By Michael E. Miller
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“I'm going to try to make it as a professional boxer in the next couple of years,” Delis muses in his singsong, slang-laden eastern Cuba accent. He's pulling on spotless white boxing shoes at the Tiger Kickboxing Gym in Westchester, where he occasionally trains. “But I didn't come here for that. I came to work, to make some money to send to my family. Right now I feel very good, very strong, so I'm thinking, Why not do what I'm best at?” Delis has two sons and a daughter in Cuba; his older son, nineteen-year-old Yuliesby, is a boxer, though not at Delis's former level. Delis says his first priority in Miami is to save enough money to bring Yuliesby to live with him (his two younger children, he adds, live with his ex-wife in Havana and she wants to keep them there).
Delis has a broad, gap-toothed smile, an angular jaw, and a direct gaze. His nose is slightly flattened and the white of his left eye has some blood in it. He is lean to the point of gauntness and admits his nutrition in Cuba wasn't the best. As Delis warms up with some shadowboxing, Hurtado and Ramon Garbey, another former Cuban national team member and current Team Freedom fighter, conclude their training session, pivoting and punching in time to rousing merengue from a boombox. “Y es fácil,” the Rosario Brothers intone encouragingly.
About a year ago Luis Delis walked out of the Combinado del Este prison in Havana. He had served five years for, in the words of his official sentencing declaration, “attempted piracy and illegal departure from the national territory.” Translation: conspiring to commandeer a boat and sail to Florida. But after his release, his status as a former political prisoner made him eligible to legally emigrate to the United States as a refugee. This past April Delis flew to Cancún, Mexico, and from there to a U.S. government resettlement center in Phoenix, Arizona. Two months later he arrived in Miami.
A few old boxing buddies took him in, and then helped him find a two-room apartment in Little Havana. He keeps his sparsely furnished place neat and clean, except for the cupful of Cuban soil he brought with him from Caney. Delis spread the dry, chunky dirt under a small figurine of the Virgen de la Caridad, along with nuggets of a glittery ore he found near the famous copper mines near Santiago, home of the principal shrine to the Virgin, Cuba's patroness. Delis's shrine sits alongside a yellow candle and vase of sunflowers (the Virgin loves yellow) on a shelf in a corner where he stashes an unused motor scooter.
Not long after arriving in Miami, he was training one day at a hole-in-the-wall gym in Little Havana when a young businessman, Ruben Sanchez, introduced himself. Sanchez came to Miami on a raft in 1990 and worked as a barber before becoming a cigar distributor about four years ago. He now owns his own company, Marilyn's Cigars (named after la Monroe). A fanatical boxing fan in Cuba, Sanchez had never met Delis but had followed his career until the fighter dropped out of sight in the late Eighties. “I never knew what happened to him,” Sanchez relates. “But that's how it is there: Famous people, promoted by the government's propaganda machine, suddenly cease to exist. They are completely forgotten. The people have their daily lives and they just don't think about what happens. I was in prison too [in 1986 for conducting business in then-illegal U.S. dollars], and I met some famous guy inside; I had had no idea that's where he was.”
By the time Delis landed in Miami, Sanchez had become friends with many expatriate fighters and assorted trainers, managers, and hangers-on. “From boxing people here I heard Delis was in town,” Sanchez recalls. “I learned he had no manger, no money, no job. At first I gave him $100. Cubans are like that; I've helped out other boxers, too, but they all had managers. Knowing Delis didn't, I told him I could pay his rent and food and support him. He's a serious and dedicated man; he has good reflexes, a good memory, a sound mind. He's old for boxing, but he's got a young mind, which when you think about it, no boxer can succeed without.”
Delis is the youngest of six children; his father is a farmer. He started boxing at the age of seven, inspired by an older brother. By fourteen he was in Havana training with the national adult boxing team thanks to forged documents that put his birth year at 1960 instead of 1964. Beginning about 1980, Delis competed in amateur tournaments around the world, winning gold medals in the United States, Venezuela, Germany, Canada, and many of the Soviet-bloc nations. He won a series of regional and national contests in Cuba but was eliminated in pre-Olympics bouts in 1984.
After 1985 Delis did not box. He was receiving long-term medical treatment for vision problems he says were not the result of boxing trauma. For about a year he worked as a trainer, but by the late Eighties he was out of a job and abandoned by the system that rewards favored athletes and other celebrities with houses, cars, and better food than the general public receives. “I was living in the streets of Havana,” Delis remembers. “I slept in the parque central and in other parks. Finally in 1990 they gave me a job as a seaman on a tugboat in Havana Harbor. To get that job I complained constantly; I went to the Central Committee; I had friends write letters on my behalf.” (This history is generally corroborated by Cubans now living in Miami who knew Delis in Cuba.)