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.

On the same day the hullabaloo unfolded in Atlanta, a briefer and more subdued press conference took place in Miami. Two days earlier, at 5:00 p.m. sharp, 45-year-old Mariano Leyva, one of Cuba's top boxing coaches, had walked out of the Mexican Olympic team's quarters in Atlanta and climbed into a rental car waiting on the street with two men inside. A man materialized with a large suitcase, dropped it quickly into the car's trunk, strode away, and the car disappeared into airport-bound traffic.

Now Leyva, a handsome gray-haired man of average build and above-average boxing credentials, was wiping his eyes with a handkerchief as he explained why he'd left his job and his four children in Cuba. Standing beside Leyva in the parking lot of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization offices on Biscayne Boulevard were brothers Jose and Luis Amat. Six months earlier, Leyva's uncle had written his old friend Jose Amat, with the request, as Amat recalls, "'If my nephew calls, help him.'" When Leyva called, Amat and his brother went to Atlanta to bring him back to Miami.

Beginning in 1980, the Cuban government sent Leyva to teach boxers in Nigeria, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In 1983 he became a coach for the Cuban national team, which he accompanied to Barcelona in 1992. Last year he was on loan to Mexico, training that nation's Olympic team in Mexico City. But this past January he had what he calls "a provocation" with a fellow high-ranking trainer. The trainer hit him during a sparring session, Leyva says, and the party officials supervising them did nothing in response. In the coded communist bureaucracy, he had no trouble deciphering the troubling message: He had fallen out of favor.

"If I couldn't do the job I love, which is my life, I would have nothing," he says, tenderly displaying snapshots on the dinette table in his new apartment in the same Northwest Dade complex where Garbey and Casamayor live. The photos show him with some of his most illustrious students, including renowned heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson and multiple world champion Angel Espinosa. Ten years ago Leyva's hair was black and full; he shakes his head silently at the youthful figure shown ducking between the ropes or taping a fighter's hand. "It hurts me because I gave it my all. I was an exemplary employee," he says. "Now I'm starting all over again in a completely different system. I feel like a child taking his first step. But the way I'm looking at it, if I was able to reach the top in Cuba, if I trained world champions there, with hard work I can do the same here."

"You have to change your mentality when you come here, but some people can't," Diobelys Hurtado says in his rhythmic oriente accent, as he leans back in a deep, fake-leather chair in his Hialeah apartment. The enormous belt he won for his National Boxing Association triumph sits like a crown atop the TV set in the corner of the living room, and several trophies crowd the end tables near the sofa. Outside, on a small balcony overlooking an algae-clogged pool one floor down, are clusters of boxing gloves, shoes, and towels, set outside after the twice-daily training sessions. "People [in the boxing business] will tell you all kinds of things that aren't true. Everyone is hungry for money. It hasn't been easy for me to adjust. But I'm feeling good, because I'm with my group. With all these people around, it's like Cuba. En la union esta la fuerza."

Some observers take a skeptical view of the viability of that unity once it's transplanted to the U.S. "These kids are still socialists," one member of the boxing cognoscenti says bluntly. Sooner or later, when recognition and material success comes to some Team Freedom fighters and not others, the bonds of commonality will loosen. In a few years some of them might be millionaires, living in a world apart from others who don't make it. The most recent events, in which the two new arrivals signed lucrative contracts with a major promotion firm, are more than likely a sign of changes to come.

But for now the fighters, like any immigrant group, cling to the familiar. When they criticize Americans' obsession with money, they're not speaking intellectually. Sometimes they don't seem to connect money with what it buys, such as when Hurtado neglects to pick up his change after ordering a Whopper and fries at Burger King, or when he and his teammates ring up thousands of dollars in long-distance charges, causing the phone company to temporarily block those calls from their apartments. It hasn't quite sunk in yet that money and prestige are what boxing is all about here. They just want to be champions and to succor their families in Cuba.

If he had defected during the Olympics, Hurtado might have received the kind of fanfare Garbey and Casamayor have. He might have cut a great deal with a deep-pocketed promoter. But he'd still have had to prove himself, as he is in the process of doing now, and as Garbey and Casamayor will have to do.

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