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.

Giorbis Barthelemy, the man without whom Team Freedom might never have been conceived, did not stay with the group. Instead, in the eyes of at least some of his former colleagues, he committed an act of betrayal: Sometime around March of this year he signed with Tuto Zabala. A Cuban exile himself and possibly Miami's most important boxing impresario, Zabala has a decades-long history of contentious dealings with Julio Martinez and Luis De Cubas. Now Gil, who technically is still Barthelemy's manager, is suing him and Zabala. They are countersuing. Attempts to contact Barthelemy to solicit comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Diobelys Hurtado was asleep in his one-bedroom Hialeah apartment when the telephone rang. His friend Ramon Garbey was calling from a Guadalajara suburb on this early Sunday morning in June to say he'd left the Cuban Olympic team training camp in town and was hiding at the house of a Cuban who was helping him to defect to the United States. Hurtado told Garbey he could help him get to Miami if that was what he needed and promised he'd phone the next day. But when he called back, Garbey was gone.

Hurtado soon learned that boxer Joel Casamayor had also bolted from training camp and tracked down Garbey. After being driven to the U.S. border at Tijuana and requesting political asylum, the pair was taken to the immigration center at El Centro, California.

The defection of two gold medal favorites only a few weeks before the Olympics made headlines, and when Hurtado, along with Team Freedom honchos De Cubas, Margules, and Haber flew to California, they joined a swarm of reporters and photographers outside the processing center awaiting the boxers' July 3 release. Hurtado strode forward to greet his friends as they emerged, but before they could acknowledge him they were hustled into a waiting car.

"I was angry and upset," Hurtado recalls. "They were my friends, and they'd asked me to help them. I didn't know who those guys were or what was happening."

Haber called it a kidnapping.
It seemed Casamayor and Garbey had already signed contracts with Top Rank, the giant Las Vegas firm run by high-profile promoter Bob Arum, and management agreements with Todd Management, which is owned by Arum's son. But within days after moving to Las Vegas, they met up with some other Cuban boxers who were associated with Luis De Cubas and they expressed dissatisfaction with their arrangement with Top Rank, complaining that they were put up in a hotel room and given a few hundred bucks but little else. Finally, they called De Cubas in Miami. He bought them plane tickets to Miami and had his brother, who lives in Las Vegas, drive them to the airport.

On July 30, with the Olympics in full swing, Margules and De Cubas accompanied Casamayor and Garbey to Atlanta, along with Hurtado and Iribarren. At a sports bar just a few blocks from where the Cuban delegation was staying, they stepped out of a limousine and into a press conference. Dino Duva, president of the New Jersey firm Main Events, announced that Casamayor and Garbey had made promotional deals with him, and that Luis De Cubas would be their manager. Regarding the Arum contracts, Garbey and Casamayor told reporters they had been pressured into signing agreements they hadn't understood.

At the back of the room, a man interrupted. It was Rafael Guerrero, a Dominican who had helped the men get out of Mexico and who for years had been traveling to Cuba on recruiting trips as Arum's agent. Calling De Cubas a bandit, he protested that Casamayor and Garbey had been deceived by Duva with false promises. He waved snapshots of the two fighters dining and drinking at fancy restaurants and enjoying the company of attractive young women in Mexico -- proof, he said, of how well they had been treated while in his care. What was more, he said, the contracts they purportedly didn't understand guaranteed them, among other things, luxury apartments, new sports cars, $30,000 each for a title fight, and $50,000 for title defenses. Guerrero excoriated De Cubas, Gil, and Martinez for interfering with his plans to embarrass Castro by plucking the flowers of his Olympic team; security around the team had been redoubled following the defections, especially for celebrated heavyweight Alexis Rubalcalba, rumored to be the next boxer who'd find a way out of Cuba.

After the press conference, Casamayor and Garbey came to Miami and took up residence in new one-bedroom apartments in Northwest Dade. The accommodations, including generic furniture in neutral tones, big TV sets with VCRs, and phones with built-in answering machines, are part of the contract with Main Events. No one will divulge specific amounts, but sources say the fighters are guaranteed a substantial minimum payment per fight, plus a generous monthly stipend. Garbey bought a new metallic-teal Mitsubishi Eclipse in which he is chauffeured around by Barcelay: He hasn't got his driver's license yet. When Hurtado's ten-year-old Lincoln was stolen, Garbey bought him a new Tercel.

Arum and Rafael Guerrero have filed breach of contract lawsuits against the boxers. (A lawyer for Top Rank says he can't confirm all conditions of the contracts but adds that some of Guerrero's claims "don't sound right." Guerrero himself could not be reached for comment.) Margules, on behalf of Casamayor and Garbey, has filed a suit asking the court to declare the Main Events contracts valid.

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