Fancy Footwork

Havana's Kid Chocolate auditorium, a spacious wood-floored gymnasium named after the great Cuban boxing champion of the Thirties, seemed the perfect place, in 1991, to debut a new sport. There in the central Havana auditorium, on the second floor of a building across the street from the historic ornate capitol building, Manuel "Manolo" Lopez and a small band of renegade athletes staged what they believed was Cuba's first public kickboxing exhibition. They didn't see the show as an act of insurrection, but the Cuban government apparently did. Lopez's group was never allowed to return to Kid Chocolate. The members continued their kickboxing training and competitions, though, moving from gym to gym as authorities booted them out of various public places. Within four years most of the team was in exile and one member was in prison.

It's a long way from the Kid Chocolate auditorium to the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. Nine years after that first show in Havana, this past July 15 Lopez and a half-dozen members of the original group staged a professional kickboxing program at the Knight Center. That event, like the 1991 show, marked the beginning of an exhilarating but risky venture.

Lopez, now 40 years old, still moves with the sinewy, silent fluidity of an innovative martial artist (he was a karate champion before he began to champion kickboxing). As in Havana, Lopez was the principal trainer for the seven Miami-based kickboxers (six Cubans, one Chilean, all recent immigrants) featured in the Knight Center program. The "Ultimate World Championship Kickboxing" event was billed as "Cuba vs. Spain." The Cubans and Chilean won their matches, and their aggressive, explosive style attracted interest from local Spanish-language media.

Nothing quite like it had been produced in Florida before, or for that matter elsewhere in the United States, since the athletic styles and backgrounds of the newly arrived Latin fighters are distinctly European, differing in many aspects from the U.S. kickboxing tradition. Also the Knight Center program's format, substance, and ambiance were closer to those of a professional boxing match than of a typical martial arts competition in a park or high school gym. The first-time promoters lost tens of thousands of dollars on the show, but the 800 or so fans in attendance loved it. Perhaps more important, the fighters got paid (with borrowed money), and no one got into trouble with the police -- a sign of progress, considering the state of things nine years ago in Havana.

A second professional kickboxing program this past Sunday at Signature Gardens in unincorporated Miami-Dade County attracted more sponsors and about the same number of spectators. Now, Lopez and his crew hope, they won't have to start from scratch yet again. "Our intention is to organize and do what we couldn't do in Cuba," he said a few weeks before the show, conversing in the lobby of the Family Kickboxing Academy in Kendale Lakes, where he is one of the instructors for about 200 amateur students, mostly girls and women. Lopez was wearing his uniform from a second job as a beverage distributor. "Manuel," read the red-and-white patch on his right front pocket. For a moment a shadow darkened his brown eyes. "The only thing I regret," he added, "is the time is past for me to be a champion."

This past July at the Knight Center Eric "El Tigre" Castaños, his coppery hair sheared close and a scowl fixed on his sharp-featured face, defended his World Kickboxing Organization (WKO) title in the 147-pound category. Facing Emilio Blanco, a highly ranked ex-champion from Spain, Castaños led off with a few fast hip-high kicks and then moved in, throwing a right hand, then a left to Blanco's face. The men traded kicks, advancing and retreating with precision. Early in the fourth round Castaños knocked Blanco down with a right to the jaw and later pinned him against the ropes. But the challenger kicked out and went after Castaños with a flurry of lefts and rights. As the round neared the bell, Castaños threw Blanco off balance with kicks, then drove in with a right hook to the jaw, sending Blanco reeling. He managed to get back on his feet as the round ended, but his trainer kept him in his corner when the fifth-round bell sounded.

Castaños leaped onto the ropes and raised his arms in triumph, beating his chest like Tarzan. "Tee-grayyyyyy!" called a woman's voice. Among the men crowding around to cheer and hug El Tigre was one of his cornermen, a dark-haired Spaniard in his thirties with a long, pointed face and aquiline nose. He was the revered José Vicente Eguzquiza, eight-time world champion throughout the Eighties and Nineties. Eguzquiza was with Castaños in 1998 when he won his first world championship and has taken time from his extensive obligations as teacher, trainer, and international sanctioning official to attend Castaños's most important bouts.

Eguzquiza is, in fact, the man responsible for establishing kickboxing in Cuba. "A friend of mine traveled abroad a lot in the Eighties," recalled Manolo Lopez. "He met Eguzquiza in Spain and told him about me and my friends who were martial arts practitioners." On a weeklong visit to Havana in 1990, Eguzquiza taught the basics of his sport to an enthusiastic handful of karate, tae kwon do, and judo competitors. He came back several weeks later and stayed six months.

"It was a tight-knit group who wanted to learn," Eguzquiza recalled, speaking by phone recently from one of his gyms in Pamplona, Spain. "Some of them have become like family to me. At the time practicing kickboxing was prohibited in Cuba." No one (with the probable exception of Fidel Castro) knows the real reasons for the government's hostility toward the new sport. The two most common theories are that kickboxing exhibited excessive Western-style flash and wasn't regarded as a real sport by the authorities, and that it simply had not been officially sanctioned by the state. "They were always having to go from gym to gym," Eguzquiza continued, "although when I was there no one bothered me personally. But I was a witness the time when they kicked us out of a gym at the University [of Havana]."

Thus the Cubans learned not only kickboxing, but more about Eguzquiza's world. Professional kickboxing, while at a primitive stage of development in the United States, is a popular and profitable attraction in Europe. But Eguzquiza's Cuban pupils couldn't partake of the financial fruits of his success. All sports on the island are amateur. For a Cuban athlete mere contact with a defector or pro scout can lead to banishment from competition, as several recent baseball cases have illustrated. Lopez, who won a series of national and international karate championships during the Eighties, claims he was booted from the island's karate team in 1990 because he refused to cut ties with a friend who had moved to Spain. Nevertheless Lopez and his fellow kickboxers hoped they could build enough interest in the sport to persuade Cuban authorities to add a kickboxing team to the nation's rigorous amateur system.

The government, though, took a less than encouraging stance. "The karate commission prohibited the practice of kickboxing," Lopez said. "They thought we were training people to be like the Rapid Response Brigades [a citizens' militia]." When he and the other Cuban kickboxing pioneers talk about their past, it's hard to tell whether their political disillusionment grew out of their struggle to continue kickboxing or vice versa. Regardless, their passion for the sport became inseparable from their dissident views.

Lopez and Guillermo Fernandez, another former karate champion turned kickboxing trainer, were deeply involved in opposition organizations. Fernandez led the Directorio Estudiantil Universitario as an engineering student at the University of Havana; Lopez was a member of two of Cuba's most visible opposition groups, the Corriente Civica and Corriente Socialista. The Castro regime, struggling in the early Nineties to cope with the economic devastation and social disorder following the collapse of Soviet communism, had little tolerance for even a symbolic threat to its primacy.

"At that time," Lopez explained, "the government had almost lost control of the system, but it was taking measures to regain control. It was a government that lived in fear of its own shadow. State security watched us all the time. But we decided to continue training as a group, not with our sights on what would happen in Cuba but on the possibility of leaving and becoming professionals. The possibility of developing in our sport didn't exist in Cuba. The same system that formed me was now deforming me."

After their first public show, recounted Guillermo Gual, an original member of the group, he was fired from his job as a taxi driver and had to take backbreaking construction jobs. "We never intended it as a political thing, but they made it political," asserted Gual, now 39 years old. "We stayed more or less hidden, but we continued to put on shows when we could, in out-of-the-way locations, yards of our friends. We trained a lot on the porch of my house."

Now that the Havana group is reconstituted in Miami, the fighters no longer face political obstacles to their success. But they remain upstarts and outsiders. They'll have to sell themselves to an uninformed sports-saturated public. Kickboxing in the United States is primarily amateur (although most people familiar with the sport say American amateurs are generally as good as the professionals) and does not enjoy anywhere near the visibility of professional boxing. Neither amateur nor professional kickboxing in this nation goes by any uniform regulations or standards. Competent promotion and matchmaking are almost nonexistent. Kickboxing is not only less popular in the United States than in Europe and South America but it's usually less exciting, owing to factors such as a limited range of kicks and a generally lower level of skill development.

Thus the Miami kickboxers are endeavoring to create their own market by contributing a new style that draws heavily on the European tradition introduced to Cuba and given a Latin twist. "North American kickboxing, which is what they do in California, is a different type of kickboxing than the kind we do," explained Cuban fighter Cesar Marnallelis, one of the most recent arrivals. "The Latin style is more European, with more rhythm, more contact, a lot of dancing. We are going to create a Miami style. Our team can include Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans -- people are going to identify us as Latino fighters, equal to the best in the world. I think one of the main reasons we win is because of the training we got in Cuba."

Kickboxing is hard to define because it has so many variations. Some experts describe the sport as boxing from the waist up and karate from the waist down, but the kinds of kicks employed are diverse. Always, though, kickboxers perform barefoot. (Kickboxing has almost nothing in common with the currently fashionable Tae-Bo, or cardio-karate, which employs few true martial arts moves.) The most prevalent form of U.S. kickboxing doesn't allow low kicks, whereas European and Asian fighters kick virtually anywhere except the groin area. This seemingly minor difference can change the pace and look of a match, since a fighter needs more space to kick high, whereas kicking low can be done close in and often is more devastating (experienced kickboxers like El Tigre point to their shins, crisscrossed with old and new scars, almost as a badge of honor). Sometimes kneeing and elbowing is permitted, more often not. Professional fighters leave the shin guards and headgear to the amateurs; two opponents may wield boxing gloves of two different sizes and weights. Kickboxing is scored like boxing; three ring judges use a point system to rate each fighter. And the action is divided into rounds, although the length of the rounds is usually two minutes instead of boxing's three. In the end the rules of any match tend to follow whatever the program organizers want.

Kickboxing-sanctioning organizations are constantly forming, fading away, and sometimes reforming. "We call it alphabet soup," joked Jeff Santella, president of the Cape Coral-based Florida arm of the World Kickboxing Organization (WKO). "Everybody just makes their own [sanctioning body], not necessarily because they want to, but there's no reason to go with the others. Every show has different rules. You don't find a lot of communication within the martial arts community, unlike boxing, where it's one for all. The same sanctioning body may have two separate events in neighboring counties on the same weekend, and one not know about the other. So there's a lack of professionalism. There also is not much concern about proper matchmaking. Instead of finding out what experience [the two opponents] have, [promoters] just put 'em together, and of course that can be a very bad experience when the other guy doesn't show up, or the guy who shows up said he had three fights and you find out he had thirty."

By 1993, the year Guillermo Fernandez was arrested and sent to prison for "terrorist activities," the Havana kickboxing group had begun to lose some of its early enthusiasm. Three months after Fernandez's arrest, Castaños and Paulino Hernandez, another kickboxer, emigrated to Santiago, Chile (Hernandez later settled in Bolivia). Both had married Chilean citizens. The Havana contingent carried on in the semiclandestine way it always had, but part of the action shifted to Santiago. "All of us were contributing what we could to help support Guillermo's wife and child," Castaños recalled. "When I got to Chile, I started working on ways to get him freed."

During what would become known on both sides of the Florida Straits as the Rafter Crisis of 1994, Lopez and one of his most promising fighters, Raul Llopis, hopped on a small fishing boat heading for Miami with eight other Cubans onboard. It was July and the exodus was just beginning. After a day at sea the group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the burgeoning detention camps at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo. Lopez started a kickboxing group at Guantánamo after running into other fighters also interned there. He and Llopis finally arrived in Miami in early 1995. (Llopis was resettled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he still lives.)

Castaños, having become a martial arts trainer in Santiago, embarked on a professional kickboxing career. With the help of Eguzquiza of Spain and a Chilean sponsor, he was able to travel to matches in Europe. In 1998 he won his first WKO 147-pound world championship in Pamplona, and he defended the title a year later in Marbella. He won another international championship in Marseilles, France, soon afterward. The pay for such bouts, compared to boxing title fights, was minimal -- in the $10,000 range.

Back in Santiago Castaños taught kickboxing with an eye to forming a core group much like the fraternity back in Havana. "If you don't have a good team," he declared earnestly, "you can't triumph worldwide." Chile, however, isn't the sports hotbed that Cuba is. Castaños found little governmental support for his efforts and few above-average athletes. "At first it was really hard," he recalled, "but I decided to fight for the cause [of kickboxing]."

One afternoon in 1994 Julio Vargas, an eighteen-year-old accounting student, walked into a gym in the Recoleta section of Santiago. "I went out of curiosity. Eric was teaching a class," said Vargas, a compact man with black eyes and a shock of coal-black hair. "At that time, kickboxing was only in movies. I didn't know anything about that or any sport." But he had already learned self-defense growing up in his neighborhood of Conchalí, a poor high-crime suburb of Santiago. He found he had a natural talent for the rapid-fire balletic martial arts moves.

In 1995 Castaños traveled back to Cuba, where he visited Guillermo Fernandez in prison. "I had been to the U.N. High Commissioner in Chile," Castaños said. "And I was constantly lobbying the Chilean ambassador [in Havana] to help Guillermo. One time I went to visit Guillermo. He gave me his prison shirt with his name printed on it, and I gave him the T-shirt I had on. The prison shirt was dirty and smelled bad. I put it on, walked into the [Chilean] embassy and asked to speak to the ambassador."

A few months later Fernandez was deported to Santiago, and his family followed. Fernandez joined Castaños working with the other kickboxers in the Chilean capital. In 1997 Castaños formed a sanctioning organization, the Chilean Full-Contact Federation. By then the team he had envisioned had materialized, fifteen to twenty strong young men, though not all with professional prospects. Castaños and Fernandez felt Julio Vargas had potential, and a promising kickboxer from Havana, 22-year-old Cesar Marnallelis, had just moved to Santiago (his father is Chilean) with a letter of introduction from his trainers, one of whom was Guillermo Gual.

The kickboxers had been training at a giant government-run sports complex, but at one point the team was banned for several months. One of Chile's top sports officials disliked Castaños and Fernandez. "He knew me in Cuba," Castaños said dismissively. "He's a communist. There are a lot of communists in Chile, you know. He insulted me one day in an office, and without even hesitating I hauled off -- boom! -- and hit him hard in the face with my fist. He fell to the floor, stunned. After that we got kicked out of the [sports complex] gym."

For the Cubans it was a bit like the bad old days in Havana, though lacking in fear and quiet desperation. The kickboxers attracted as much attention as possible to their plight, training on the street in front of the gym in pouring rain, picketing, appearing on TV and radio shows. After four months the team was allowed back in.

Castaños and Fernandez, however, had no intention of staying in Chile permanently. This past February they secured visas to compete in a tournament in Orlando. Once here in Miami, the two men sent for their families and applied for U.S. residency. "When Eric went to Miami is when the federation started to decline," explained Vargas, who became the Chilean national kickboxing champion in 1998 and successfully defended his title the same year. "There was a lack of resources, which meant we couldn't buy equipment and things like that. In Chile the government gives very little support for sports; sports are not very important there."

It was mainly for that reason that Vargas, too, dreamed of following Castaños and Fernandez to the United States This past March he flew to Miami on a tourist visa, his plane ticket paid by Castaños. Vargas appeared on both the July 15 and November 19 cards and both times quickly knocked out his opponents. Currently he is ranked No. 2 worldwide by WKO in the 126-pound weight class. "To be a true professional, I had to come here," he said, taking a break from training one recent evening at the Tiger Kickboxing Gym. A small Chilean flag was sewn on to one leg of his satiny green trunks. "Eric and I talked it over and planned everything. My dream is to become a world champion. But the first thing I have to do is bring my family here. I've sent all the necessary [immigration] paperwork to my wife in Santiago." (They have a year-old daughter.) The matter of his own expired tourist visa is being resolved, he added confidently, offering no specifics.

Since Vargas moved to Miami, other kickboxers from the Cuba-Chile connection have joined him here. All have similarly ambitious goals, and at the moment all are operating on faith because, so far, most have little to show for their dedication to the sport. Their faith is fixed not just on their own talents and skills, but on two men who've taken perhaps the biggest risks in the whole endeavor: Jesús Castañon and his son Jesús Sandor Castañon.

This past March the Castañons rented a large first-floor space in a Westchester strip mall. They installed punching bags, mirrored the walls, and named the place Tiger Kickboxing Gym in honor of El Tigre, who is a partner in the enterprise. The younger Castañon, who just turned 23, quit his job selling real estate and began peddling his vision of classy kickboxing shows to prospective sponsors.

Their connection to kickboxing wasn't through sporting expertise but through ties in Cuba. The elder Castañon had lived next door to Guillermo Fernandez in Havana until 1980, when Castañon, his wife, and three-year-old Jesús came to Miami in the Mariel boatlift. "When I was around eight years old, Guillermo was born," recalled the 47-year-old Castañon. "I showed him how to play baseball and basketball. We also did karate together, then I came to the United States, so I left Guillermo. He later became a champion. I've always stayed in touch with him and his family."

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."


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