Boxers from the U.S. and Cuba have gone glove-to-glove on Cuban soil for the first time in 27 years in a semipro World Series of Boxing clash that in many ways resembled a big-time Las Vegas bout.
After a reggaeton duo got the crowd revved up Friday night, boxers entered Havana's Sport City arena through the haze of smoke machines and flashing lights. In between the action, models circled the ring holding up round cards as huge flat-screen displays showed replays of crunching jabs and uppercuts.
"I am prepared for a tough match and I want a tough match," Mohamed Salah, a welterweight who fights for the USA Knockouts, said at the weigh-in. "That's why I am here, and I am excited to be here. ... I'm a real boxer."
Cuba's entry into the 12-team international semipro league last year marked a major departure from more than 50 years during which professional sports were banned on the island. As recently as 2005, Fidel Castro railed against the "parasites that feed off the athlete's hard work" when money is involved with sports.
But since younger brother Raúl Castro took over the presidency, Cuba has not only joined the World Series of Boxing but announced that athletes from other sports will be allowed to sign contracts to compete overseas — as long as they fulfill their duties to national teams.
Cuba and the United States met each year in boxing from 1977 to 1995, though the last time they did so on the island was in 1987. Cuba won all of those encounters except in 1991, when a squad featuring a teenage Oscar de la Hoya managed a 6-6 tie in Fort Bragg, California.
"We know it is a traditional clash that always recalls connotations that can be bigger than sports," two-time world lightweight champ Cuban Lazaro Alvarez told the online magazine OnCuba recently. "Against the United States one always enjoys a win more and suffers a defeat more. But in my experience, until now, we have always beaten them."
Friday's matches were the first of a home-and-away series between the Knockouts and the Wranglers of Cuba.
Several hundred spectators turned out to cheer on the home team even though Havana's baseball club was playing the same night for a chance in the playoff finals.
The U.S. leg was originally set for March 28 in South Florida, the cradle of the Cuban exile community, but it was postponed days before the bouts were to take place. It was rescheduled for April 12 in Salem, New Hampshire, the Cuban Federation of Boxing says.
Cultural and athletic exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. have become increasingly common in recent years.
Sixteen years after a regular baseball series between Cuba and the United States was called off, a team of American collegian all-stars visited the island in 2012. The Cubans reciprocated the following year.
Despite being based in the United States, the Knockouts boxing squad that came to Cuba had a distinctly international flavor. Two of the five pugilists are originally from Venezuela, and there was one each from Brazil and Sweden.
This island of some 11 million inhabitants has a rich boxing tradition and often punches above its weight at international amateur tournaments.
World Series of Boxing fighters compete for sponsored teams and do not wear headgear during bouts, unlike amateur competition. They earn about $1,000 to $3,000 a month — which would be a big raise for the Cubans, though how much the Wranglers make has not explicitly been made public.
Cuba won Friday's bouts 5-0, with one knockout and four technical decisions. The winner of the series goes on to face either Ukraine or Russia on April 25 and May 2 for a ticket to the finals.
"It's exciting for everyone to have a direct clash with the United States, known for its sporting strength and traditional quality in boxing," said Rolando Acebal, the Cuban coach. "Everyone wants to have their best performance and put on a good show."