the World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, last July. In the fall, it reclaimed bragging rights in the Americas, winning eight men's titles out of nine possible at the Panamerican Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The big test comes this summer at the London Olympics.

"There has been good work," said Stevenson, now a vice president of the Boxing Federation. "We have several possibilities for medalling, including Julio Cesar La Cruz," a 22-year-old light heavyweight who was one of the champions at Baku.

Beyond London, the future rests firmly in the gloved fists of the kids duking it out in the Rafael Trejo gym. The 9-10 age class is a pilot program in just Havana for now, but officials say it could be rolled out to the rest of Cuba, where 11-12 is currently the youngest level of competition.

Outsiders said that could give Cuba an edge over places like Puerto Rico, which holds fights starting at 11 years old, and Spain, where boxers start competing at 15.

"It's tough to start competing at 15," said Carlos Vargas, technical director of the Spanish Boxing Federation. "Then when you're 17 or 18 and you hit the international level, you're going up against boxers with 200 fights under their belts. ... You find yourself at a disadvantage with those rivals."

At 13 years old, Dayron Valdes, last year's Havana regional champion in the 88-pound (44-kilo) weight class, is already a veteran of youth boxing. He said his goal is to follow in the footsteps of his idol, La Cruz, representing Cuba on the winner's dais while fighting with honor and style.

"I used to scrap with the other kids in the neighborhood when I was 6. That's why I signed up for boxing," Valdes said, sitting on a rickety chair and unwrapping his bandaged hands. "I want to be a very technical boxer, a gentleman."

Associated Press writer Jorge Sainz in Madrid contributed to this report.

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