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Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview with Author Tim Wendel

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Boxing and the Splendor of Cuban Sports: An Interview with Author Tim Wendel

Cuba is an island nation of roughly 11.4 million inhabitants and while sugar and cigars are major exports, superb athletes aren’t very far behind.

Known as a longtime baseball hotbed, the island has produced countless individuals who played and shined in the major leagues. Not to be overlooked is that Cuba has also given the world some of the best boxers ever to slip on a pair of gloves.

A partial list of standouts includes Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Kid Chocolate, Sugar Ramos, Benny Paret, Joel Casamayor, Erislandy Lara, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Yordenis Ugas.

That’s a mouthful and then some.

Tim Wendel, a Baltimore, Maryland-based writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University and one of the founders of USA Today Baseball Weekly, has visited Cuba four times. Though baseball is Wendel’s specialty, he’s also familiar with the gloved warriors.

Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel

Why has Cuba, despite its small population been so successful in producing so many outstanding athletes?

“Sports provided a way for Cuba to compete and even excel on the international stage. Baseball and such Olympic sports as boxing and track and field were emphasized by the Castro government. It helped that Fidel Castro, the island’s longtime dictator, loved sports, starred at basketball, ping-pong and baseball as a schoolboy,” explained Wendel, who has published 14 books including several works of fiction.

“I had fun teasing out the “what-if” aspect of the latter in my first novel, “Castro’s Curveball.” Winning gold medals and doing well in such international competitions as the World Baseball Classic was a way for Cuba to stand out. In addition, Cuba often had the domestic situation to develop stellar athletes. An understanding of a particular sport was regularly handed down from parent to child, as well as team allegiances. For example, if older members of a family were fans of the Habana Lions, once one of the fabled winter ball teams, the children would likely be Lions fans, too.”

And there have been plenty of incentives for athletes to excel on the world stage.

“More importantly, performing well against the rest of the world was a way for an athlete to help his or her family,” said Wendel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University. “For decades, the best apartments and automobiles, what little the island nation had, or the government could provide, went to the best athletes.”

Stevenson, a three-time Olympic gold medalist who recently passed away, never fought professionally.

“It’s unfortunate that Stevenson never boxed against the best. I believe that’s why many baseball players have opted to defect,” Wendel said. “They want to test themselves against the best. Stevenson would have done well against Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the other elite boxers from the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, politics derailed what could have been some epic bouts.”

Recently the Cuban government has allowed its boxers to leave but in turn they would have to hand over a significant portion of their purse. What’s Wendel’s opinion on this matter?

“The new policy is better than nothing. They started to take a similar approach with baseball about 10 years ago and it allowed some of the top athletes in that sport to have more control over their affairs, make some money, and see more of the world,” he said. “But having a significant portion of their earnings going back to the government sends the wrong message. If the Cuban government believes this will stop or delay their top athletes from defecting, they are misjudging the situation. The more the Cuban athletes hear about how professional sports works in the rest of the world, especially the U.S., the more they want to be a part of it.”

Wendel said there’s something about athletic excellence that any fan, Cuban or otherwise, can appreciate.

“The Cuban people, like sports fans anywhere, enjoy watching excellence and that’s been the island’s legacy for many decades,” he pointed out. “The success of Stevenson eventually led to fellow Cuban champion Felix Savon. Both of them are three-time Olympic champions.”

Many Cuban stars are more than mere athletes, they’re actors on a stage, a really big and grand stage. “A flair for the game, whether it’s in boxing or baseball or other sports, has been misunderstood over the years. Cubans, similar to athletes from other Latin American nations, love to exhibit a joy for the game,” said Wendel. “In this country, that’s sometimes mistaken for showing the other team up. But as more Latinos have played starring roles, especially in the U.S. major leagues, I believe fans and even opposing players better understand where the Latino stars are coming from. Why do they do what they do?”

Wendel focused on something with which he’s very familiar: “A decade ago, I was an advisor on a permanent exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown,” he said. “We advocated for a screen showing a highlight loop of amazing plays by Latino stars (Roberto Alomar snaring a line drive, Omar Vizquel bare-handing a ball to save a no-hitter, etc.). That became the most popular part of our “Viva Baseball” exhibit.”

Castro was the boss of the island from 1959 until his passing in 2008. During his four trips to Cuba, did Wendel ever have a chance to speak with El Presidente?

“I never spoke with Castro, which may have been just as well. He’s a major character in the two novels I set in Havana (“Castro’s Curveball” and, most recently, “Escape From Castro’s Cuba,” the latter of which recently won an Indie Book Award). I was six rows behind Fidel at the 1999 exhibition game between Team Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles. That said, it could have been an awkward conversation.”

Wendel did however speak with a Cuban sports legend.

“Besides such Cuban ballplayers as Victor Mesa Sr. and Omar Linares, one of the most intriguing conversations I ever had about Cuba and sports was with Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400- and 800-meter races at the 1976 Olympics,” he said. “When he finished competing, he became one of Cuba’s top sports officials. We met at a reception in Havana for Olympic medalists. I wasn’t invited and got in through a back exit. “What are you doing here?” Juantorena asked me. I shrugged and then we had an enjoyable conversation about Cuba and sports.”

For decades, getting to Cuba was a difficult proposition for an American. But if you did make it there, it could be a splendid experience.

“Travel to the island got more difficult with Donald Trump as president,” Wendel offered. “In fact, the last trip I made to Havana was in early 2017 before he was sworn in. When everyday people can talk with everyday people, I believe we’re often better off than when politicians are left to dictate everything.”

“One of my best times in Cuba was walking through the old part of town, near the harbor and having a pack of kids and someone’s grandmother show me around,” he said. “In fact, the older lady insisted that the Cubans never trusted the Russians. When I asked why, she replied, “We’re better dancers.”

Wendel added: “On my four trips to Cuba, I bring along new baseballs. I’ll hand them out to the kids playing the game in alleys and backstreets,” he said. “They look at me with big eyes, like I just handed them the Hope Diamond.”

Have sports, including boxing, helped bridge the gap between the United States and Cuba?

“Yes, but we certainly have a long way to go. That said, I’m reminded of my first trip to the island, back in 1992. I was covering some exhibition games between Team Cuba and Team USA. This was a few weeks before the Barcelona Summer Olympics,” Wendel said. “First, I was so impressed with the Cuban’s caliber of play. That’s still one of the best infields, offensively and defensively, I’ve ever seen and I covered the major leagues, on and off, for 20 years.”

“Still, what I remember best about those games in Holguin, on the eastern end of the island, was this old man coming up to me in the stands. He asked me about the Minnesota Twins, who had won the 1991 World Series, one of the best Fall Classics ever, and I told him it would be difficult for them to repeat. The Twins didn’t have the largest payroll in the game.”

Wendel continued: “Undoubtedly, they would lose several stars and they did,” he said. “I was into my sports-talk radio answer when he interrupted me. “I know all that,” he said. “OK, I replied. What do you want to know? “What do they look like,” he said. “That’s when it
hit me what a star-crossed land Cuba is. Here’s this guy who knew as much about the Twins’ roster and payroll as me, but he didn’t know what they looked like.”

And because the island can be isolated from the outside world, it makes it difficult for those there to get any information.

“That’s how separated the island is from the rest of the world, especially the sports world,” Wendel said. “So, I went around the diamond, with major help from several of the other American sportswriters. We put Kent Hrbek at first base, Jack Morris on the mound and finished with Kirby Puckett in centerfield – a guy who’s difficult enough to describe in English. As I was searching for the right words, I was turning to my fellow scribes, looking out at the field. I didn’t focus on the old Cuban gentleman until I was finished. Then I turned back to him and said, “There you go. There’s your 1991 World Series champions.”

Wendel then described the man’s reaction. “The old man had tears in his eyes,” he said. “He slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Thank you. Now, I know.” With that, he disappeared into the crowd and since then I’ve never been able to get Cuba, its sports stars and its people, out of my head.”

Sports aren’t perfect and neither is boxing or baseball, but sometimes they are able to bridge gaps.

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Johnny Famechon was a Hero in Australia Where Willie Pep Had a Bad Night

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Willie Pep was good at boxing. He wasn’t so good at math. Ah, but hold the phone; we are getting ahead of ourselves. This isn’t a story about Willie Pep, but about former world featherweight champion Johnny Famechon who passed away last Thursday, Aug. 4, in Melbourne, Australia, at age 77.

Famechon was five years old when his parents left his birthplace in Paris and settled in Melbourne. He came to the fore in an era when boxing was still a mainstream sport and home-grown champions were national idols. The locals turned out in droves for the parade in Johnny’s honor when he returned to Melbourne after taking the featherweight crown from the Cuban-born Spaniard Jose Legra in a big upset at London’s Prince Albert Hall.

HeraldSun

Famechon’s Welcome Home Parade

Famechon’s first title defense came against Japan’s Fighting Harada. They met in Sydney, Australia, on July 28, 1969.

At age 26, Harada was a battle-tested veteran. He previously held world titles at flyweight and bantamweight and would be remembered as the only man to defeat the great Brazilian boxer Eder Jofre, a feat he accomplished not once, but twice.

Only two boxers in history – Bob Fitzsimmons and Henry Armstrong – had won world titles in three of the eight classic weight divisions. Harada, who entered the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, was bidding to become the third.

Team Harada insisted on a neutral referee. The British promoters chose Willie Pep. A legend in the sport, Pep had previously shared a ring with another Famechon, having out-pointed Johnny’s uncle Ray Famechon in a featherweight title defense at Madison Square Garden in 1950.

Some thought that Pep would favor Fighting Harada. American referees put a higher premium on aggression than did their foreign counterparts and Harada was a little buzzsaw who rarely took a backward step. But others thought that Pep’s selection favored Famechon, an elusive counterpuncher with whom the Connecticut “Will-‘o-Wisp” could identify; their styles were similar.

Pep had been the third man in the ring for four previous title fights, three in Jamaica and one in Brazil. But this fight would be different. He would be the sole arbiter. If the fight went the full 15 rounds, Willie Pep would be the judge and jury.

During the bout, Famechon scored one knockdown, sending Harada to the canvas in round five, but Harada scored three, knocking Famechon down in rounds two, 11, and 14. The last of the three knockdowns was the harshest, but Famechon made it to the final bell.

The fight ended in a clinch. Immediately upon separating the fighters, Pep raised both of their hands, a signal that the fight was a draw.

Fighting Harada’s handlers were outraged and demanded to see the scorecard. A policeman at ringside was empowered to give it a look-over (Australia had no boxing commission). What the policeman found was that there was indeed a discrepancy. However, it was the opposite of what Team Harada anticipated!

The fight was scored on the antiquated system whereby the winner of a round was awarded five points and the loser four points or less. In the case of an even round, both fighters got five points.

After 13 rounds, Fighting Harada had amassed 59 points on Pep’s card. He won the 14th round, giving him an aggregate total of 64 points. But when Pep added up the numbers “59” and “5” in the column where he kept the aggregate total, he came up with “65.”

Oops.

When Pep signaled that the fight was a draw, people stormed the ring from all sides. Newspaper reports said the belligerents were about evenly divided. Famechon, the Aussie, was the crowd favorite, but Fighting Harada was well-backed in the betting markets, a very big industry in Australia. Many were even angrier when Famechon was summoned back to the ring to have his hand raised.

The Famechon-Harada fight aired live on Japanese television. In Japan, there was a great outpouring of outrage. Pep had been instructed to score a round 5-4 if the round was narrow and 5-3 if there was a clear-cut winner. Despite the knockdowns, Pep scored every round 5-4 or 5-5. In the revised tally, he had Famechon winning 6-5-4 in rounds.

“Harada loses to referee” was the headline in Japan’s leading sports daily. Willie Pep made no friends in Australia either. There were shouts of “Yankee go home” as he left the ring.

Famechon and Harada met again five months later in Tokyo. One would assume that Fighting Harada proved superior and got a fair shake, winning the third title denied him in Sydney. But don’t assume.

Harada was well ahead after ten rounds but faded. On the deck in round 10, Famachon returned the favor three rounds later, knocking Harada down hard with a perfectly placed left hook. Harada was in dire straights when he came out for round 14 and Famechon put him away.

Harada never fought again and Famechon left the sport six months later after losing his crown to Vicente Saldivar. Johnny was only 25 years old, but had crammed 67 fights into a nine-year pro career and said enough is enough.

Famechon’s post-boxing life took a tragic turn in 1991 when he was hit by a car while out jogging on a Sydney highway. He spent several weeks in a coma and several years in a wheelchair but eventually recovered most of his motor skills and regained his speech to the point where he could serve as a boxing color commentator on television. In 2018, a larger-than- life statue of Famechon was unveiled at a public park in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston where he was a longtime resident.

For the record, Johnny Famechon finished his career with a record of 56-5-6 with 20 KOs. We here at The Sweet Science send our condolences to his loved ones.

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/clashof-the-little-giants) or via Amazon.

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Fast Results from Fort Worth Where Vergil Ortiz Jr Won His 19th Straight by KO

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In a match pushed back from March 19, Vergil Ortiz Jr moved one step closer to a mega-fight with Terence “Bud” Crawford or Errol Spence Jr or Boots Ennis with a ninth-round stoppage of England’s feather-fisted Michael McKinson. The end came 20 seconds into round nine when McKinson appeared to injure his knee as he fell to the canvas, an apparent residue of the body punch that put him on the deck late in the previous stanza. To that point, Ortiz had seemingly won every round.

It was the 19th win inside the distance in as many opportunities for Ortiz who resides in nearby Grand Prairie and was making his first start with new trainer Manny Robles. McKinson was undefeated heading in, but had scored only two knockouts while building his record to 22-0.

Ortiz, ranked #1 at welterweight by the WBA and the WBO, pulled out of the March 19 bout after being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a muscle disorder associated with over-training.

Ortiz’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, says that Ortiz will fight the winner of Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford next assuming that the fight gets made, and if doesn’t get made, Ortiz’s next fight will be with one or the other. The WBA, which stamped tonight’s fight an eliminator, may push to have Ortiz fight their secondary title-holder, Eimantas Stanionis.

Co-Feature

Houston’s Marlen Esparza (13-1, 1 KO) successfully defended her WBA/WBC world flyweight title with a unanimous decision over plucky 4’11 ½” Venezuelan southpaw Eva Guzman who had won 14 straight coming in, albeit against soft opposition. The judges had it 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Guzman (19-2-1) was game, but just didn’t have the physical tools to overcome Esparza whose lone defeat came at the hands of talented Seneisa Estrada.

Other Fights of Note

In a 10-round match contested at the catchweight of 150 pounds, Blair “The Flair” Cobbs rebounded from his first defeat with a career-best performance, a wide decision over former WBO 140-pound world titlist Maurice Hooker. It was the second straight loss for Hooker who returned to the ring after a 17-month hiatus and came out flat. Cobbs put him on the canvas in the opening frame with a combination and decked him twice more with straight lefts in round two.

Things got somewhat dicey for Cobbs in round five when he suffered a bad gash on his forehead from an accidental head butt, but Hooker, who had stablemate Bud Crawford in his corner, hesitated to let his hands go and couldn’t reverse the tide. The judges had it 96-91 and 97-90 twice for the flamboyant Cobbs who improved to 16-1-1 (10). Hooker, a consensus 5/2 favorite, lost for the third time in his last five starts and slumped to 27-3-3.

In the opener to the main portion of the DAZN card, Uzbekistan’s Bektimir Melikuziev (10-1, 8 KOs), a super middleweight growing into a light heavyweight, dominated and stopped overmatched Sladan Janjanin. Melikuziev put Janjanin down with a body punch in the opening minute of the fight and scored two more knockdowns before the bout was halted at the 2:18 mark of round three.

This was Melikuziev’s third fight back after his shocking one-punch annihilation by Gabriel Rosado. Janjanin, a well-traveled Bosnian who fought three weeks ago in Massachusetts, declined to 32-12 and was stopped for the eighth time.

Also

Chicago welterweight Alex Martin (18-4, 6 KOs) overcame a first-round knockdown to win a unanimous decision over 38-year-old Philadelphia journeyman Henry Lundy. The judges had it an unexpectedly wide 98-91, 97-92, 97-92.

Martin was coming off a points loss to McKinson and this bout was his reward for taking that fight on short notice. Lundy (31-11-1) has lost five of his last seven.

Floyd “Austin Kid” Schofield, a lightweight who appears to have a big upside, advanced to 11-0 (9 KOs) at the expense of Mexican trial horse Rodrigo Guerrero whose corner wisely pulled him out after five one-sided rounds. It was the ninth straight loss for Guerrero (26-15).

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Conlan Wins His Belfast Homecoming; Breezes Past Lackadaisical Marriaga

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“The Return of the Mick” was the label attached to tonight’s show at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The reference was to local fan favorite Michael “Mick” Conlan who returned to his hometown in hopes of jump-starting his career after suffering his first pro loss in a brutal encounter with Leigh Wood.

In that bout, a strong “Fight of the Year contender, Conlan was narrowly ahead on all three cards heading into the 12th and final round when the roof fell in. Wood, who was making the first defense of his WBA world featherweight title on his home turf in Nottingham, knocked the favored Conlan unconscious and clear out of the ring.

This was the sort of fight that can shorten a man’s career. Hence the intrigue in Conlan’s homecoming fight tonight against Miguel Marriaga. On paper, the Colombian, a three-time world title challenger, was a stern test considering the circumstances.

To the contrary, Marriaga had no fire in his belly until the final round when he hit Conlan with a shot that buckled his knees. But, by then Conlan was so far ahead without overly exerting himself that there was virtually no chance of another meltdown.

While Conlan won lopsidedly, the scores – 99-89 and 99-88 twice – were somewhat misleading. True, “Mick” had Marriaga on the deck in rounds 7, 8, and 9, but the punches that put him there did not look particularly hard.

Conlan, 30, improved to 17-1 (8). Marriaga, 35, declined to 30-6.

After the fight, Conlan expressed the hope that Leigh Wood would give him a rematch.

Other Bouts of Note

In an entertaining 10-round welterweight scrap that could have gone either way, Belfast’s Tyrone McKenna (23-3-1, 6 KOs) rebounded from his defeat in Dubai to Regis Prograis (TKO by 6) with a hard-fought unanimous decision over 33-year-old Welshman Chris Jenkins (23-6-3). The judges favored the local fighter by scores of 97-94 and 96-95 twice.

Jenkins, a former British and Commonwealth title-holder, had the best of the early going, working the body effectively while frequently finding a home for his uppercut, but he could not sustain his advantage.

Thirty-four-year-old Belfast super middleweight Padraig McCrory who got a late start in boxing, scored the most important win of his career with a fifth-round stoppage of Marco Antonio Periban, a former world title challenger. McCrory had Periban on the deck three times – once in the second and twice in the fifth – before the bout was halted at the 2:14 mark of round five.

It was the fourth straight win inside the distance for McCrory who improved to 14-0 (8 KOs). Mexico’s Periban, who returned to the sport in April after missing all of 2020 and 2021, fell to 26-6-1.

Highly-touted welterweight Paddy Donovan improved to 9-0 (6) with an 8-round unanimous decision over Yorkshireman Tom Hall (10-3). The referee scored every round for Donovan, an Irish Traveler trained by Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy Andy Lee, the former world middleweight title-holder.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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