Thuds to punching bags and the hum of chitchat quiet when the 215-pound heavyweight stops jabbing invisible foes and starts grinding to piped reggae. As his wife joins in the ringside catcalls, Elieser Castillo squats, his chin-length, sun-tipped dreads shaking until his groin is within inches of the mat. The 36-year-old Cuban springs to his toes, smiling and laughing to show he's ready to take on the four men who have sparred with the likes of Mike Tyson. He has paid them to punch him this afternoon.
"Kill 'em. Kill 'em. Keep choppin'," barks Anthony "Chill" Wilson, Castillo's trainer, as the boxer takes on his last and most formidable opponent of the day at Punch Fitness in Deerfield Beach.
Castillo finds his it's-on stare, a pissed-off look his wife recognizes, and uses his southpaw power to cleave into the man's middle. The 42-year-old expels a bestial yowl — "Ahhhckk" — as Castillo pins him to the ropes. Wilson orders Castillo off, worrying he might have broken his opponent's left rib.
After the last of the day's 10 rounds, Wilson sops up the sweat puddle under Castillo. His last sparring partner comes to wish him luck in his upcoming title fight.
"I'm going to take pride in your championship," he says.
"You're in my corner?" asks Castillo. "You're in my corner?"
"You're with the next champ," Castillo says, grinning, as he leans between the ropes to kiss the top of the boxer's stubbly, sweaty head.
With 29 wins, 5 losses, and 2 draws, Castillo has never hit the mat, but he hasn't quite hit the cha-ching, either. He hopes to crack into the World Boxing Organization's heavyweight top 10 by winning a headliner bout against Fres Oquendo (27 wins, 4 losses) for the WBO's Latin American title this Friday at the Mahi Shrine Auditorium in Miami. (The fight airs on ESPN at 9:00 p.m.) The Cuban-born boxer is hungry to be the world heavyweight champ within a year.
"I know that I've been a champion since I was a kid. I am a champion," he says. "That's it. I was the best boxer when I left Cuba. I'm the best one there is here. My goal is be the champion."
Elieser grew up on the outskirts of Havana city, in San Miguel del Padrón, around his mechanic father, a stay-at-home mother who rolled cigars in her free time, six brothers, and a sister.
Three of his brothers practiced boxing, but Elieser preferred judo until an older brother urged him to enter a boxing tournament, where he won a gold medal. By his early teens, Elieser was training to be a professional and winning bouts against 18- and 19-year-olds. As an amateur, he racked up a record in Cuba of 128-10.
"He was the last one of us to start boxing and was one of the best. He had a strong will and something that set him apart from other boxers," says his 35-year-old brother Eliade, who gave up the sport at age 19 and now works installing drywall in Miami.
Hoping his athletic prowess would provide an escape from Cuba, Elieser made the mistake of talking about it. When officials got wind in the early Nineties, he found himself in a dark jail cell. Two weeks later he was freed on one condition: no boxing.
In the summer of 1994, after protests erupted in Havana in response to aggressive enforcement by border guards, Fidel Castro announced he would temporarily allow Cubans to leave freely by sea. Elieser, his two younger brothers — Eliade, then age 22, and Eliseo, age 18 — and a friend built a raft by lacing together inner tubes, and on August 19, the brothers kissed their mother goodbye. Elieser, who couldn't swim, made the sign of the cross before joining the more than 30,000 rafters who would risk their lives that summer in the balsero crisis.
Elieser and his crew packed a few gallons of water, some bread, and 40-plus lemons that Eliade credits with keeping them alive once the food and water ran out. Without a plan or map, they argued about which direction to head.
Elieser downed a bottle of Bacardi to dull his fear, but it wore off soon enough for him to hear the sobs of nearby rafters in the darkness of the vast black sea that night. By the third day, the water was gone, as was their vista of their home island. The crowd of rafters had evaporated. They were alone.
"If I had to do that all over again now, I couldn't. I wouldn't. It was awful," says Elieser. "The most painful thing for me was to see the women and children out there. We were strong guys. For us, no problem. It's a long, sad story."
After five or six days at sea, depending on which brother you ask, the U.S. Coast Guard found them seasick and drunk with exhaustion, their hands swollen from nonstop rowing. Elieser's sunburn was so severe it felt like mosquitoes were attacking his back. They spent 11 months in a Guantánamo Bay refugee camp and then were transferred to Panama, where for nine months Elieser ran 40 minutes each morning and lifted concrete blocks. After another seven months in Guantánamo, Elieser was allowed to enter the United States in 1996.
Castillo debuted professionally in Miami on February 20, 1996, with a first-round knockout win. Four of his first five professional victories didn't go past the second round. He won the World Boxing Council's Continental Americas title that year.
In 2000 he earned his first heavyweight title, the International Boxing Organization's Intercontinental Crown. But in 2004 Castillo lost two big matches, one of them a shot at the title he's fighting for again on Friday. "There's no excuses. It just wasn't his night. He wouldn't have been as strong now if he hadn't fallen a little on his butt," says Karla Guadamuz-Castillo, Elieser's 35-year-old wife of one year. She gave up a career as a broadcast journalist to manage her husband when — after he asked her to look over a contract not long after they met on South Beach four years ago — she saw his paltry slice of the purse. "His mind was on 'Give me some money and I'll fight.' I'm not going to blame anyone. It was a combination of his lack of knowledge and everyone knowing that," she says.
The couple have invested their hopes in Castillo, and Friday's fight is crucial to their future. They have put off having children, settling on two pugs and a Rottweiler/Doberman mix, while Castillo aims for the world championship. They go for months without sex, sleeping in separate bedrooms, while he trains for big fights; sex can turn a boxer's legs into spaghetti in the ring, Karla says.
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Castillo stands to make between $9000 and $15,000 this Friday. If he wins, he could earn up to $50,000 for the next bout. After that, fights could ring up six figures. Though great heavyweights have won titles when they are gray, for Castillo the time is ripe. He dreams of retiring and opening a gym.
"I feel now like I'm 25, 27. I feel good. No problem. Quiero ser champ ahora. I have to be champ now," he says.
Jeff Gibson, Castillo's promoter, says Vegas odds-makers are betting on his fighter but that Oquendo is ranked higher in heavyweight standings.
"Together we're going to go some places," says Gibson. "Once we get in the top 10 rankings, they have to fight us....Sometimes I barely understand half of what he's saying, but he's got a good heart and he trains his butt off. He's in shape. He's never been knocked down. He's never been stopped. So it's not about to happen."