Erislandy Lara: Robbed in a boxing scandal, he's coming back

Erislandy Lara: Robbed in a boxing scandal, he's coming back
Giulio Sciorio

In the 12th round, the clock ticks below 90 seconds.Erislandy Lara squints through his left eye, just a purplish slit beneath the softball-size lump swelling his temple. His feet, though, dance like Astaire's across the blue ring emblazoned with Corona beer logos.

His opponent, the rangy Paul Williams, gulps for breath, glaring through blood sluicing down his face. At six-foot-one, Williams towers four inches above Lara. Eleven rounds ago, he was a heavy favorite. But Lara has been dominant. Every left to Williams's bloodied nose draws more gasps from a sellout Atlantic City crowd. The HBO announcers swoon.

Seventy-seven seconds to go.

Lara shoves Williams out of a tight clinch and skips toward the middle of the ring. His battered opponent follows, his hands closely guarding his crimson-streaked cheeks. Lara sets his feet, twitches a quick head fake, and then, piston-like, he jabs with a right and explodes a left into Williams's head.

"Ohhhh, he takes another vicious left hand," announcer Bob Papa tells the hundreds of thousands watching live.

The final bell tolls. Lara raises his left hand, triumphant. Williams retreats to a corner, grimacing while his manager towels blood from his eyes.

The Jersey crowd chants, "Paul! Paul!" for the American fighter, but they're all awaiting the inevitable: the biggest win yet in the short career of Lara, a 28-year-old Cuban defector with a 2005 amateur world title and legions of fans back on the island.

The announcers tally the stats while the judges finish their scorecards: Although Williams threw almost twice as many punches, Lara landed two dozen more. More than half of Lara's powerful jabs jarred the head of Williams, who nailed only two of every ten. Harold Lederman, HBO's veteran unofficial ringside scorer, calls Lara the runaway winner: 117 to 111 points. "Impressive performance by Lara," Papa says.

Lara grins and parades around the ring. Williams limps around his corner. The judges submit their cards. The ring announcer clears his throat.

"Put it together for your winnnnnner," he half-sings as Lara's crew jumps and mugs for the cameras, "from Aiken, South Caroliiiiina, Paul Williams!"

Stunned silence.

"No, no, no," Lara cries, looking ready to weep. The HBO announcers are shocked. "They have all kinds of gaming tables here in Atlantic City. I didn't realize they had those shell games you see on the street," Papa says.

"This is what's wrong with boxing now," color analyst and legendary fighter Roy Jones Jr. agrees. "If you won, you won. If you lost, you lost. Goodness' sakes! How can you do this to a guy?"

Almost four months later, the boxing world is still trying to answer that question. Was it incompetence or old-school boxing payoffs to corrupt judges?

A pretty good indication came four days after the fight, when New Jersey boxing commissioner Aaron Davis suspended all three judges. He says he was "unsatisfied" with the scoring, but claims — incredibly — he found "no evidence of bias, fraud, corruption, or incapacity."

Yet Erislandy Lara remained the loser. He had risked everything — his life, freedom, and any chance of seeing his two young sons again to escape the injustice of communist Cuba. Now, in the Land of the Free, Lara was socked with the worst injustice yet, a decision so awful it might change boxing forever.

"The Lara-Williams fight is reason number one fans are turning away from boxing," says Robert Ecksel, editor of "Fans see a fight, they know who won, and then the judges give it to the other guy. There's no question there's endemic, systematic corruption in this sport. The question is whether we'll ever have the guts to deal with it."

Tucked above a gritty market in a strip mall off Miller Road, Young Tigers Gym is an airless, humid space. Teenagers run sprints, while sweating, muscular giants wallop heavy bags.

This is the center of Cuban boxing, perhaps even more so than Havana, Santiago, or anywhere else on an island long considered the sport's mecca. They're all here now: Yudel Jhonson, an Olympic silver medalist in 2004; Yordanis Despaigne, a five-time medalist in competitions such as the Pan Am Games and Worlds; Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa, both Olympic gold medalists in '04; Yunier Dorticós, a three-time runnerup as Cuban national champion; and Guillermo Rigondeaux, who won golds in 2000 and '04. All told, the group has a pro record of 82-4, four Olympic golds, one silver, and more than a dozen medals at global amateur competitions.

"Never in the history of boxing has a group of Cuban fighters this good all been training in Miami at once," says Luis De Cubas, a longtime Miami promoter. "I'm not sure the Cuban Olympic team today could beat a team of Miami-based Cuban fighters."

Adds Jhonson, the silver medalist: "We all left our families back in Cuba, so the other fighters are our families in Miami. I hope fans realize we have so many great boxers here."

Lara's life journey is a paradigm for both this group's many travails and the problems that confront boxing. He was born in one of the poorest barrios of Guantánamo, where tin-roofed hovels cling to eroded hillsides a few miles from America's tropical terror prison. There, kids like Lara begin brawling as soon as they can sneak out of school. His mom, Marisol, boozed every night and slept away the days. He never met his dad. His grandma, Silvia, did her best to raise Erislandy and his younger sister, Yanet, but she worked all day frying plantains in a neighborhood cafe. The boy spent more time picking fights with other jovens de la calle than he did at a school desk.

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You are talking about one fight. My husband and me we are the biggest foxing fans since 1980. Do you know how many times we have encountered the same thing?. It is countless. It happens over and over and when someone dares to approached the judges my god you can even be taken out of the place and not allowed to return. Sorry to say it is still a big mafia. The boxers are the victims with their dreams and so so many times that dream is shatter by this group of people called judges. I got into a big fight with one of them this month, a fighter gets knock out and for sevens minutes he remain in the floor unconscious and the rescue was not called I confronted him and this 80 year old man almost got physical with me.


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Pedro Lara
Pedro Lara

My last name is Lara to. Maybe where related.


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C.O. Jones
C.O. Jones

My father was a professional boxer in Cuba. I grew up with boxing all around me. I can tell you that the sport was always shady, but what is happening now is simply a crime. The sport has been smeared and tarnished to a level which is losing fans by the millions every year. There was a solution proposed a long time ago. It was to have one unified international governing body and one belt per weight. The referees would be answerable to and appointed by this governing group. There would be one set of rules and certainly drug testing before every fight. If this does not happen....dig a hole...bury boxing.

This is a very good article.

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