Fancy Footwork

After being banned in Cuba, kickboxing is making a run for South Florida fight fans

Kickboxing is hard to define because it has so many variations. Some experts describe the sport as boxing from the waist up and karate from the waist down, but the kinds of kicks employed are diverse. Always, though, kickboxers perform barefoot. (Kickboxing has almost nothing in common with the currently fashionable Tae-Bo, or cardio-karate, which employs few true martial arts moves.) The most prevalent form of U.S. kickboxing doesn't allow low kicks, whereas European and Asian fighters kick virtually anywhere except the groin area. This seemingly minor difference can change the pace and look of a match, since a fighter needs more space to kick high, whereas kicking low can be done close in and often is more devastating (experienced kickboxers like El Tigre point to their shins, crisscrossed with old and new scars, almost as a badge of honor). Sometimes kneeing and elbowing is permitted, more often not. Professional fighters leave the shin guards and headgear to the amateurs; two opponents may wield boxing gloves of two different sizes and weights. Kickboxing is scored like boxing; three ring judges use a point system to rate each fighter. And the action is divided into rounds, although the length of the rounds is usually two minutes instead of boxing's three. In the end the rules of any match tend to follow whatever the program organizers want.

Kickboxing-sanctioning organizations are constantly forming, fading away, and sometimes reforming. "We call it alphabet soup," joked Jeff Santella, president of the Cape Coral-based Florida arm of the World Kickboxing Organization (WKO). "Everybody just makes their own [sanctioning body], not necessarily because they want to, but there's no reason to go with the others. Every show has different rules. You don't find a lot of communication within the martial arts community, unlike boxing, where it's one for all. The same sanctioning body may have two separate events in neighboring counties on the same weekend, and one not know about the other. So there's a lack of professionalism. There also is not much concern about proper matchmaking. Instead of finding out what experience [the two opponents] have, [promoters] just put 'em together, and of course that can be a very bad experience when the other guy doesn't show up, or the guy who shows up said he had three fights and you find out he had thirty."

New arrival Guillermo Gual trains kickboxers by day and works as a security guard by night
Steve Satterwhite
New arrival Guillermo Gual trains kickboxers by day and works as a security guard by night
Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile
Steve Satterwhite
Julio Vargas learned self-defense growing up in a rough suburb of Santiago, Chile

By 1993, the year Guillermo Fernandez was arrested and sent to prison for "terrorist activities," the Havana kickboxing group had begun to lose some of its early enthusiasm. Three months after Fernandez's arrest, Castaños and Paulino Hernandez, another kickboxer, emigrated to Santiago, Chile (Hernandez later settled in Bolivia). Both had married Chilean citizens. The Havana contingent carried on in the semiclandestine way it always had, but part of the action shifted to Santiago. "All of us were contributing what we could to help support Guillermo's wife and child," Castaños recalled. "When I got to Chile, I started working on ways to get him freed."

During what would become known on both sides of the Florida Straits as the Rafter Crisis of 1994, Lopez and one of his most promising fighters, Raul Llopis, hopped on a small fishing boat heading for Miami with eight other Cubans onboard. It was July and the exodus was just beginning. After a day at sea the group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the burgeoning detention camps at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo. Lopez started a kickboxing group at Guantánamo after running into other fighters also interned there. He and Llopis finally arrived in Miami in early 1995. (Llopis was resettled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he still lives.)

Castaños, having become a martial arts trainer in Santiago, embarked on a professional kickboxing career. With the help of Eguzquiza of Spain and a Chilean sponsor, he was able to travel to matches in Europe. In 1998 he won his first WKO 147-pound world championship in Pamplona, and he defended the title a year later in Marbella. He won another international championship in Marseilles, France, soon afterward. The pay for such bouts, compared to boxing title fights, was minimal -- in the $10,000 range.

Back in Santiago Castaños taught kickboxing with an eye to forming a core group much like the fraternity back in Havana. "If you don't have a good team," he declared earnestly, "you can't triumph worldwide." Chile, however, isn't the sports hotbed that Cuba is. Castaños found little governmental support for his efforts and few above-average athletes. "At first it was really hard," he recalled, "but I decided to fight for the cause [of kickboxing]."

One afternoon in 1994 Julio Vargas, an eighteen-year-old accounting student, walked into a gym in the Recoleta section of Santiago. "I went out of curiosity. Eric was teaching a class," said Vargas, a compact man with black eyes and a shock of coal-black hair. "At that time, kickboxing was only in movies. I didn't know anything about that or any sport." But he had already learned self-defense growing up in his neighborhood of Conchalí, a poor high-crime suburb of Santiago. He found he had a natural talent for the rapid-fire balletic martial arts moves.

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