"At first my grandma asked me to stop fighting," Lara says today, "but then the more I fought, the more she realized I never came home with a scratch. She realized I might be onto something."

His early prowess with his fists hinted at the rocket ascent through the amateur ranks that would follow. His career began in earnest when his grandmother died of cancer. He was 11 years old, and he was devastated. "She was my favorite person. When she was gone, I had to do something different to cope with it," Lara says.

So he started attending school. And in the evenings, instead of brawling in alleys, he entered official youth boxing competitions. It didn't take long for the communist machine to spot his talent. Even as a malnourished preteen, he moved his feet like lightning and jabbed with hands that worked like machines.

"He was incredibly difficult to fight," recalls Jhonson, who spent years boxing Lara as an amateur. "His hands were so fast, and his instincts were so good."

By the time he was in his midteens, he had moved to a full-time training camp in Havana. As he put on weight and settled in around 155 pounds, he sped up the ranks. Lara worked obsessively to make the 2004 Olympic squad but ran into an immovable object: Lorenzo Aragón, a two-time world champ who was nine years older. Lara and Aragón slugged it out four times during 2003 and 2004. Aragón won every bout.

"That was so hard for me," Lara says. "Every fight was close, within a point or two."

But the lessons he learned became key to his ascent. Left off the Olympic squad, he began taking his fitness more seriously, training every day with an expert from Venezuela. When Aragón announced his retirement after grabbing silver in Athens, Lara was poised to move up.

In 2005, with three years to train for the monumental games in Beijing, Lara was named captain of the Cuban boxing team. He and his compadres were the nation's best hope for medals in China.

"I felt invincible," Lara says. "I felt like nothing could possibly touch me."

When the Brazilian police sergeant answers the phone, Lara hesitates. It's August 3, 2007, and he trades glances with Guillermo Rigondeaux, a Cuban fighter who won a gold medal three years earlier in Athens. Outside the phone booth, sun glistens off the toned bodies splayed on the sand in the midday Rio de Janeiro sun.

Rigondeaux nods, and Lara finally says in Spanish: "We're the Cuban boxers. The ones you're looking for."

With that call, Lara ends his golden-boy status as Fidel's favored boxer. When police arrive moments later, his Olympic captaincy will be gone, his career in Havana finished, and his life as a Guantánamo hero lost.

"We called the police because there was nothing else to do," Lara says now. "We weren't scared. We were just ready for it to end."

The end came with shocking speed, a stark reversal of Lara's rapid rise after becoming captain of the Cuban team three years earlier. When he earned the title, he took the responsibility seriously, training harder than anyone — swinging devastatingly heavy ropes until his shoulders almost burst, running for hours in the tropical sun, sparring in muggy rings till dehydration left his legs quaking. He demanded the same of his teammates.

"He led by example, by training harder than anyone else did," Jhonson says. "But he'd also get in your face if you weren't working enough. He was a very good captain."

His international profile rose with his new role. After besting Jhonson three times in training in 2005, Lara earned a trip to his first major tournament: the 2005 World Amateur Boxing Championships, held in China's Sichuan Province.

Fighting as a welterweight in the semis, he beat a Kazakh named Bakhtiyar Artayev, who'd taken gold the year before in Athens by besting Aragón, Lara's old nemesis. In the finals, he defeated Magomed Nurutdinov, a Belarusian who would later win the European title.

Lara was a world champ. In Cuba, he was celebrated from Havana to his hometown, where drunken parades of fans chanted "Lara! Lara! Lara!" when he went home to visit his mother. The government gave him an apartment near the Malecón.

In the ring, he floored one challenger after another during the long months of training to prepare for Beijing. "I knew I could beat anyone," he says. "I would even go up and fight drunk sometimes. It didn't matter."

At the height of his fame, though, Lara was tiring of the Cuban boxing life. The government mandates that fighters train 51 brutal weeks a year, but beyond the celebratory headlines, material benefits are few. In early 2006, Lara had his first son — Erislandy Junior — with a girlfriend he'd met at a Havana party. Like many boxers, he had to worry about the kid getting enough food to survive.

By July 2007, when the team traveled to Brazil for the Pan American Games, Lara was already plotting his escape. Several high-profile teammates had already taken the leap: The previous December, Barthelemy and Gamboa had traded their Olympic medals for cash in Venezuela and then defected to Germany.

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7 comments
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ana
ana

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.

Damon
Damon

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Damon

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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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