Freedom Fighters

Boxing is the quintessential individual sport. Unless you're a Cuban champ who has defected to turn pro in Miami, in which case it's a team effort.

What was perhaps the biggest disappointment in all of Diobelys Hurtado's 24 years came in the spring of 1992, when the coach of Cuba's powerhouse national boxing team told him he wouldn't be going to Barcelona to compete in the Olympics. Though the elusive right-hander with the surprising left hook held the amateur world championship, another fighter had been tapped to represent Cuba in the super lightweight division. "It was something very hard for me," recalls the boxer, whose long-lashed, feline eyes often narrow in a slight frown of concentration. "This was what I'd been working for; it was a great opportunity."

Along with eight siblings and assorted nieces and nephews, Hurtado grew up in poverty on a farm outside Santiago de Cuba. To this day, the family house doesn't have electricity. When he wasn't helping harvest corn, yucca, and beans, Hurtado played piano and sang salsa with some of his brothers, one of whom now fronts a band in Santiago. And starting at the age of twelve, he dedicated himself to training. He'd walk sixteen miles each way to work out at the gymnasium in the town of La Maya. "I knew if I could be successful, I would be able to help my family," he says. "My other brothers weren't fortunate enough to be athletes." Finally, in 1989, at age seventeen, Hurtado got the chance to travel to Havana to try out for the junior national team. He was accepted, and the next year he advanced to the adult team.

As it happened, the Cuban who went to Barcelona in Hurtado's place was eliminated in an early-round bout. The American Oscar de la Hoya eventually won the gold medal, a victory he has since parlayed into a professional world championship and millions of dollars. And although Hurtado would go on to win two national championships as well as two world championships, he began to think about defecting to the U.S.

It wasn't that he was in dire straits. His athletic ability had always protected him from military service, with its long tours of duty and the threat of war. Food and other supplies weren't rationed for elite athletes as they usually were for their families. Little was spared to enhance the worldwide prestige of Cuba's winning sports teams. As a fellow defector puts it, "Estabamos una maquina de dinero para Fidel."

Hurtado no longer wanted to be a part of Castro's money machine.
Of course, he said nothing to his family in Santiago, nothing to his friends at the Instituto Superior de Cultura Fisica, part of the University of Havana, where national team members lived and trained and where Hurtado earned a degree in 1994. A few other team members had defected, but no one spoke openly about such matters; you never knew who might hear and talk to the wrong people.

It was after an October 1994 trip to a tournament in Connecticut, during a stopover at the Miami airport on the way back to Havana, that Hurtado got up the courage to jump. He didn't know anyone in Miami, but he thought he'd get help from the large exile population here. The team was staying at the Miami Airport Marriott; at about 1:00 a.m. on the night before Halloween, he sneaked down to the bar. "I was feeling very alone, and I just started talking to a gentleman there. I thought I could trust him, so I told him what I was intending to do and asked him to help me. First he explained how difficult life is here, and he told me to think about what I was doing. I said I was sure."

The man, whom Hurtado hasn't seen since, drove him to a Days Inn near the airport and got him a room. A security guard there happened to have a phone number for Giorbis Barthelemy, who six months earlier had swum across Guantanamo Bay to the naval base. Barthelemy had boxed a few months for the Cuban junior team and was already fighting professionally. At about 3:00 a.m. he and his manager Rene Gil, along with Hialeah boxing promoter Julio Martinez and a partner (who has since bowed out), arrived to find a nervous and stone-drunk Hurtado. They went for breakfast to Chico's, the landmark Hialeah restaurant and cafeteria, and later Hurtado fell asleep for a few hours on the floor of Gil's office.

It didn't take the local press long to discover the newest and most impressive boxer associated with Martinez, a former Hialeah mayor who has dabbled in both boxing and politics for more than twenty years. Martinez was just beginning to re-enter the promotion business with the help of Luis De Cubas, a co-promoter of boxing legend Roberto Duran and a manager of Jorge Luis Gonzalez, the star Cuban heavyweight whose celebrated defection in 1991 is considered to have inspired others to follow.

Hurtado applied for political asylum, signed with Gil, and was soon granted a work permit. Less than two months after he arrived he fought his first professional bout, a four-round event in a Martinez production at the Seville Hotel in Miami Beach. Hurtado won by unanimous decision. Gil owned an aircraft radio repair company and had gotten into the boxing business only earlier that year, but by the end of 1994 he had signed up two more Cuban defectors and enlisted the services of a former junior national boxing team trainer, also a recent defector. A group, bound by ties that had been formed in Cuba, was beginning to coalesce.

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