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"It was a tight-knit group who wanted to learn," Eguzquiza recalled, speaking by phone recently from one of his gyms in Pamplona, Spain. "Some of them have become like family to me. At the time practicing kickboxing was prohibited in Cuba." No one (with the probable exception of Fidel Castro) knows the real reasons for the government's hostility toward the new sport. The two most common theories are that kickboxing exhibited excessive Western-style flash and wasn't regarded as a real sport by the authorities, and that it simply had not been officially sanctioned by the state. "They were always having to go from gym to gym," Eguzquiza continued, "although when I was there no one bothered me personally. But I was a witness the time when they kicked us out of a gym at the University [of Havana]."
Thus the Cubans learned not only kickboxing, but more about Eguzquiza's world. Professional kickboxing, while at a primitive stage of development in the United States, is a popular and profitable attraction in Europe. But Eguzquiza's Cuban pupils couldn't partake of the financial fruits of his success. All sports on the island are amateur. For a Cuban athlete mere contact with a defector or pro scout can lead to banishment from competition, as several recent baseball cases have illustrated. Lopez, who won a series of national and international karate championships during the Eighties, claims he was booted from the island's karate team in 1990 because he refused to cut ties with a friend who had moved to Spain. Nevertheless Lopez and his fellow kickboxers hoped they could build enough interest in the sport to persuade Cuban authorities to add a kickboxing team to the nation's rigorous amateur system.
The government, though, took a less than encouraging stance. "The karate commission prohibited the practice of kickboxing," Lopez said. "They thought we were training people to be like the Rapid Response Brigades [a citizens' militia]." When he and the other Cuban kickboxing pioneers talk about their past, it's hard to tell whether their political disillusionment grew out of their struggle to continue kickboxing or vice versa. Regardless, their passion for the sport became inseparable from their dissident views.
Lopez and Guillermo Fernandez, another former karate champion turned kickboxing trainer, were deeply involved in opposition organizations. Fernandez led the Directorio Estudiantil Universitario as an engineering student at the University of Havana; Lopez was a member of two of Cuba's most visible opposition groups, the Corriente Civica and Corriente Socialista. The Castro regime, struggling in the early Nineties to cope with the economic devastation and social disorder following the collapse of Soviet communism, had little tolerance for even a symbolic threat to its primacy.
"At that time," Lopez explained, "the government had almost lost control of the system, but it was taking measures to regain control. It was a government that lived in fear of its own shadow. State security watched us all the time. But we decided to continue training as a group, not with our sights on what would happen in Cuba but on the possibility of leaving and becoming professionals. The possibility of developing in our sport didn't exist in Cuba. The same system that formed me was now deforming me."
After their first public show, recounted Guillermo Gual, an original member of the group, he was fired from his job as a taxi driver and had to take backbreaking construction jobs. "We never intended it as a political thing, but they made it political," asserted Gual, now 39 years old. "We stayed more or less hidden, but we continued to put on shows when we could, in out-of-the-way locations, yards of our friends. We trained a lot on the porch of my house."
Now that the Havana group is reconstituted in Miami, the fighters no longer face political obstacles to their success. But they remain upstarts and outsiders. They'll have to sell themselves to an uninformed sports-saturated public. Kickboxing in the United States is primarily amateur (although most people familiar with the sport say American amateurs are generally as good as the professionals) and does not enjoy anywhere near the visibility of professional boxing. Neither amateur nor professional kickboxing in this nation goes by any uniform regulations or standards. Competent promotion and matchmaking are almost nonexistent. Kickboxing is not only less popular in the United States than in Europe and South America but it's usually less exciting, owing to factors such as a limited range of kicks and a generally lower level of skill development.
Thus the Miami kickboxers are endeavoring to create their own market by contributing a new style that draws heavily on the European tradition introduced to Cuba and given a Latin twist. "North American kickboxing, which is what they do in California, is a different type of kickboxing than the kind we do," explained Cuban fighter Cesar Marnallelis, one of the most recent arrivals. "The Latin style is more European, with more rhythm, more contact, a lot of dancing. We are going to create a Miami style. Our team can include Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans -- people are going to identify us as Latino fighters, equal to the best in the world. I think one of the main reasons we win is because of the training we got in Cuba."