By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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In Miami Castañon studied mechanics at Miami-Dade Community College and in 1982 opened his own air-conditioning repair shop in Sweetwater, which he named Snow White Air Conditioning. Fifteen years after they had left, when the Castañon family returned to Cuba for a visit, Fernandez was in prison. "The first trip I didn't see him," said Castañon, whose brown hair and goatee are lightly streaked with white. He rested his elbows on the desk in the tiny office at the Tiger Kickboxing Gym. His son runs the place but he usually comes by in the evenings after closing up shop at Snow White. "The second time I went back, I saw him. He'd just left prison. He told me the plans he had -- Tigre was already in Chile, and [Fernandez] was going there. After Guillermo went to Chile, I lost track of him again." Until February of this year, when Fernandez and Castaños showed up in Miami. After the happy reunions and hours of reminiscing, Fernandez got the Castañons, padre y hijo, together and put a business proposal to them.
"I explained the whole project," Fernandez said. "With the level of expertise we have now [in Miami] and the contacts we have internationally, professional kickboxing could become a profitable enterprise here."
"He convinced me it would be a good business," offered the elder Castañon.
Added his son: "At the time I was selling real estate. But what Guillermo was saying made sense to me. I thought, We could do this, we could do an Internet page, TV, a gym. It all came to me pretty much at once."
The air-conditioning repairman and the real estate salesman began to seek sponsors for a major program. Neither had done anything like promotions before, but they had a good product -- several of the best kickboxers and trainers in the world. "We invested a whole lot of money. I have nothing in my pocket; all my credit cards are maxed out," acknowledged the younger Castañon. "But I wouldn't have left real estate if I didn't strongly believe in this. I'm not here as an artist. I see money out there. I'm one of the ones breaking the barrier, trying to get kickboxing to the level of boxing."
Their second big outing on November 19 may not have raised kickboxing's standing by much, but the program ended with a very Miami moment. Raul Llopis, currently the 132-pound WKO world champion, faced Gocha Pashuili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia in a nontitle ten-round bout. But less than a minute into the first round, Llopis floored Pashuili with a kick to the groin. While Castañon hijo ran for a bag of ice to soothe the injured area, the referee called the fight for Llopis, since Pashuili stayed on the canvas for more than five minutes. As the Georgian was rolled out of the room on a stretcher, a spirited shouting match erupted between the Georgians and the Cubans, each group cursing in its own language at the uncomprehending other.
Aside from that dubious victory, both Vargas and Castaños dispatched their opponents with spectacular precision. Castañon announced that he's already planning his next card for February 2001, back at the James L. Knight Center.
When the Castañons first entered the kickboxing business this past March, Guillermo Gual was still in Havana, building houses for people who could pay with dollars and working in a state-sponsored sports program for troubled adolescents. He was also in the middle of a two-year course in physical therapy at Havana's respected Manuel Fajardo Institute. "But I was always thinking of leaving," Gual admitted. "I talked to some of the people in Miami and they told me there are many possibilities here; the future of kickboxing looks good. They told me no one follows you around."
In April Gual and nine other people paid a smuggler $8000 apiece to transport them to Florida in a speedboat. Gual said he saved up the money from his construction jobs. "[The smuggler] let us out about a kilometer from shore," he recounted. "It was somewhere off Miami Beach. We swam ashore and [immigration authorities] picked us up and took us to Krome. We stayed there a few days and then we were free."
Soon afterward the Castañons booked the July 15 program at the Knight Center. Being fledgling impresarios, they didn't obtain the necessary state license to produce such events, though they've since secured one; the son's promotions company, JSC Enterprises, has never been registered with the Florida secretary of state's office.
Spain's Eguzquiza brought some fighters from Europe, and St. Louis-based trainer Ike Stanford traveled down with a few of his kickboxers. The Midwestern connection came about through Llopis, the Indiana resident.
One of the fighters imported for the evening was Gual's former pupil Cesar Marnallelis, who had been living in Chile the previous three years. Marnallelis never went back after the program and has no plans to. Before a loss on November 19, the WKO ranked Marnallelis fifth in the 160-pound class.
The kickboxing team in Havana never dissolved. New devotees joined, and as the years passed the government softened its opposition. The sport is no longer illegal in Cuba, although there's no national team or official support. Today just two members of the original contingent remain on the island. Said Eric Castañon: "All the good ones are here."