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.

He resolved not to complain about the disciplinary action, to keep his mouth shut and follow all the rules -- and to wait for a chance to defect. His singlemindedness won him a berth in Denmark: "When they congratulated me, I said, 'Thanks, and adios.'" For a week after slipping away from the team in Copenhagen, a Cuban man hid him in his girlfriend's house, and when the team left the country, he went to the U.S. embassy.

In Miami he was joined by his wife Venus, who had secured a visa to visit family members in South Florida. She is now studying dental hygiene and English. Iribarren, a junior middleweight, is fighting for Team Freedom under Rene Gil and is undefeated in fourteen professional bouts with a dozen knockouts. Ranked 23rd in the world by the WBC, the aggressive left-hander is looking forward to his September 27 televised match, which may put him in line for a title fight.

Juan Carlos Suarez, a junior lightweight who fought on a provincial boxing team in Cuba, arrived on a raft in late 1992 but worked at a refrigeration plant until meeting up with Barthelemy, Hurtado, and Barcelay about two years later.

A sad-eyed former wrestler from the city of Santa Clara in Las Villas province, Manuel Elizondo worked with the Cuban junior team as a trainer for twelve years before defecting in July 1994, leaving behind his wife and two children. Elizondo saw his chance when the junior team traveled to Mexico to train. A friend drove him to Nuevo Laredo, and he waded and swam across the Rio Grande. Relatives who had driven from West Palm Beach took him to Miami, where he had family, including cousin Jose Manuel Ribalta, a heavyweight who had gained respect (if not victories) in bouts with the likes of Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon during the Eighties.

Though his initial efforts to join Miami's boxing community were rebuffed by local impresarios, a serendipitous meeting in early December 1994 was all it took. Elizondo was walking past a cafeteria near his uncle's print shop, where he'd been working. Stuck to the wall was a poster advertising an upcoming boxing program featuring Giorbis Barthelemy, whom Elizondo had trained briefly in Cuba, and Diobelys Hurtado, who had been one of his proteges. Just then he recognized the young man crossing the street: It was Barthelemy. "I asked him where I could find Diobelys," Elizondo recalls. "And Giorbis said, 'I'll take you to him.'"

They met in Rene Gil's small warehouse office. The bearded Gil, given to lighting cigarettes midsentence, says he considered Elizondo a godsend. "Manuel showing up was like icing on the cake," he recalls. "We had everything we needed." But no one was making much money. The shows at the Seville weren't profitable; Gil estimates that he's sunk $450,000 of his own money into paying and maintaining his fighters.

Matched against inferior fighters, Hurtado, Iribarren, Barthelemy, and Suarez boasted undefeated professional records by the end of 1995. Martinez, Gil, and De Cubas had planned an extravagant New Year's Eve card that included three title fights -- Hurtado was set to contend for the impressive-sounding but virtually meaningless National Boxing Association world championship in the lightweight division (Barthelemy already held the welterweight crown) -- as well as a homage to Roberto Duran, dancing, and dinner. It went off quite well, considering that the promoters say their partner in the event, a likable ex-con who'd promised to put up most of the money, disappeared a few days before and stuck them with the costs. Hurtado won his championship belt with a ninth-round knockout of Desi Ford.

By January 1996, three more Cuban fighters -- welterweights Rene Valdez and Ivan Ledon, and Ledon's nephew, junior lightweight Ramon Ledon -- had arrived in the United States via Guantanamo and made contact with De Cubas. That made eight expatriate Cubans looking to make their mark in professional boxing, and De Cubas, Gil, and Martinez figured they were on to something loaded with potential. Funding was a problem, but while they were eating lunch one day with Leon Margules, a financial, marketing, and political strategy jelled. "We needed to raise some money," Margules explains. "So Luis and I put together a deal to merge all the Cubans under the banner of Team Freedom." De Cubas, Margules, and New York entertainment lawyer Roger Haber became the directors of Team Freedom Promotions, Inc., with the backing of sixteen investors, friends, and clients of Haber.

The Ledons and Valdez soon moved to Las Vegas, where they live and train, though they remain members of the team. And in the spring of 1996, after an eighteen-month odyssey from Havana to Guantanamo to Panama to Washington, D.C., brothers Elieser and Eliseo Castillo finally arrived in Miami. The Castillos, who grew up in a hard-working Havana family (their mother, Bertha Ramos Ruiz, was honored four times as the nation's top tobacco worker for her exemplary performance in a cigar factory), were determined to try their boxing luck in the free market. Elieser, a 29-year-old cruiserweight, was a national boxing team member who had won numerous championships. His younger brother Eliseo, age 21, fights in the same weight class. Both have signed promotional contracts with Team Freedom and are managed by Gil.

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