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Articles of 2005

25 years later, the fighters of Mariel

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Carlos Albuerne left Cuba with only the clothes on his back. He gathered one of his brothers and a small group of friends and they pushed their way on to a crowded vessel that was pointed north. The only clear vision he had of that day was his dream of fighting for a world title. This, figured Albuerne, was the chance of a lifetime.

More than 100,000 other Cubans agreed with him.

The Mariel Boatlift began April 20, 1980 when Cuban president Fidel Castro declared the port of Mariel open to those wishing to leave the island. At least 1,700 boats, most from South Florida, arrived in Mariel to pick up and transport Cubans to freedom. It ended on October 31 of the same year and it is estimated that 125,000 Cubans fled Castro’s communist way of life.

In what was initially supposed to be relief for those seeking political asylum, Castro opened his prisons and mental institutions and allowed an array of troubled individuals to leave with those who opposed the Communist party. The political opponents were labeled gusanos (worms) by Castro, as for the rest, it was simply a way to transfer his headaches to the United States.

Thus, those arriving in the United States did so under a shroud of suspicion. No one was quite sure who was a political prisoner or a petty thief or a murderer. Then, the opening scenes of the 1983 film “Scarface,” during which Al Pacino’s murderous character arrived on the Mariel boatlift, did more to tarnish the reputation of the refugees than Castro ever could.

“There were maybe 5,000 hardcore criminals out of 125,000,” said Enrique Encinosa, a Miami-based author and boxing historian. “And I’d say maybe 1,000 of them killed one another off in the first year-and-half. Yes, crime did go up. But not for long. A lot of people came over with criminal records. But it was because they were sent to jail for having more than the five pounds of meat that the government rationed to the people.”

In the mix that was sent adrift in the Atlantic, a handful of boxers washed ashore with the rest of the exiles. With professional boxing banned in Cuba since 1962, the Cuban Olympic boxing program was at the height of its dominance in 1980. But the fighters who left on that massive flotilla enjoyed only moderate success boxing in the United States.

“I came to America so I could continue boxing,” said Albuerne, speaking through translator and New York-based journalist Mario Gonzalez.

Albuerne, a junior lightweight, was moved to an U.S. Army base in the south with thousands of other refugees. After being detained for three months, he made his way to Boston and continued fighting as an amateur. In 1982, he settled in Miami and turned pro.

Of the Marielitos who fought professionally in America, only a few reached world-class status. Among them were Pedro Laza, Mauricio Rodriguez and Luis “Kid” Monzote.

Monzote boxed at junior flyweight and decisioned former champion Prudencio Cardona in 1987. The southpaw followed that up by winning the WBC Continental Americas title and, in 1990, he challenged world champion Humberto Gonzalez at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Monzote was stopped in the third round.

Laza (29-7) fought Cornelius Boza Edwards on national television and Rodriguez (39-3) won a WBC Continental Americas junior welterweight title. After their careers, Monzote and Rodriguez both spent time in prison.

“As a group, they didn’t pan out very well,” said Encinosa, who managed the career of Remigio Carrillo. The welterweight was 6-1 as a pro before he decided to join Miami’s workforce.

“Some of them, like Carrillo, got frustrated,” said Encinosa. “Some of them just left to do other things. Sometimes minimum wage can be better than toiling in the gym for months for free. No one from the national team came over. There were some fairly well-known second- and third-string fighters. Some of them weren’t seasoned enough. Some of them were too old by the time they got here. Some of the fighters were frustrated because they were pampered in Cuba and not pampered here.”

While Marlielitos like Albuerne, Raul Hernandez and Eduardo Lugo did not have  impressive statistical records, they were considered sturdy trial horses. In 19 career fights, Lugo managed to squeeze in bouts against Buddy McGirt, Gene Hatcher, Johnny Bumphus and Frankie Randall. He lost each one of those contests.

“These guys were very tough, tough opponents,” said Encinosa. “They didn’t have the patience to sit around and wait. They needed the money and that was the name of the game. A guy like Lugo would rather fight someone tough like Hatcher, for more money, than fight five or six preliminary bouts that he could win. Lugo was always in a war.”

Perhaps the most notable athlete to arrive via the boatlift was Barbaro Garbey, who spent three years in the majors and played for the Detroit Tigers 1984 World Series championship team. Garbey is the uncle of Cuban boxer Ramon Garbey, who defected in 1996 just six days before Joel Casamayor.

In theory, the boatlift was conceived for Cubans like Antonio “Puppy” Garcia. He described himself as a Prisoner of War and had the scars to prove it. Garcia, one of the most beloved fighters on the Havana fight scene of the late 1950s, came to the United States via Mariel. He died at the age of 72 in Miami on October 23, 2005. Before his death, he conducted several interviews with this writer concerning his life in the ring and his political journey.

At the end of his career, somewhere between 1959 and 1960, Garcia was on the verge of fighting Hogan Kid Bassey for the world featherweight title. He was unbeaten over his last dozen fights but the changing politics of his country forced him into inactivity.

“Angelo Dundee and my manager were working on that title fight,” said Garcia. “It was supposed to be in the Orange Bowl.”

Garcia was a national featherweight champion and enthralled the public with a brutal three-fight series with compatriot Ciro Moracen at El Palacio Deportes in Havana. In a sense, he was boxing royalty, fighting first in the shadow of his older brother Lino, a top featherweight who went 10 rounds with Hall-of-Famer Sandy Saddler in Havana in 1947. Quickly, though, Puppy began to outshine his brother.

“The biggest idol in Cuba was Puppy Garcia,” said Dundee. “He never made a bad fight. He was exciting. He was a brawler and a bleeder. They loved him in the fight clubs in Havana.”

“I started boxing professionally when I was 16 years old,” said Garcia. “I think the reason I had so much sympathy from the public was because I used to bleed a lot. That’s why I was so popular.”

The adoration Garcia received from the boxing public only made his political problems worse. In 1961, at 4 a.m., a group of Castro’s soldiers busted into Garcia’s home and took him away. Garcia, who was 27 at the time, refused to support the Communist party and thus spent the next nine years in prison.

Garcia became a convenient target, one that Castro used as a symbol of the government’s power. If they could bring a man like Puppy Garcia to his knees, no man was truly safe.

“I was against the Communist party so I went to jail,” he said. “While in prison, in 1963, we were celebrating the 24th of February, which is a very patriotic day in Cuba. The guards surrounded me with guns and started hitting me. They smashed my ankle. They cut open my head. It was horrible. I was sent to a nursing facility to heal.”

Nine years later, at the age of 36, Garcia was released from prison. Even if he wanted to continue boxing, his ankle was too severely damaged.

The first real chance he had to leave Cuba was on the Mariel boatlift. Garcia remembered people trying to get out of Cuba through the Peruvian Embassy. It became a portal to freedom on April 1, 1980 when six Cubans crashed a bus through the gates and were granted political asylum. As punishment to that country, Castro removed all guards from the embassy and announced it was open to the public. As a result of that event, President Jimmy Carter said the United States would accept 3,500 political prisoners from Cuba.

Such an offer was an affront to Castro, so he seized the opportunity to embarrass Carter and his government. On April 20, the odyssey began.

 “I left in the Mariel boat lift,” said Garcia. “It was quite a journey. I was a Prisoner of War. When Mariel happened people took advantage of it. I left Cuba by myself. I left on Mother’s Day, May 11, 1980 and I arrived in Key West, Florida on May 12, 1980. My life was in danger and twice they stopped me in Cuba before I left.”

Garcia remembered the site of thousands of Cubans leaving in overcrowded boats. He remembered the rough weather and the rougher seas. For Garcia, and thousands of other Cubans, nothing that lay ahead could have been worse than what they already endured.

“I was aware that a lot of homosexuals and criminals were leaving the island,” he said. “But I wanted to leave the island so badly that I didn’t care about the crowd around me. I wanted to leave the island as soon as possible. I knew that Fidel Castro let go a lot more than political prisoners.”

Albuerne was less a political prisoner and more a young man seeking a future in the sport of boxing. He was born in the Cuban province of Manzanillo and began boxing at the age of 11. He was a contemporary of the great Cuban heavyweight Teofilio Stevenson, but did not consider him a friend because Stevenson had fought one of Albuerne’s best friends.

Of the Mariel journey, Albuerne remembers being at sea for eight to 10 hours on a very crowded boat. He was 21 years old when arrived in the United States. The career he dreamed about never really got on track.

“Carlos was tough,” said Encinosa. “He was an opponent. He’d fight anybody, anywhere. He was sent all over the place and that’s a hard way to make it in pro boxing.”

On December 20, 1986, Albuerne would participate in his last pro fight. He was stopped in the third round by future world champion John John Molina. Along the way, Albuerne lost more than he won. Perhaps his best stretch came when he went unbeaten in six fights between 1983 and 1984. By the time he retired he had faced Juan Nazario, another future champion, and contenders Bernard Gray and Jackie Beard.

“I was tired of being used. I got tired of everything,” said Albuerne of his career. “I couldn’t fight any more.”

While boxing has not been particularly kind to the Marielitos, Albuerne has made it his career. Today, at the Teo Cruz Gym in Miami, he trains heavyweight contender Shannon Briggs as well as Danny Santiago and Juan Arroyo. He has also works with Garbey, whom he described as one of the best fighters in the world.

Like most Cuban exiles, Marielito or otherwise, Albuerne has some fond memories of the island, if not the government. Before he died, Garcia was able to return to Cuba and visit his ailing brother, Lino. Albuerne doesn’t believe he will make such a trip. At least not while Castro remains in power.

“I don’t know if I will ever return,” he said. “I can’t really tell you. I’m sure that I won’t. All of my family is in Cuba. I miss them. I call my mother all the time.”

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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