How to Box in Cuba: The Methods and the Masters

By Mike Casey on November 11, 2015
How to Box in Cuba: The Methods and the Masters
Nat Fleischer wrote: “Chocolate stood out as one of the cleverest boxers in the world.”

When you examine the Cuban mentality you begin to quickly understand what makes Cuban fighters so exceptional…

Before the revolution of 1959 when Fidel Castro swept to power, the beautiful island of Cuba afforded itself one last dollop of palatial extravagance, quite literally in the form of a palace.

Architect Lin Arroyo was renowned for constructing imaginative buildings of vision and luxury which seemed to dovetail perfectly with the opulent decadence of Havana in the fifties. Arroyo built the Havana Hilton and the National Theatre. He also built the spectacular Cuban Sports Palace, a revolutionary sports arena that quickly became symbolic of Cuba’s goldmine of boxing excellence. For Cuba itself had long been a palace of fistic gold.

Constructed between 1955 and 1957, the Coliseo, as it was known, was a circular layered arena whose top layer was a dome-like structure that required no supporting beams and provided a breathtaking open space below.

A sumptuous, air-conditioned building, the Coliseo was reminiscent of the classic beauty and elegance of Italian architecture. Whilst the building was constructed of concrete, there was also extensive use of marble murals and pastel shades of blue, green, red and yellow. Cuban pink marble covered a large area of the lobbies and courts, while eight murals painted by Cuban artist Ronaldo Lopez Dirube embraced the themes of boxing, fencing, archery, basketball, gymnastics and other sports.

For boxing shows, the center arena was filled with 3,000 temporary ringside seats to add to the actual capacity of 16,000. The project was started by Cuba’s president, General Batista, and it seemed that architect Lin Arroyo had thought of everything. The medical facilities were first class, there was living accommodation for Cuban and foreign athletes, as well as a special closed area for journalists and other members of the media.

Alas, the Coliseo was too late for Kid Gavilan, whose spectacular career was drawing to a close in America, while other major talents like Jose Napoles and Florentino Fernandez made only rare appearances before Cuba banned professional boxing in 1961.

But boxing went on and Cuba’s amateur fighters have enjoyed extraordinary success when one considers the diminutive size of their nation. Where does all that talent come from? How do they achieve success with such remarkable consistency?

Mentality

When you examine the Cuban mentality, the ‘us against them’ approach of an island nation, you begin to quickly understand what makes Cuban fighters so exceptional and why — ironically — their top amateurs are still professionals in everything but name. The Cubans do it their way, handing down trusted methods and tricks that have been employed for generations. While Cuba is not a closed society in the way of North Korea, there is a stubbornly insular approach to doing things that can be both good and bad. While the better elements of modern coaching might be missed, it can also be said that the more eccentric and ineffective methods of today’s training are far better for being dismissed or simply ignored.

This single-mindedness, combined with tremendous hard work and sacrifice, is a key factor in the constant manufacture of top quality boxers. Cuba, in its own eyes, is a five-star club battling against the world. A casual approach and an expectation of instant glory won’t buy you membership. Legendary amateur ace Teofilo Stevenson, who memorably shunned a showdown with Muhammad Ali, once said, “Cubans like to box because of our temperament, because of our idiosyncrasies and because we have needed to know how to defend ourselves.”

The talent of Cuban fighters is reinforced by ring intelligence and buoyed by patriotism and a strength that comes from the heart. Their boxing skills and self-discipline extend beyond the ring into their everyday lives. Lessons are learned thoroughly and painstakingly. Patience is a major requirement. Some time ago I watched a documentary on Cuban boxing in which a young lad was being taught the value of a sound defense. His trainer tied his hands behind his back to teach him how to slip and duck punches. It was days before the lad was allowed into the ring untethered and permitted to throw punches.

Every box is ticked in the Cuban school of teaching, with all the conscientious application of a proof reader scanning for typographical errors. Watching many of today’s professional boxers, I find myself frequently despairing at the countless holes in their technique. It is small wonder that so many of them burn out quickly after taking too many punches in too many tough fights. Say what you will about Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins, but both men have learned the essential rudiments of the game and know how to look after themselves.

Many others, who believe they can climb to the top of the tree with only a few tools in their box, have alarmingly porous defenses, cannot box intelligently or even punch correctly. The number of arm punchers and hit-and-hope swingers I see now leaves me wondering how their trainers managed to slip through even boxing’s torn and tattered vetting net.

Explosive

While many Cuban fighters have been famously explosive and flamboyant, all are thoroughly drilled in every aspect of the game. My frustration at bad teaching is shared by Adam Weiss, a specialist in cross training for martial arts and author of a quite splendid article titled, Boxing Basic Fundamentals: The Cuban Boxing School. Here is how Mr. Weiss sets out the essential elements for success:

1.Guard position:  The optimal position to start and finish any action. It is defensive by default. With a good guard you are protected against offensive actions and in the optimal position to attack and counter attack.
2.Displacement:  Once the student controls the guard position, he can learn the basic displacements. What we call footwork. First the boxer learns to move forward, then backwards and later side-to-side. Once that is learned, the next thing is the pendulum step (“el paso péndulo”). Guillermo Rigondeaux is a master at this.
3. To Turn: To pivot on one foot to change direction quickly in any technical-tactical boxing action. The boxer has to learn to pivot to both sides, before he learns to punch. This was the trade mark of Pernell Whitaker
4. Straight punches: Jab to the head. Jab to the body. Cross to the head. Cross to the body in that order.
5. Uppercuts: Uppercut with the leading hand to the head. Uppercut with the leading hand to the body. Uppercut with the rear hand to the head. Uppercut with the rear hand to the body.
6. Hooks: Hook with the leading hand to the head. Hook with the leading hand to the body. Hook with the rear hand to the head. Hook with the rear hand to the body. Once you learn to punch, it is time to learn to defend from those punches.
7. Arms defenses: Parry and block
8. Defense with your body: Bob and weave
9. Defenses with legs: Side steps, backward steps and pivots.

Says Adam Weiss, “Your goal as a beginner should be to master these fundamentals in the same order exposed here. It is sad to see boxers without the right guard and without a clue about footwork (the two most basic skills that any boxer should learn).”

Professionals

We begin to see why Cuba produces so many top class amateur boxers and why so many of its professional fighters occupy lofty positions in any objective and non-political hall of fame. Their names roll off the tongue and are so plentiful that one lives in fear of omitting a few when attempting to list them. Arguably the greatest of them all was Kid Chocolate, the wonderful “Cuban Bob Bon,” who was one of the most sublime boxers ever to grace the stage.

Chocolate was a master of boxing technique, armed with an array of silky and fluid moves. Back in 1957, when The Ring editor Nat Fleischer was invited to Havana to see the new Sports Palace, he couldn’t help but reminisce about the pioneering Kid who blazed a magnificent trail for others to follow. Wrote Fleischer: “Chocolate stood out as one of the cleverest boxers in the world. He was a featherweight whose rise to fistic fame is what started boxing on a big scale in the Pearl of the Antilles. His recognition by the New York Sate Athletic Commission as world featherweight champion and as holder of the junior lightweight crown aroused national interest in the sport in his country.”

Kid Chocolate’s popularity never waned in Cuba and prompted the government to launch a program of free instruction and medical care to all youngsters who took up boxing. Boxing schools flourished throughout the island and Chocolate held the prized position of chief supervisor of boxing after his retirement until drug addiction got the better of him. In the late fifties, according to Fleischer,  the Kid weighed little more than 80 pounds, yet lived on to the age of 78 before his death on August 8, 1988.

In the ring and in his glorious prime, Kid Chocolate looked a perfect picture in every way, being described by veteran New York scribes as a blend of George Dixon and Joe Gans in terms of skill, intelligence and dexterity. “The story of Chocolate is truly an Horatio Alger yarn,” wrote Fleischer. “When at the height of his career, he was one of the greatest showmen I ever saw in the ring.”

Chocolate’s hair was immaculately groomed and oiled when he came into the ring. He wore black silk trunks trimmed with bright red and a bright silk gown, prompting Fleischer to observe, “A Broadway actor couldn’t make a more spectacular appearance.” In Fleischer’s opinion, Chocolate ranked alongside Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Pep for technique and beauty.

Born Eligio Sardinias Montalvo, Kid Chocolate engaged in 152 fights in a professional career that began in 1927 and ended in 1938. He won 136, drew six and lost 10. Only twice was he stopped inside schedule. The equally wonderful Tony Canzoneri knocked out Chocolate in two rounds in 1933, and Frankie Klick stopped the Kid in seven rounds later that year for the junior lightweight championship.

Two years before, Chocolate had won the junior lightweight title from Benny Bass and lost a disputed split decision to Canzoneri for the lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden. That battle was one of the greatest ever waged for the 135-pound crown. In 1932, the Kid gained recognition as the world featherweight champion when he knocked out Lew Feldman in 12 rounds. Chocolate also crossed gloves with Bushy Graham, Jack (Kid) Berg, Battling Battalino and many other top class men of the golden age.

Nor did the Kid’s talent fade away at the tail end of his career. Between December 1936 and December 1938, he won 25 and drew three of his last 28 fights.

Pre-Revolution

Of the Cuban boxers who started their careers in the pre-revolution era, the names of Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez and Kid Tunero will forever be remembered and celebrated across the national and international boxing spectrum.

Gavilan, like Chocolate, was flamboyant and flashy, the consummate showman but also a wonder of the ring and a classic exponent of the bolo punch. Gavilan had an unenviable task in following the mighty Sugar Ray Robinson to the welterweight throne, but coped admirably with the assignment.

A poor, skinny kid who toiled for little money in the Cuban sugar cane fields, Gavilan set his mind on escaping to a better life. He would quite literally fight his way out of poverty. For his third amateur bout, Gavilan trudged seven miles to the arena where he was fighting, carrying the ring ropes with him and getting by on just one sandwich. He personally set up the ring before winning the main event.

Gavilan was a bantamweight when he turned professional in 1943, but quickly put on the pounds as he campaigned busily in Havana and made four trips to Mexico. By the time of his winning American debut against Johnny Ryan at Madison Square Garden in November, 1946, the Keed had matured from a 122-pound novice into a 146-pound man of action who would go on to become one of American boxing’s most vibrant and productive engines.

Undeterred by a failed attempt lift Robinson’s welterweight crown in 1949, Gavilan won recognition as champion two years later with a unanimous points victory over the talented Johnny Bratton, breaking Johnny’s jaw in the process. Robinson had cleared the path to hunt down his old foe Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship, but Gavilan kept the welterweight pot boiling and proved a smash at the box office as he turned back the challenges of Billy Graham (twice), Bobby Dykes, Gil Turner and Carmen Basilio. In his final title defense, Gavilan defeated Bratton again, giving Johnny a severe trouncing over 15 rounds at the Chicago Stadium.

Kid Tunero

Middleweight Kid Tunero (Evelio Celestino Mustelier) never won the world championship in the ferociously tough era of his career span (1929 to 1948), yet struck fear into the hearts of many of the top names of the day. Tunero would certainly do likewise if he was around right now. He is a perfect example of the great depth of talent that existed in the eight traditional weight classes.

Tunero, from Victoria de las Tunas, won 96 and drew 16 of his 144 fights, winning and losing against Marcel Thil and Holman Williams and scoring quality wins over Anton Christoforidis, Jock McAvoy and Ken Overlin. In 1942, Tunero also edged the young Ezzard Charles on a split decision at the Music Hall Arena in Cincinnati to hand Ezzard only his second loss in 25 fights.

Talk about ‘have gloves will travel.’ Kid Tunero was a true cosmopolitan, coming out of Cuba to campaign in the United States, France, England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Morocco, Algeria, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, Chile, Dominican Republic, Panama, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Portugal and Belgium. Perhaps the only surprise about Tunero’s career is that he never got acquainted with fellow globetrotter Archie Moore on a professional basis!

One Helluva Fighter!

When Jose Angel Napoles successfully defended his welterweight championship against Emile Griffith at the Inglewood Forum in Los Angles in October 1969, ringsider Rocky Graziano said of Napoles, “He’s one helluva fighter.”

Napoles was all that, one of the greatest welterweight champions of all time. Known as Mantequilla (smooth as butter), Jose had won the crown earlier that year with a 13th round stoppage of Curtis Cokes at the same venue and recalled, “He didn’t know where all the blows were coming from. I spread mantequilla on him and he didn’t see me.”

Basing himself in Mexico after leaving Castro’s Cuba, Napoles would be beaten only seven times in a 17-year, 88-fight career. He was an acquired taste for some fight observers, while others could never really appreciate his magic. To some extent, I could understand this. I was 17 when Napoles came to England in 1972 to defend his title against former European champion, Ralph Charles.

Ralph was a top class performer at European level, winning the European crown in Vienna where he belted out Johann Orsolics with a terrific combination. However, nine months before challenging Napoles, Charles had lost his title to Frenchman Roger Menetrey in Geneva and was past his best by that time.

Napoles knocked out Ralph in the seventh round at the Empire Pool, Wembley, but how disappointed I was in my first look at the world champion. In the early going, he was missing Charles with the wildness of an overly keen amateur. Jose finally clicked into gear and closed the show in very impressive fashion, but overall I was left feeling short-changed.

But what can you say about a world champion who just goes on and on knocking off his challengers? Napoles was known for his love of the grape but it rarely seemed to affect his fighting capability, although he wasn’t always in the best of shape. And whilst the quality of all weight divisions had already been diluted by the time of Jose’s reign, there were still some top class welterweights on show. Napoles lost his title briefly to Billy Backus on a cut eye, but regained the crown and racked up successful defenses against Curtis Cokes, Griffith, Ernie Lopez (twice), Charles, Adolph Pruitt, Roger Menetrey, Clyde Gray, Horacio Saldano and Armando Muniz (twice).

In 1975, Napoles finally lost the title when he was battered to defeat in six rounds by Englishman John H. Stracey in Mexico City. A year earlier, in his attempt to become a two-weight undisputed world champion, Jose had retired after six rounds of being coldly pounded by the magnificent Carlos Monzon. Of Monzon, Jose said, “He was very heavy. I lost, but I gave him some blows, jabs, liver hooks.”

Nat Fleischer once described Tommy Burns as an ‘overstuffed middleweight.’ It is worth remembering that the great Napoles was really an overstuffed lightweight.

Celebrated

A far less celebrated Cuban ace who won the welterweight championship was Luis Rodriguez, who suffered the misfortune of being a peer of Emile Griffith. Rodriguez fought a consistently high level of opposition in a glittering 120-fight career that saw him crowned world welterweight champion in March 1963 when he unanimously outpointed Griffith at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. It was the first of a trilogy between the two men, with Griffith regaining the title in their second meeting and then retaining it in their third, each time by a split decision. There was little to separate the two men across that series, yet Rodriguez, who had to suffer the nickname of El Feo (The Ugly One), could never match Griffith’s overall charisma and achievements.

Here again, however, we look at a man’s record and marvel at its consistent quality. Rodriguez defeated Virgil Akins, Garnet (Sugar) Hart, Benny Paret, Chico Vejar, Yama Bahama, Jose Gonzalez, Curtis Cokes, Gene (Ace) Armstrong, Federico Thompson, Joey Giambra, Wilbert (Skeeter) McClure, Denny Moyer, Rubin Carter, George Benton, Bennie Briscore, Rafael Gutierrez and Tom (The Bomb) Bethea.

Like Napoles, Rodriguez couldn’t graduate to the middleweight championship, although only a brilliant bolt of lightning prevented him from lifting Nino Benvenuti’s crown. Cut and bleeding heavily in the 11th round of their fight in Rome, Nino produced a corker of a left hook to flatten Rodriguez at the 1:08 mark.

The Ugly One? No, Senor Rodriguez was always very easy on this writer’s eye. That goes for all the Cuban greats. They know their stuff and they are beautiful to watch.

What a shame that today’s young ace, Guillermo Rigondeaux, has still only had 15 fights as a result of a largely unappreciated style, political shenanigans and a big dollop of spite from nice old Bob Arum following Rigondeaux’s victory over the never-was golden boy Nonito Donaire.

Guillermo’s last fight was in December last year. You wonder what 75-year-old Jose Napoles might think of all this as he sits outside his modest home in downtown Juarez. Perhaps he’s just enjoying the local tequila and remembering the days when the fight game was a lot easier to understand.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Kid Chocolate vs Tony Canzoneri I - Part 1/5



Kid Chocolate vs Tony Canzoneri I - Part 2/5



Kid Chocolate vs Tony Canzoneri I - Part 3/5



Kid Chocolate vs Tony Canzoneri I - Part 4/5



Kid Chocolate vs Tony Canzoneri I - Part 5/5



Carmen Basilio v.s Kid Gavilan



Kid Gavilan D10 Johnny Bratton II



Kid Gavilan TKO10 Chuck Davey



Kid Gavilan TKO10 Walter Cartier



Jose Napoles v s Armando Muniz I



Jose Napoles - Hedgemon Lewis I



Jose Napoles vs. Billy Backus II



john h. stracey vs jose napoles



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  1. Mike Casey 03:30am, 11/13/2015

    Thanks, Bob!

  2. Bob 03:20am, 11/13/2015

    Nice article, Mike. So many of the Cubans make boxing look so easy, even though it took an incredible amount of commitment and dedication for that to happen. Beautiful story and great photo accompanying it.

  3. Mike Casey 02:16am, 11/12/2015

    Yes, Mike, Chocolate was a thing of beauty, wasn’t he? I also feel that Canzoneri never quite gets as much credit as some of the other greats, perhaps because - sadly - he is fading from memory.
    ‘Your name’ - you are quite right about learning the fundamentals!

  4. Jack the lad 11:41pm, 11/11/2015

    Terrific article, Mike.  Perhaps if the boxing fundamentals were taught by today’s trainers, there would be fewer injuries, particularly cuts from headbutts.  I well remember Jose Napoles; he was beautiful to watch.  And who had a better right hand than Stevenson? A very well researched piece.

  5. Mike Silver 07:42pm, 11/11/2015

    Wonderful article Mike. I read that Kid Chocolate learned to box by watching movies of the great fighters of the 1920s (Leonard, Walker, Dundee, Herman, Lynch etc.) that were shown in Cuba. He mimicked their moves but he was a natural who was truly spectacular as the amazing first fight with Canzoneri shows. Shame about G. Rigondeaux’s lack of activity. He is one of the few boxers worth watching today.

  6. Mike Casey 02:07pm, 11/11/2015

    Thank you, Jim. Agree totally with your sentiments on Gavilan and Napoles. What a pair of talents!

  7. Jim Crue 01:31pm, 11/11/2015

    Mike, I think Nat Fletcher’s love of boxing and his source of income did allow him to go after the crooks of that era. It was common knowledge to everyone in the game but was overlooked out of fear and just not wanting to get involved. The Ring did not have a reputation for writing anything controversial, unlike the American publication Sports Illustrated which has done a great service reporting on corruption and PEDS in sport.
    Gavilan along with Robinson was my favorite fighter. He was so graceful. The Cubans were well coached and trained and the Kid was a natural. How much would a films of Robinson v Gavilan be worth? Sad they were not filmed.
    I was ringside in LA for the Naples v Ernie Lopex fight in Feb of 1970. Naples was indeed smooth like butter. A truly great fighter.
    Thanks again for a wonderful article. Stories like yours and the esteemed Clarence George and others make this the best boxing website.

  8. Mike Casey 01:02pm, 11/11/2015

    Thanks, fellas. Yes, Jim, I still read old articles about the Norris era and the International Boxing Club and its shenanigans. But even The Ring - which had a lot more teeth in those days - never really hammered Norris. In many quarters there was a strange affection for him.

  9. Jim Crue 12:14pm, 11/11/2015

    Thanks for another great article Mike. Very, very well done.

    Watch the Graziano v Davey fight and the Gavilan v Davey fight. Graziano was not even trying. Davey bounces around like a kid on a pogo stick. Watch the Gavilan fight. The Keed could have taken him out in the first round. He held back on his punches until he decided not to. And Ike Williams swore he threw the Davey fight. Jim Norris and his International Boxing Club had a hold on boxing and built up Davey with fixed fights. Watch Gavilan and Bratton or Gavilan and Gil turner. Each of those guys would have murdered Davey. Even The Ring Magazine wrote articles about the suspect Davey fights. The so called incorruptible Carmen Basilo, a great champion, did not fight hard against Davey. If any of these guys had crossed Norris they would have been in big trouble. Anyone watching those fights knew what was going on, I watched some with my grandfather who laughed at Davey’s ineptness. Davey had to know to.

  10. Eric 10:24am, 11/11/2015

    Great article. You have to wonder how much of Cuba’s training methods were influenced by the former Soviet Union and/or vice versa. I believe that Archie Moore stated that Kid Chocolate was his favorite fighter. Always like those photos showing guys doing roadwork wearing street clothes. Don’t know if it was just a photo op or the real deal, but it seems a 5-mile run in that attire would chafe the thighs like hell.

  11. KB 10:15am, 11/11/2015

    Excellent one. This should be kept aside and used so that one can win a debate on the subject. Everyone is an expert on Cuban boxing but few really know anything about it.

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