Second Effort

Cuban boxing legend Luis Ernesto Delis arrives in Miami and rekindles his dreams of the ring

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!

No one knows how much of his old brilliance Luis Ernesto Delis can recapture
Steve Satterwhite
No one knows how much of his old brilliance Luis Ernesto Delis can recapture
At age sixteen Delis (left) fought as part of the Cuban national team at a 1982 amateur competition in Reno, Nevada
photo Courtesy Luis Ernesto Delis
At age sixteen Delis (left) fought as part of the Cuban national team at a 1982 amateur competition in Reno, Nevada

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.

“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.)

It was in 1994, at the height of the so-called special period of dire hardship, when balseros were washing up on Florida beaches like jellyfish, that Delis and three friends hatched a plan to steal the Dumar, the tugboat on which he worked, and sail it to Florida. They never had a chance to act on the idea though. “There was a chivato,” Delis recounts. “You know, a spy. One of our friends turned us in.” Two of Delis's three accomplices, military officers, received longer sentences than he; the other went to prison for four and a half years. Delis hasn't been in touch with any of them since.

Currently he's assiduously preparing for his second professional fight, to be scheduled in the next few weeks. He gets up every morning (except Sunday) at 5:00 to run. His refrigerator is stocked with vitamins and protein supplements he says he couldn't find in Cuba. He has a new and experienced trainer. And like his Cuban fans in Miami, Delis refuses to consider his debut outing a defeat. “I'm happy because I fought to the best of my ability,” he asserts matter-of-factly. “The other guy was good, but I hit him better and he knew it. He knew I won, and I know I won.”

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