Lara says that leaving the team in Rio wasn't his game plan, though. He planned to bolt later that year, when they'd be flying to Chicago.

Here's how Lara explains it: Late on July 21, the night before weigh-in, he and Rigondeaux decided to smoke cigars. They slipped past the guards assigned to watch the team, snuck out of the downtown Rio hotel, and headed down the street to buy smokes.

A group of men approached, led by Ahmet Öner, the German promoter who had helped spirit Gamboa and Barthelemy out of Venezuela. Lara swears he didn't know Öner would be waiting. "He must have just been staking out our hotel," Lara says. (Öner didn't respond to multiple emails sent to his Swiss-based promotion company, Arena Boxing.)

Öner asked Lara and Rigondeaux to join him for a meal. They accepted, but Lara wasn't seriously thinking about defecting that night. "Chicago would have been much easier," he explains, adding that Cuban immigrants are far less likely to be sent back once they arrive in the United States.

Soon, though, Lara and Rigondeaux agreed to Öner's proposal. They would hide out in a safe house until they could leave for Germany. By then it was 5 a.m. and the tipsy fighters realized they'd never make their weigh-in. "We weren't planning on it. But it seemed like the best choice," he says.

Öner hid the boxers for almost three weeks and tried to get them to Germany. But obtaining permission to travel wasn't as easy as they'd planned — especially after Brazilian police agreed to help Cuba try to find its missing boxers. The pair's faces were plastered in newspapers and airports, and then news of their defection reached Miami. On August 3, the Miami Herald reprinted parts of Fidel Castro's column in Granma about the boxers, whom Castro wrote were "knocked out by a punch to the chin, paid with American bills."

That same day back in Rio, Lara and Rigondeaux called the police from the beachside pay phone. The Brazilians picked them up and held them in a hotel until Castro sent a private jet to fly them home. "The government made us feel like we'd betrayed our country," Lara says. They were questioned and then told they could never set foot in a boxing club again. "I wasn't worth anything to them anymore. They cast us aside."

Three weeks earlier, Lara had been one of the most famous athletes in Cuba, the captain of the fabled Olympic boxing squad. Now he was banished to his girlfriend's small apartment in Marianao, a southern Havana suburb.

For months, he spent his days sleeping and his nights drinking while friends begged him to flee to the States. He pretended to be happy with his new life. "If I told them I wanted to leave, they'd be the first to report me to the police," he says.

Only his girlfriend, Mirita Tavares, knew he was plotting an escape. She pleaded with him not to leave, and for a good reason: She was pregnant. In late 2007, she gave birth to Lara's second son, Roberlandy. "She wanted me to stay and help her raise my son as a family," Lara says. "But the truth was, there was no future for our family in Cuba. There was no future for me."

So in January 2008, Lara gathered Roberlandy one last time into his arms and kissed the infant's soft cheek. Then he kissed Tavares and told her he was headed to the corner store to buy a bottle of rum. He left his motorcycle, his passport, everything he owned except the clothes on his back and a five-peso bill.

Outside in the sticky night, he walked a few blocks to the river and leaped into the dark currents. He swam to a small island, where a speedboat lay in the shadows, laden with a dozen other defectors ready to leave it all behind.

Twelve hours away, across a treacherous Gulf speckled with deadly thunderstorms, Mexico awaited.

Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City buzzes as the fighters jab the air and stare lasers across the blue canvas. More than 2,000 fans are packed into a ballroom in the same building where Tyson KO'd Spinks in 91 seconds in 1988 and Holyfield protected his title from Foreman three years later. They've come to watch Paul Williams, a long-limbed 29-year-old with a 39-2 career record, pummel a little-known Cuban with only 15 low-profile pro wins to his name.

When the opening bell clangs, though, Lara doesn't flee Williams's long reach. He plants himself in the middle of the ring, and when Williams tries a triple combo — left-right-left, with all of his weight behind that last rainbow hook — Lara dodges like a Matrix character. Then the Cuban's left jolts Williams's jaw.

Three minutes later, one round in the books, the crowd sits stunned. Williams slumps in his corner, already spitting blood into a plastic funnel. The fight isn't following the script. But then again, Lara has faced worse challenges.

The speedboat, for instance. His journey to Atlantic City could have ended at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Hours after swimming away from his Marianao apartment, Lara had clung desperately to a seat in an uncovered boat skimming over six-foot waves and lashed with horizontal rain.

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7 comments
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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Pedro Lara
Pedro Lara

My last name is Lara to. Maybe where related.

Damon
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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