Erislandy Lara: Robbed in a boxing scandal, he's coming back
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!"
"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 Boxing.com. "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.
"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.
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.
"I was sure we would die on the sea," he says. "I've never felt fear like on the Gulf."
For 12 hours, the boat navigated gaping troughs, skipping from one tempest to the next on a bullet-line to Cancun. At 2 a.m., he finally slipped onto an unguarded scrub beach in Cancun. With Öner's help, he obtained a passport and flew to Hamburg, Germany. He spent five months there, and through another Cuban fighter, he met the woman who's now his wife: Yudi, a full-figured Cuban beauty with wavy black hair.
In late 2008, after a brief holdover in Santo Domingo, Lara finally made it to Miami. He raged up the pro circuit. Ten of his first 15 matches ended in knockouts; the other five came with unanimous decisions from the judges.
Last May, before beating Chris Gray on a Manny Pacquiao undercard, Lara married Yudi in a Las Vegas chapel. The couple had a son, Landy, a few months later.
With a steady income for the first time, Lara finally supported himself as he had dreamed in Havana. He and his wife rented a $315,000 home in West Kendall on a quiet street blocks from the Everglades. Then they picked up a flashy bright-blue Toyota FJ Cruiser with chrome rims.
Before the Williams bout, Lara's only true test came this past March, when a Mexican-American named Carlos Molina held him to a draw in Las Vegas on a card with his former teammate, Yudel Jhonson. "I wasn't ready for Molina," Lara admits.
Williams would be different. Lara hired Ronnie Shields, a legendary Houston-based trainer, and flew to South Texas to train for six weeks. "No one I've ever worked with is hungrier than Lara," Shields says. "We knew Williams would throw a lot more punches, so we focused on landing more in return."
That's exactly what Lara did for 12 punishing rounds in Atlantic City on July 21. By the 11th, Lara's brutal left hooks to Williams's head were landing with such precision that HBO's announcing crew begged Williams's corner to end the fight. "I wish his coach would take him out before he's knocked out," Roy Jones Jr. said on-air. "It's not safe out there for him, and he's not going to win. The kid is teeing off on him."
With two rounds to go, even Williams's trainer, George Peterson, admitted the truth. "You gotta knock him out to win," he told his fighter while rubbing ointment on a gushing wound above his left eye. "You hear me? You gotta knock him out to win!"
Lederman, HBO's scorer, gave the fight to Lara; eight other ringside reporters from ESPN, USA Today, and several boxing websites all agreed. They marked Lara the clear winner on their own scorecards, reported BoxingScene.com.
Yet when the fight ended, here are the final scores the refs turned in: Donald Givens: 116-114 for Williams; Hilton Whitaker: 115-114 for Williams; and Al Bennett: a 114-114 tie.
In the weeks that followed, boxing writers and state regulators all posed the same question: How could this happen? An ESPN writer called the decision "the worst boxing has seen in years." Industry blog Queensbury Rules labeled it "grand larceny" and "obscene."
Finally, Aaron Davis, commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, was forced to admit his judges had failed. In a virtually unprecedented step, four days after the fight he suspended all three indefinitely. "I'm ashamed this happened on my watch," he says. "They missed this one completely."
Davis maintains that the blown call was the result of spontaneous mass incompetence, not corruption. "This was an isolated incident," he says.
As for the judges, at least one stands behind the decision. "We're there to call it the way we see it and not worry about whether we're satisfying the TV crews," Givens says. "The commissioner bowed to pressure in suspending us. He should have stood behind his people." (New Times was unable to reach Whitaker or Bennett.)
That's laughable, says Ecksel, the Boxing.com editor. "Standing behind a horribly blown call to the end, huh?" he says of Givens's interview. "There's no question in my mind that corruption on some level lies behind these kinds of problems."
Here's the ugly truth behind Williams's phony win: All too often, promoters have influence over a fight's judges. And those promoters can make fortunes based on who wins. (Williams took home $1.5 million instead of $135,000.)
In this case, many believe Williams's promoter, Dan Goossen, had some say in picking the three judges, all of whom were virtual rookies; Givens had never scored a major fight, and Whitaker and Bennett each had only one prime-time match on their records.
"It wasn't three blind mice out there; it was three corrupt rats," says Luis De Cubas Jr., Lara's manager. "The margin was so wide in favor of Lara winning this, I can't see how else these judges missed this so badly."
Goossen has a history of controversy. He was forced out of his first promotion company and has fended off several federal lawsuits. In 2001, he resigned as head of Denver-based firm America Presents after a string of financial losses and a raft of lawsuits filed by fighters who said they weren't paid, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The company's owner, Mat Tinley, accused Goossen of spending "lavishly" on hotel stays and other perks. Goossen later sued Tinley in federal court, claiming he'd been "harassed, intimidated, [and] coerced" with legal threats; Tinley countersued in Texas. The ex-partners settled out of court in April 2002.
In 2004, Goossen's new company, Goossen Tutor Promotions, was sued in California along with fighter James Toney over an alleged $95,000 debt to a jeweler; the complaint was settled two months later. Goossen and another firm, Top Rank, sued each other in 2005 and 2007 over fights.
Goossen and Davis, the New Jersey commissioner, both deny he had any influence over the judges. "No promoter has any input or any say in our judging choices," Davis says. Adds Goossen: "Quite frankly, I had no idea who the judges were before we went into this fight."
Indeed, Goossen says he believes the contest was a virtual tossup between Lara and Williams. "It could have gone either way," he says, adding that HBO's announcers added fuel to the fire by suggesting that Lara was pummeling Williams. "Even the most unbiased person hearing the way they were describing that fight might end up with a skewed view of what actually happened out there."
Three months after the Williams fight, Lara holds a gently cooing pigeon, pinning its glossy blue wings with his rough, scarred fingers. Then, with a quick flick of his wrists, he launches the bird into the midday glare, watching intently as it traces circles higher and higher above his suburban block.
In the wake of the first loss of his pro career, a fight that will forever be recorded as an "L" even though he actually won, Lara finds peace here, in his West Kendall garage. One wall is lined with handmade wooden cages that emit a soft melody. Lara has been a palomero, a pigeon-trainer, since he was a kid in Guantánamo. He'd steal other trainers' birds and hide them from his mom, who would snap their necks whenever she found them tucked under the eaves of their home's patchwork roof.
"I just like to watch them fly," Lara says. "I'll pull a chair up in my driveway and watch them for hours. They always come back."
If Lara feels the same rage that boxing writers and pundits have spewed since July, it doesn't show. Outside the ring, he's relaxed and soft-spoken, with a deep, resonant voice bigger than his wiry, five-foot-nine frame. Maybe it's because he realizes the stolen win has deeper implications for boxing at large than it does for his own career. "I know in my heart I won that fight, so it's not going to hold me back," Lara says.
Adds Ecksel: "The controversy will only help Lara. A lot more people know his name now than did before the Williams decision, and anyone who knows boxing knows he won that fight."
For Lara, the bogus call is just another raw motivation, lodged in his mind next to all the other painful sacrifices this brutal sport has already demanded: Erislandy Jr. and Roberlandy growing up fatherless in Havana, his mom aging alone in Guantánamo, his own glory days lost forever in a hometown ordered to forget he even existed.
Most mornings before the sun rises, he can be found on the track at Tropical Park, sprinting past casual joggers and off-season football players. He is ready for whatever comes next. "Someday I'll be able to retire, travel, and enjoy my family," Lara says. "But now, now I just have to keep fighting."
Alexandra Leon contributed to this story.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.