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The sixth fight on the boxing card at Miccosukee Indian Gaming this past August 12 was a four-rounder pitting lightweights Luis Ernesto Delis of Cuba against Rudolfo “Rude Boy” Lunsford of St. Petersburg. By the time the match got under way around midnight, at least half the audience had either gone home or wandered off to the adjacent casino. It was more than an hour after the evening's main twelve-round event in which Puerto Rican Santos Cardona prevailed by decision over Panamanian Santiago Samaniego for the International Boxing Association junior-middleweight world championship. Some of the journalists had left their ringside seats to file stories on deadline, and even the Sunshine Television Network camera crew wasn't taping. The evening's color commentator, however, legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, was watching with interest.
When the wiry 35-year-old Delis bounced into the ring, the remaining crowd cheered and hooted with exuberance and affection. Cuban boxer Diobelys Hurtado, who defected to the United States six years ago but remains an idol in his homeland, climbed through the ropes and stood with Delis while the ring announcer introduced the combatants. Delis's cornermen held the slightly crumpled straw peasant hat he'd worn into the ring. EL CANEY, printed in Magic Marker above the brim, recalled the agricultural suburb of Santiago de Cuba where Delis was born and reared.
The match began and Hurtado, clad in pleated ivory trousers and a silky black shirt, sat on the edge of a front-row seat, prompting and encouraging Delis: “¡No te apures! ¡Tranquilo! ¡Dale a la cabeza! ¡Eso es!”
As the first round ended, 28-year-old Hurtado explained his reverence for the older fighter. “Of course I knew about him in Cuba,” said Hurtado, another santiaguero. “Everybody knew Delis. He was the national champion for five or six years in a row -- until he left the [national boxing] team, and then they threw him in prison for five years. He hasn't fought in fifteen years.” Hurtado shook his head and added, “He's only been [in the United States] four months.” The bell for the second round sounded.
Though the beefy Rude Boy had been through twenty professional bouts (losing ten of them) and this was Delis's debut as a professional, they were pretty evenly matched. With measured jabs, spare hooks, and fluid defensive moves, Delis displayed flashes of the style that earned him fame in the Eighties as one of the best technicians produced by Cuba's formidable amateur boxing system. He knocked down Lunsford in the second round and nearly closed Lunsford's left eye, but Rude Boy gave no quarter throughout the third and fourth rounds, repeatedly bashing Delis's bony upper torso and jaw. Delis's legs began to look unsteady.
The match finished in a furious head-to-head exchange. At the bell Delis's trainer, Eufracio Gonzalez, jubilantly hoisted him off the canvas.
The decision, however, greatly disappointed Delis's emotional fans, many of them recently arrived immigrants who were his friends in Cuba. Two judges gave Lunsford the edge; one scored it for Delis. Loud protests and catcalls rapidly escalated toward fisticuffs, but it was late and everyone hustled out of the ring to make way for the two remaining matches.
And that was it: Luis Delis's first fight in a decade and a half -- a lifetime in boxing circles. His first paycheck as a professional was $800. No one knows how many punches he's got left in him or how much of his old brilliance he can recapture, but plenty of people are interested. The following Tuesday Diario Las Americas sportswriter Cesar Temes called the fight decision “the worst of the evening,” in which Delis “was robbed of an honorable victory ... because he was easily the best man in the ring.” Dundee agreed. “This kid was exciting,” the trainer recalled. “I thought he won the fight. He's a very exciting fighter, the way he threw punches.”
Delis is informally connected with the collection of pro fighters called Team Freedom, which also is the name of a Fort Lauderdale boxing-promotions corporation headed by long-time impresario Luis de Cubas and attorneys Leon Margules and Roger Haber. Team Freedom originally was formed in 1996 to market a dozen newly arrived Cuban boxers. Only about half of the first group remains, including Hurtado, but other fighters (even some non-Cubans) have joined Team Freedom in recent years. De Cubas says he and Delis have a “verbal agreement” that Delis will sign up, though they haven't set a deadline. “We're kind of looking at him and he's looking at us, that kind of thing,” Margules acknowledges. “He's got a great punch. I wish I had him ten years ago.”
Ten years ago 25-year-old Luis Delis was struggling like any ordinary Cuban to survive the nation's post-Cold War economic disaster. He had already quit boxing, having joined the national team at age fourteen. He had not received the house and car he says the government had promised him upon retirement, and for a while he didn't even have a roof over his head. His best years as an athlete have been lost to poverty and prison. Perhaps that's why Delis is not like most other Cuban boxers who have longed to reach American soil. He wasn't pushed along by visions of TV appearances, sharp clothes, fancy cars, and glamorous women. In fact, he hastens to explain, at first he had no intention of boxing professionally in the United States. Several of his friends and new acquaintances here, though, encouraged him to begin training and see how he liked it. He loved it.