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Freedom Fighters

What was perhaps the biggest disappointment in all of Diobelys Hurtado's 24 years came in the spring of 1992, when the coach of Cuba's powerhouse national boxing team told him he wouldn't be going to Barcelona to compete in the Olympics. Though the elusive right-hander with the surprising left hook held the amateur world championship, another fighter had been tapped to represent Cuba in the super lightweight division. "It was something very hard for me," recalls the boxer, whose long-lashed, feline eyes often narrow in a slight frown of concentration. "This was what I'd been working for; it was a great opportunity."

Along with eight siblings and assorted nieces and nephews, Hurtado grew up in poverty on a farm outside Santiago de Cuba. To this day, the family house doesn't have electricity. When he wasn't helping harvest corn, yucca, and beans, Hurtado played piano and sang salsa with some of his brothers, one of whom now fronts a band in Santiago. And starting at the age of twelve, he dedicated himself to training. He'd walk sixteen miles each way to work out at the gymnasium in the town of La Maya. "I knew if I could be successful, I would be able to help my family," he says. "My other brothers weren't fortunate enough to be athletes." Finally, in 1989, at age seventeen, Hurtado got the chance to travel to Havana to try out for the junior national team. He was accepted, and the next year he advanced to the adult team.

As it happened, the Cuban who went to Barcelona in Hurtado's place was eliminated in an early-round bout. The American Oscar de la Hoya eventually won the gold medal, a victory he has since parlayed into a professional world championship and millions of dollars. And although Hurtado would go on to win two national championships as well as two world championships, he began to think about defecting to the U.S.

It wasn't that he was in dire straits. His athletic ability had always protected him from military service, with its long tours of duty and the threat of war. Food and other supplies weren't rationed for elite athletes as they usually were for their families. Little was spared to enhance the worldwide prestige of Cuba's winning sports teams. As a fellow defector puts it, "Estabamos una maquina de dinero para Fidel."

Hurtado no longer wanted to be a part of Castro's money machine.
Of course, he said nothing to his family in Santiago, nothing to his friends at the Instituto Superior de Cultura Fisica, part of the University of Havana, where national team members lived and trained and where Hurtado earned a degree in 1994. A few other team members had defected, but no one spoke openly about such matters; you never knew who might hear and talk to the wrong people.

It was after an October 1994 trip to a tournament in Connecticut, during a stopover at the Miami airport on the way back to Havana, that Hurtado got up the courage to jump. He didn't know anyone in Miami, but he thought he'd get help from the large exile population here. The team was staying at the Miami Airport Marriott; at about 1:00 a.m. on the night before Halloween, he sneaked down to the bar. "I was feeling very alone, and I just started talking to a gentleman there. I thought I could trust him, so I told him what I was intending to do and asked him to help me. First he explained how difficult life is here, and he told me to think about what I was doing. I said I was sure."

The man, whom Hurtado hasn't seen since, drove him to a Days Inn near the airport and got him a room. A security guard there happened to have a phone number for Giorbis Barthelemy, who six months earlier had swum across Guantanamo Bay to the naval base. Barthelemy had boxed a few months for the Cuban junior team and was already fighting professionally. At about 3:00 a.m. he and his manager Rene Gil, along with Hialeah boxing promoter Julio Martinez and a partner (who has since bowed out), arrived to find a nervous and stone-drunk Hurtado. They went for breakfast to Chico's, the landmark Hialeah restaurant and cafeteria, and later Hurtado fell asleep for a few hours on the floor of Gil's office.

It didn't take the local press long to discover the newest and most impressive boxer associated with Martinez, a former Hialeah mayor who has dabbled in both boxing and politics for more than twenty years. Martinez was just beginning to re-enter the promotion business with the help of Luis De Cubas, a co-promoter of boxing legend Roberto Duran and a manager of Jorge Luis Gonzalez, the star Cuban heavyweight whose celebrated defection in 1991 is considered to have inspired others to follow.

 

Hurtado applied for political asylum, signed with Gil, and was soon granted a work permit. Less than two months after he arrived he fought his first professional bout, a four-round event in a Martinez production at the Seville Hotel in Miami Beach. Hurtado won by unanimous decision. Gil owned an aircraft radio repair company and had gotten into the boxing business only earlier that year, but by the end of 1994 he had signed up two more Cuban defectors and enlisted the services of a former junior national boxing team trainer, also a recent defector. A group, bound by ties that had been formed in Cuba, was beginning to coalesce.

Less than two years later Hurtado is ranked by the World Boxing Council among the top ten junior welterweights in the world, and the clique of Cuban boxers has expanded to the point where it is being marketed to television audiences nationwide, under the cannily conceived name Team Freedom.

Six of Team Freedom's eleven boxers used to fight on the Cuban national team. Some fought on the junior team before that. Competing in identical blue-striped trunks sporting the white-star-on-red of the Cuban flag, all but one are undefeated in their professional careers. Two are ranked by the World Boxing Council (WBC) among the top 30 fighters in their weight class. Those statistics are expected to improve in the next year, owing largely to the addition of lightweight Joel Casamayor and light heavyweight Ramon Garbey, gold medal favorites who made international news this past summer after defecting from the Cuban Olympic team just before the Atlanta games.

Unlike in Cuba, the idea of a group of professional boxers training together in the United States is almost unheard of. Boxing, after all, is the antithesis of a team sport. But in an industry notorious for cutthroat tactics, Team Freedom was created as a mutual support society in which the strong carry the weak. "The concept of Team Freedom is the idea that a Cuban boxer who defects from his homeland and comes to us, where he can fight and support his family, can still fight in the environment he's used to with his friends," asserts Leon Margules, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and one of the directors of Team Freedom Promotions, Inc., the corporation formed, as its name implies, to promote the Team Freedom fighters. "Nothing's changed except they get to keep their money. American fighters tend to be individualists, but these guys like to train together -- some live together, they hang out together."

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco is best known for his role as Muhammad Ali's ringside physician, but in the Sixties he worked with an earlier generation of Cuban fighters such as Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos, Florentino Fernandez, Luis Rodriguez, and Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles. "This has never been done before, not in the professional ranks, so I'm very excited to be part of it," says Pacheco, who has agreed to provide commentary for a November pay-per-view event involving eight of the Team Freedom boxers. He even did a painting depicting a rafter's rise to boxing glory that will be used as a promotional poster for the event, to be staged at the Coconut Grove Convention Center. In the meantime, three of the boxers (including newcomers Casamayor and Garbey) are on the undercard of this Friday's (September 20) WBC welterweight championship rematch between Pernell Whitaker and Wilfredo Rivera, which takes place at the James L. Knight Center and will be televised on HBO. Two other team members will fight the following Friday in Atlantic City; another has a bout -- the undercard of a Roberto Duran fight -- scheduled in West Virginia the same night, to be broadcast nationwide on ESPN.

The boxers train nearly every day in a small gym wedged into a nondescript gray row of warehouse spaces in Hialeah Gardens. A dusty boom box at the foot of the ring broadcasts salsa or reggae, the beat of the music pacing the punches on the big bags that hang from the ceiling. The boxers go for three minutes, then a trainer yells "ATiempo!" and they get a minute's rest, as in a real match. Most of the men who lean against the walls watching arrived only recently from Santiago or Guantanamo or Havana, childhood friends of one or more of the boxers who have tracked them down via the posters that advertise upcoming matches.

In May 1994, Alexis Barcelay, then 22, set out before dawn from his home in the town of Guantanamo, across the minefields around the U.S. base. Barcelay had never boxed in Cuba, but upon his arrival in Miami his hometown friend Giorbis Barthelemy advised him that it was a good way to make money -- something he desperately needed since the birth of his first child, three years before. (He left his two children and their mother back in Guantanamo.) So Barcelay learned to box, and Rene Gil became his manager, and Julio Martinez included him in his programs at the Seville. The junior lightweight, the only Team Freedom member to have lost a professional match, has won nine out of his fifteen bouts, with three fights ending in draws.

 

Personable, articulate, and possessed of a broad smile, Mario Iribarren came to Miami in the final days of 1994, having defected from the Cuban national team a year earlier during a tournament in Denmark, where he had been forced to remain because of immigration snafus.

Iribarren, who grew up in Havana's Parraga neighborhood, says that his old barrio has produced many accomplished boxers: "A lot of kids used to put on gloves and go out in the street," he recalls. "Men who had been boxers would teach us." At sixteen he joined the junior team, then went on to the adult team; he won the 1987 junior national championship and a world championship. But in early 1993, he missed a week of practice immediately before the Pan American games and was suspended from competition for six months. He says he was preoccupied with several crises his family was undergoing at the time. "I was really worried about my family, because they were suffering from the food and fuel rationing. There were shortages of everything," Iribarren explains. "I was doing fine, but they weren't. I ate well, but they didn't."

He resolved not to complain about the disciplinary action, to keep his mouth shut and follow all the rules -- and to wait for a chance to defect. His singlemindedness won him a berth in Denmark: "When they congratulated me, I said, 'Thanks, and adios.'" For a week after slipping away from the team in Copenhagen, a Cuban man hid him in his girlfriend's house, and when the team left the country, he went to the U.S. embassy.

In Miami he was joined by his wife Venus, who had secured a visa to visit family members in South Florida. She is now studying dental hygiene and English. Iribarren, a junior middleweight, is fighting for Team Freedom under Rene Gil and is undefeated in fourteen professional bouts with a dozen knockouts. Ranked 23rd in the world by the WBC, the aggressive left-hander is looking forward to his September 27 televised match, which may put him in line for a title fight.

Juan Carlos Suarez, a junior lightweight who fought on a provincial boxing team in Cuba, arrived on a raft in late 1992 but worked at a refrigeration plant until meeting up with Barthelemy, Hurtado, and Barcelay about two years later.

A sad-eyed former wrestler from the city of Santa Clara in Las Villas province, Manuel Elizondo worked with the Cuban junior team as a trainer for twelve years before defecting in July 1994, leaving behind his wife and two children. Elizondo saw his chance when the junior team traveled to Mexico to train. A friend drove him to Nuevo Laredo, and he waded and swam across the Rio Grande. Relatives who had driven from West Palm Beach took him to Miami, where he had family, including cousin Jose Manuel Ribalta, a heavyweight who had gained respect (if not victories) in bouts with the likes of Mike Tyson and Bruce Seldon during the Eighties.

Though his initial efforts to join Miami's boxing community were rebuffed by local impresarios, a serendipitous meeting in early December 1994 was all it took. Elizondo was walking past a cafeteria near his uncle's print shop, where he'd been working. Stuck to the wall was a poster advertising an upcoming boxing program featuring Giorbis Barthelemy, whom Elizondo had trained briefly in Cuba, and Diobelys Hurtado, who had been one of his proteges. Just then he recognized the young man crossing the street: It was Barthelemy. "I asked him where I could find Diobelys," Elizondo recalls. "And Giorbis said, 'I'll take you to him.'"

They met in Rene Gil's small warehouse office. The bearded Gil, given to lighting cigarettes midsentence, says he considered Elizondo a godsend. "Manuel showing up was like icing on the cake," he recalls. "We had everything we needed." But no one was making much money. The shows at the Seville weren't profitable; Gil estimates that he's sunk $450,000 of his own money into paying and maintaining his fighters.

Matched against inferior fighters, Hurtado, Iribarren, Barthelemy, and Suarez boasted undefeated professional records by the end of 1995. Martinez, Gil, and De Cubas had planned an extravagant New Year's Eve card that included three title fights -- Hurtado was set to contend for the impressive-sounding but virtually meaningless National Boxing Association world championship in the lightweight division (Barthelemy already held the welterweight crown) -- as well as a homage to Roberto Duran, dancing, and dinner. It went off quite well, considering that the promoters say their partner in the event, a likable ex-con who'd promised to put up most of the money, disappeared a few days before and stuck them with the costs. Hurtado won his championship belt with a ninth-round knockout of Desi Ford.

 

By January 1996, three more Cuban fighters -- welterweights Rene Valdez and Ivan Ledon, and Ledon's nephew, junior lightweight Ramon Ledon -- had arrived in the United States via Guantanamo and made contact with De Cubas. That made eight expatriate Cubans looking to make their mark in professional boxing, and De Cubas, Gil, and Martinez figured they were on to something loaded with potential. Funding was a problem, but while they were eating lunch one day with Leon Margules, a financial, marketing, and political strategy jelled. "We needed to raise some money," Margules explains. "So Luis and I put together a deal to merge all the Cubans under the banner of Team Freedom." De Cubas, Margules, and New York entertainment lawyer Roger Haber became the directors of Team Freedom Promotions, Inc., with the backing of sixteen investors, friends, and clients of Haber.

The Ledons and Valdez soon moved to Las Vegas, where they live and train, though they remain members of the team. And in the spring of 1996, after an eighteen-month odyssey from Havana to Guantanamo to Panama to Washington, D.C., brothers Elieser and Eliseo Castillo finally arrived in Miami. The Castillos, who grew up in a hard-working Havana family (their mother, Bertha Ramos Ruiz, was honored four times as the nation's top tobacco worker for her exemplary performance in a cigar factory), were determined to try their boxing luck in the free market. Elieser, a 29-year-old cruiserweight, was a national boxing team member who had won numerous championships. His younger brother Eliseo, age 21, fights in the same weight class. Both have signed promotional contracts with Team Freedom and are managed by Gil.

Giorbis Barthelemy, the man without whom Team Freedom might never have been conceived, did not stay with the group. Instead, in the eyes of at least some of his former colleagues, he committed an act of betrayal: Sometime around March of this year he signed with Tuto Zabala. A Cuban exile himself and possibly Miami's most important boxing impresario, Zabala has a decades-long history of contentious dealings with Julio Martinez and Luis De Cubas. Now Gil, who technically is still Barthelemy's manager, is suing him and Zabala. They are countersuing. Attempts to contact Barthelemy to solicit comment for this story were unsuccessful.

Diobelys Hurtado was asleep in his one-bedroom Hialeah apartment when the telephone rang. His friend Ramon Garbey was calling from a Guadalajara suburb on this early Sunday morning in June to say he'd left the Cuban Olympic team training camp in town and was hiding at the house of a Cuban who was helping him to defect to the United States. Hurtado told Garbey he could help him get to Miami if that was what he needed and promised he'd phone the next day. But when he called back, Garbey was gone.

Hurtado soon learned that boxer Joel Casamayor had also bolted from training camp and tracked down Garbey. After being driven to the U.S. border at Tijuana and requesting political asylum, the pair was taken to the immigration center at El Centro, California.

The defection of two gold medal favorites only a few weeks before the Olympics made headlines, and when Hurtado, along with Team Freedom honchos De Cubas, Margules, and Haber flew to California, they joined a swarm of reporters and photographers outside the processing center awaiting the boxers' July 3 release. Hurtado strode forward to greet his friends as they emerged, but before they could acknowledge him they were hustled into a waiting car.

"I was angry and upset," Hurtado recalls. "They were my friends, and they'd asked me to help them. I didn't know who those guys were or what was happening."

Haber called it a kidnapping.
It seemed Casamayor and Garbey had already signed contracts with Top Rank, the giant Las Vegas firm run by high-profile promoter Bob Arum, and management agreements with Todd Management, which is owned by Arum's son. But within days after moving to Las Vegas, they met up with some other Cuban boxers who were associated with Luis De Cubas and they expressed dissatisfaction with their arrangement with Top Rank, complaining that they were put up in a hotel room and given a few hundred bucks but little else. Finally, they called De Cubas in Miami. He bought them plane tickets to Miami and had his brother, who lives in Las Vegas, drive them to the airport.

 

On July 30, with the Olympics in full swing, Margules and De Cubas accompanied Casamayor and Garbey to Atlanta, along with Hurtado and Iribarren. At a sports bar just a few blocks from where the Cuban delegation was staying, they stepped out of a limousine and into a press conference. Dino Duva, president of the New Jersey firm Main Events, announced that Casamayor and Garbey had made promotional deals with him, and that Luis De Cubas would be their manager. Regarding the Arum contracts, Garbey and Casamayor told reporters they had been pressured into signing agreements they hadn't understood.

At the back of the room, a man interrupted. It was Rafael Guerrero, a Dominican who had helped the men get out of Mexico and who for years had been traveling to Cuba on recruiting trips as Arum's agent. Calling De Cubas a bandit, he protested that Casamayor and Garbey had been deceived by Duva with false promises. He waved snapshots of the two fighters dining and drinking at fancy restaurants and enjoying the company of attractive young women in Mexico -- proof, he said, of how well they had been treated while in his care. What was more, he said, the contracts they purportedly didn't understand guaranteed them, among other things, luxury apartments, new sports cars, $30,000 each for a title fight, and $50,000 for title defenses. Guerrero excoriated De Cubas, Gil, and Martinez for interfering with his plans to embarrass Castro by plucking the flowers of his Olympic team; security around the team had been redoubled following the defections, especially for celebrated heavyweight Alexis Rubalcalba, rumored to be the next boxer who'd find a way out of Cuba.

After the press conference, Casamayor and Garbey came to Miami and took up residence in new one-bedroom apartments in Northwest Dade. The accommodations, including generic furniture in neutral tones, big TV sets with VCRs, and phones with built-in answering machines, are part of the contract with Main Events. No one will divulge specific amounts, but sources say the fighters are guaranteed a substantial minimum payment per fight, plus a generous monthly stipend. Garbey bought a new metallic-teal Mitsubishi Eclipse in which he is chauffeured around by Barcelay: He hasn't got his driver's license yet. When Hurtado's ten-year-old Lincoln was stolen, Garbey bought him a new Tercel.

Arum and Rafael Guerrero have filed breach of contract lawsuits against the boxers. (A lawyer for Top Rank says he can't confirm all conditions of the contracts but adds that some of Guerrero's claims "don't sound right." Guerrero himself could not be reached for comment.) Margules, on behalf of Casamayor and Garbey, has filed a suit asking the court to declare the Main Events contracts valid.

On the same day the hullabaloo unfolded in Atlanta, a briefer and more subdued press conference took place in Miami. Two days earlier, at 5:00 p.m. sharp, 45-year-old Mariano Leyva, one of Cuba's top boxing coaches, had walked out of the Mexican Olympic team's quarters in Atlanta and climbed into a rental car waiting on the street with two men inside. A man materialized with a large suitcase, dropped it quickly into the car's trunk, strode away, and the car disappeared into airport-bound traffic.

Now Leyva, a handsome gray-haired man of average build and above-average boxing credentials, was wiping his eyes with a handkerchief as he explained why he'd left his job and his four children in Cuba. Standing beside Leyva in the parking lot of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization offices on Biscayne Boulevard were brothers Jose and Luis Amat. Six months earlier, Leyva's uncle had written his old friend Jose Amat, with the request, as Amat recalls, "'If my nephew calls, help him.'" When Leyva called, Amat and his brother went to Atlanta to bring him back to Miami.

Beginning in 1980, the Cuban government sent Leyva to teach boxers in Nigeria, Nicaragua, and Mexico. In 1983 he became a coach for the Cuban national team, which he accompanied to Barcelona in 1992. Last year he was on loan to Mexico, training that nation's Olympic team in Mexico City. But this past January he had what he calls "a provocation" with a fellow high-ranking trainer. The trainer hit him during a sparring session, Leyva says, and the party officials supervising them did nothing in response. In the coded communist bureaucracy, he had no trouble deciphering the troubling message: He had fallen out of favor.

"If I couldn't do the job I love, which is my life, I would have nothing," he says, tenderly displaying snapshots on the dinette table in his new apartment in the same Northwest Dade complex where Garbey and Casamayor live. The photos show him with some of his most illustrious students, including renowned heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson and multiple world champion Angel Espinosa. Ten years ago Leyva's hair was black and full; he shakes his head silently at the youthful figure shown ducking between the ropes or taping a fighter's hand. "It hurts me because I gave it my all. I was an exemplary employee," he says. "Now I'm starting all over again in a completely different system. I feel like a child taking his first step. But the way I'm looking at it, if I was able to reach the top in Cuba, if I trained world champions there, with hard work I can do the same here."

 

"You have to change your mentality when you come here, but some people can't," Diobelys Hurtado says in his rhythmic oriente accent, as he leans back in a deep, fake-leather chair in his Hialeah apartment. The enormous belt he won for his National Boxing Association triumph sits like a crown atop the TV set in the corner of the living room, and several trophies crowd the end tables near the sofa. Outside, on a small balcony overlooking an algae-clogged pool one floor down, are clusters of boxing gloves, shoes, and towels, set outside after the twice-daily training sessions. "People [in the boxing business] will tell you all kinds of things that aren't true. Everyone is hungry for money. It hasn't been easy for me to adjust. But I'm feeling good, because I'm with my group. With all these people around, it's like Cuba. En la union esta la fuerza."

Some observers take a skeptical view of the viability of that unity once it's transplanted to the U.S. "These kids are still socialists," one member of the boxing cognoscenti says bluntly. Sooner or later, when recognition and material success comes to some Team Freedom fighters and not others, the bonds of commonality will loosen. In a few years some of them might be millionaires, living in a world apart from others who don't make it. The most recent events, in which the two new arrivals signed lucrative contracts with a major promotion firm, are more than likely a sign of changes to come.

But for now the fighters, like any immigrant group, cling to the familiar. When they criticize Americans' obsession with money, they're not speaking intellectually. Sometimes they don't seem to connect money with what it buys, such as when Hurtado neglects to pick up his change after ordering a Whopper and fries at Burger King, or when he and his teammates ring up thousands of dollars in long-distance charges, causing the phone company to temporarily block those calls from their apartments. It hasn't quite sunk in yet that money and prestige are what boxing is all about here. They just want to be champions and to succor their families in Cuba.

If he had defected during the Olympics, Hurtado might have received the kind of fanfare Garbey and Casamayor have. He might have cut a great deal with a deep-pocketed promoter. But he'd still have had to prove himself, as he is in the process of doing now, and as Garbey and Casamayor will have to do.

"They have a big mission in front of them," boxing historian Hank Kaplan says of Team Freedom's members. "They have to make good -- for their families they left back in Cuba and for the people who are supporting them here. As they become immersed in this society, they may break away from each other. That'd be all right, but they must succeed; there's no turning back. There'll be changes. They won't stay a team, because, you see, it'll be survival of the fittest.


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