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Havana's Kid Chocolate auditorium, a spacious wood-floored gymnasium named after the great Cuban boxing champion of the Thirties, seemed the perfect place, in 1991, to debut a new sport. There in the central Havana auditorium, on the second floor of a building across the street from the historic ornate capitol building, Manuel "Manolo" Lopez and a small band of renegade athletes staged what they believed was Cuba's first public kickboxing exhibition. They didn't see the show as an act of insurrection, but the Cuban government apparently did. Lopez's group was never allowed to return to Kid Chocolate. The members continued their kickboxing training and competitions, though, moving from gym to gym as authorities booted them out of various public places. Within four years most of the team was in exile and one member was in prison.
It's a long way from the Kid Chocolate auditorium to the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. Nine years after that first show in Havana, this past July 15 Lopez and a half-dozen members of the original group staged a professional kickboxing program at the Knight Center. That event, like the 1991 show, marked the beginning of an exhilarating but risky venture.
Lopez, now 40 years old, still moves with the sinewy, silent fluidity of an innovative martial artist (he was a karate champion before he began to champion kickboxing). As in Havana, Lopez was the principal trainer for the seven Miami-based kickboxers (six Cubans, one Chilean, all recent immigrants) featured in the Knight Center program. The "Ultimate World Championship Kickboxing" event was billed as "Cuba vs. Spain." The Cubans and Chilean won their matches, and their aggressive, explosive style attracted interest from local Spanish-language media.
Nothing quite like it had been produced in Florida before, or for that matter elsewhere in the United States, since the athletic styles and backgrounds of the newly arrived Latin fighters are distinctly European, differing in many aspects from the U.S. kickboxing tradition. Also the Knight Center program's format, substance, and ambiance were closer to those of a professional boxing match than of a typical martial arts competition in a park or high school gym. The first-time promoters lost tens of thousands of dollars on the show, but the 800 or so fans in attendance loved it. Perhaps more important, the fighters got paid (with borrowed money), and no one got into trouble with the police -- a sign of progress, considering the state of things nine years ago in Havana.
A second professional kickboxing program this past Sunday at Signature Gardens in unincorporated Miami-Dade County attracted more sponsors and about the same number of spectators. Now, Lopez and his crew hope, they won't have to start from scratch yet again. "Our intention is to organize and do what we couldn't do in Cuba," he said a few weeks before the show, conversing in the lobby of the Family Kickboxing Academy in Kendale Lakes, where he is one of the instructors for about 200 amateur students, mostly girls and women. Lopez was wearing his uniform from a second job as a beverage distributor. "Manuel," read the red-and-white patch on his right front pocket. For a moment a shadow darkened his brown eyes. "The only thing I regret," he added, "is the time is past for me to be a champion."
This past July at the Knight Center Eric "El Tigre" Castaños, his coppery hair sheared close and a scowl fixed on his sharp-featured face, defended his World Kickboxing Organization (WKO) title in the 147-pound category. Facing Emilio Blanco, a highly ranked ex-champion from Spain, Castaños led off with a few fast hip-high kicks and then moved in, throwing a right hand, then a left to Blanco's face. The men traded kicks, advancing and retreating with precision. Early in the fourth round Castaños knocked Blanco down with a right to the jaw and later pinned him against the ropes. But the challenger kicked out and went after Castaños with a flurry of lefts and rights. As the round neared the bell, Castaños threw Blanco off balance with kicks, then drove in with a right hook to the jaw, sending Blanco reeling. He managed to get back on his feet as the round ended, but his trainer kept him in his corner when the fifth-round bell sounded.
Castaños leaped onto the ropes and raised his arms in triumph, beating his chest like Tarzan. "Tee-grayyyyyy!" called a woman's voice. Among the men crowding around to cheer and hug El Tigre was one of his cornermen, a dark-haired Spaniard in his thirties with a long, pointed face and aquiline nose. He was the revered José Vicente Eguzquiza, eight-time world champion throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Eguzquiza was with Castaños in 1998 when he won his first world championship and has taken time from his extensive obligations as teacher, trainer, and international sanctioning official to attend Castaños's most important bouts.
Eguzquiza is, in fact, the man responsible for establishing kickboxing in Cuba. "A friend of mine traveled abroad a lot in the Eighties," recalled Manolo Lopez. "He met Eguzquiza in Spain and told him about me and my friends who were martial arts practitioners." On a weeklong visit to Havana in 1990, Eguzquiza taught the basics of his sport to an enthusiastic handful of karate, tae kwon do, and judo competitors. He came back several weeks later and stayed six months.