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.

Less than two years later Hurtado is ranked by the World Boxing Council among the top ten junior welterweights in the world, and the clique of Cuban boxers has expanded to the point where it is being marketed to television audiences nationwide, under the cannily conceived name Team Freedom.

Six of Team Freedom's eleven boxers used to fight on the Cuban national team. Some fought on the junior team before that. Competing in identical blue-striped trunks sporting the white-star-on-red of the Cuban flag, all but one are undefeated in their professional careers. Two are ranked by the World Boxing Council (WBC) among the top 30 fighters in their weight class. Those statistics are expected to improve in the next year, owing largely to the addition of lightweight Joel Casamayor and light heavyweight Ramon Garbey, gold medal favorites who made international news this past summer after defecting from the Cuban Olympic team just before the Atlanta games.

Unlike in Cuba, the idea of a group of professional boxers training together in the United States is almost unheard of. Boxing, after all, is the antithesis of a team sport. But in an industry notorious for cutthroat tactics, Team Freedom was created as a mutual support society in which the strong carry the weak. "The concept of Team Freedom is the idea that a Cuban boxer who defects from his homeland and comes to us, where he can fight and support his family, can still fight in the environment he's used to with his friends," asserts Leon Margules, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and one of the directors of Team Freedom Promotions, Inc., the corporation formed, as its name implies, to promote the Team Freedom fighters. "Nothing's changed except they get to keep their money. American fighters tend to be individualists, but these guys like to train together -- some live together, they hang out together."

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco is best known for his role as Muhammad Ali's ringside physician, but in the Sixties he worked with an earlier generation of Cuban fighters such as Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos, Florentino Fernandez, Luis Rodriguez, and Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles. "This has never been done before, not in the professional ranks, so I'm very excited to be part of it," says Pacheco, who has agreed to provide commentary for a November pay-per-view event involving eight of the Team Freedom boxers. He even did a painting depicting a rafter's rise to boxing glory that will be used as a promotional poster for the event, to be staged at the Coconut Grove Convention Center. In the meantime, three of the boxers (including newcomers Casamayor and Garbey) are on the undercard of this Friday's (September 20) WBC welterweight championship rematch between Pernell Whitaker and Wilfredo Rivera, which takes place at the James L. Knight Center and will be televised on HBO. Two other team members will fight the following Friday in Atlantic City; another has a bout -- the undercard of a Roberto Duran fight -- scheduled in West Virginia the same night, to be broadcast nationwide on ESPN.

The boxers train nearly every day in a small gym wedged into a nondescript gray row of warehouse spaces in Hialeah Gardens. A dusty boom box at the foot of the ring broadcasts salsa or reggae, the beat of the music pacing the punches on the big bags that hang from the ceiling. The boxers go for three minutes, then a trainer yells "ATiempo!" and they get a minute's rest, as in a real match. Most of the men who lean against the walls watching arrived only recently from Santiago or Guantanamo or Havana, childhood friends of one or more of the boxers who have tracked them down via the posters that advertise upcoming matches.

In May 1994, Alexis Barcelay, then 22, set out before dawn from his home in the town of Guantanamo, across the minefields around the U.S. base. Barcelay had never boxed in Cuba, but upon his arrival in Miami his hometown friend Giorbis Barthelemy advised him that it was a good way to make money -- something he desperately needed since the birth of his first child, three years before. (He left his two children and their mother back in Guantanamo.) So Barcelay learned to box, and Rene Gil became his manager, and Julio Martinez included him in his programs at the Seville. The junior lightweight, the only Team Freedom member to have lost a professional match, has won nine out of his fifteen bouts, with three fights ending in draws.

Personable, articulate, and possessed of a broad smile, Mario Iribarren came to Miami in the final days of 1994, having defected from the Cuban national team a year earlier during a tournament in Denmark, where he had been forced to remain because of immigration snafus.

Iribarren, who grew up in Havana's Parraga neighborhood, says that his old barrio has produced many accomplished boxers: "A lot of kids used to put on gloves and go out in the street," he recalls. "Men who had been boxers would teach us." At sixteen he joined the junior team, then went on to the adult team; he won the 1987 junior national championship and a world championship. But in early 1993, he missed a week of practice immediately before the Pan American games and was suspended from competition for six months. He says he was preoccupied with several crises his family was undergoing at the time. "I was really worried about my family, because they were suffering from the food and fuel rationing. There were shortages of everything," Iribarren explains. "I was doing fine, but they weren't. I ate well, but they didn't."

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