The Cuban Conundrum
By Steve Kim, MaxBoxing (March 23, 2011) Special to Doghouse Boxing

On Saturday night, WBA/IBF featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa faces Jorge Solis at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This fight, which headlines the most recent installment of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” isn’t taking place in the big room but at the Phillips Arena, which seats 3,000 patrons. The reason is simple- Top Rank, which is promoting this event, are realists. They know that for as talented as Gamboa is, like many other Cuban fighters, he doesn’t sell an abundance of tickets.

That’s the Cuban conundrum. For all their natural ability, they simply don’t resonate with the general populace in America.

"No question about it," said Bob Arum, who points out, "They can’t even really draw with the Cuban population, so it’s a problem. But you gotta get guys who are very exciting, who don’t fight stinkin’ like some of the Cubans do but fight like Gamboa, who is very, very exciting. And eventually, they’ll pick up interest with all the boxing fans and then...y’ know, it is what it is. It’s limited. It’ll never be a [Manny] Pacquiao or that kind of thing but we can put him in a lot of fights where he makes really good money and we know what we’re dealing with there. Of course, there’s a big money fight with ’JuanMa’ Lopez down the road."

This card will be a sell-out but not necessarily because of the presence of Gamboa. The undercard bout between Teon Kennedy and Jorge Diaz (who both hail from the local region) and a four-rounder with the Baltimore Ravens’ Tommy Zbikowski have sold a good number of tickets, according to Top Rank officials. The secret here is to place Gamboa with other boxers who can put asses in seats.

"100 percent correct," said Arum. "If we had him on a main event and we didn’t have attractions underneath, then there would be nobody there. But we, unlike some of the other promoters we’ve seen, they don’t have a guy who’s an attraction; they don’t surround him with attractions. We’ve done that."

To a certain degree, at least to the live audience, Gamboa is a high-priced walk-out bout.

"We put the Kennedy-Diaz fight, that sold a sh*tload of tickets. There’s [Matt] Remillard, who’s fighting Mikey Garcia, he’s bringing a lot of people and ‘Tommy Z,’ he caps it off. There’s a really, really big number of fans coming from the Baltimore area, including the newspaper (the Baltimore Sun). When have they ever covered a fight?" asked Arum, rhetorically. For many years, Arum stayed away from the Cubans but recently, he has dipped his toe into Havana with the likes of Gamboa and Guillermo Rigondeaux.

"And we also partnered up with Ahmet Oner on Odlanier Solis, because we thought there was an upside with these guys," added the veteran promoter, "but it’s very, very difficult. It’s very difficult; let’s be honest about it because there’s a big Cuban population in Miami but they’re different kinds of Cubans. They’re white Cubans that fled and these are black Cubans that were left behind and now have defected and the white Cubans got away from boxing and the only guy that ever drew with those Cubans in Miami years ago was [Alexis] Arguello. We did that fight [against Aaron Pryor] in the Orange Bowl."

Boxing attorney Leon Margules has perhaps the most unique viewpoint on this issue. Not only is he a resident of Miami but before becoming the president of Warriors Boxing, for nearly a decade he was the President of “Team Freedom,” which handled the first wave of Cuban defectors, including the likes of Joel Casamayor, Diosbelys Hurtado and Ramon Garbey. As it relates to the struggles of boxing in the 305, Margules states, "I don’t think it’s boxing; I think South Florida is a tough market for anything in general. It’s the reason that Los Angeles lost its NFL teams- it’s a superstar driven market with transients, where everybody is looking for the biggest thing in town and the Marlins don’t draw unless they win the World Series. The Heat didn’t draw till they brought the ‘Three Kings’ [Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh] to town; the Dolphins don’t draw when they don’t win the Super Bowl or they’re in the playoffs. The ‘Canes don’t draw unless they’re undefeated or going to a major bowl game.

"And the Cubans don’t come out unless they got a superstar on their hands. There was some support for Hurtado. There was some support for Gamboa. There was some support for Casamayor but other than that, Cubans don’t draw either."

Beyond that, there is also this issue; for the résumés and pedigrees many of these Cubans have, their styles don’t necessarily translate into the professional ranks. In short, what worked so well boxing for medals- scoring points and then protecting the lead by running around the ring- works against their marketability as pros. Yes, while it’s effective, it’s often times not very entertaining. It can win you plenty of fights but it may not win you many fans.

This was certainly the case for Rigondeaux who put on a dreadfully dull performance on the Manny Pacquiao-Antonio Margarito undercard in Dallas in front of a worldwide audience this past November. He lost in winning a decision over Ricardo Cordoba. Arum said last week, "He certainly didn’t help himself and we’re going to have to work with putting him on the Fox Sports Deportes shows, assuming he does OK in Ireland. Because if I went, for example, to HBO to sell him in a fight, I mean, I shot my mouth off when he was fighting in Dallas. ’He’s the next great thing’ and I was embarrassed. So I got no chance to sell Rigondeaux to HBO after that performance in Dallas."

This past weekend in Ireland (which is where Rigondeaux was exiled to by Top Rank), he emphatically stopped the overmatched Willie “Not So Mighty” Casey in one round. Rigondeaux is trained by the respected Ronnie Shields, who, as a young apprentice, came up under the watchful eye of George Benton (who believed in “looking good tomorrow but just winning tonight”). But today’s business of boxing is a bit of a beauty contest. It helps to have a bit of style and flair with all that substance.

"Absolutely," said Shields. "That’s one of the things we talked about. We talked about at the beginning of this camp. You’ve got to understand, this is only my third camp with him and the first fight I had him for two weeks. The second fight, I had eight weeks and after the showing against Cordoba, he didn’t impress anybody. But I told him he was too good of a fighter to get out there and look the way he did in Dallas. That was just unacceptable and I told him, ’Look, man, in boxing, in order to make money in this sport, you’ve got to be a guy everybody wants to see.’ That’s hands down and I made that point to him and I said, ’Look, you’ve got to have a faster start. As strong as you are, you can knock anybody out in one or two rounds. You’ve got to get out there and put punches together and just gotta get out there and do it.’ And he said, ’OK, I’m going to do it. That’s what it takes; that’s what I’m going to do.’"

The need to be explosive and exciting is probably more heightened for Cubans. For one, they don’t draw particularly well. If that’s the case, unless you’re aligned with the likes of Al Haymon, you can become persona non grata to the likes of HBO if you put on too many “agony fights.”

Shields also trains Erislandy Lara (who, after just 15 bouts under his belt, is already a bona fide contender at 154) and has passed along the same message to him. But he reasons that the transformation will take time. "See, people don’t understand the transition these guys got to make," said Shields, who points out that Rigondeaux has only eight pro fights to his credit. "They have a system in Cuba and it’s a great amateur system but it’s all they know and to try to change them to being something else, it’s not going to happen overnight. It takes time but I think both of these guys got it now. I honestly do."

Margules and his company are staging this week’s edition of “Friday Night Fights” on ESPN2 from the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, which is co-headlined by Lara and fellow Cuban Yudel Jhonson. In the past, their predecessors have been plagued by a lack of discipline (you could call it the “Full Refrigerator Syndrome”) or simply couldn’t make the full adjustment to the American lifestyle. Some were simply built to be amateurs. But Margules believes that the newer generation of Cubans will have more success in the paid ranks.

"I think this wave of Cubans are much better than the prior waves- and not necessarily in terms of one star because Joel Casamayor was certainly a great fighter- but in terms of the overall depth," he opined. "There are a lot of Cuban guys that might pan out; you never know."


I’m hearing that the “Super Six” bout between Glen Johnson and Carl Froch, which was originally scheduled for May 21st, will now take place on June 4th and will land in Quebec City. The bottom line is that Showtime didn’t want this fight going up against the rematch between WBC light heavyweight titlist Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins on HBO, who do it again at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

While Quebec City might seem like an odd destination, I actually this is the best place to put it in North America (which I’ve been told is where Showtime prefers the semifinals of the “Super Six”). Fans of Lucian Bute will certainly have an interest in this match-up and I recall that the 2009 junior welterweight unification tilt between Tim Bradley and Kendall Holt drew about 7,000 fans at the Bell Centre. Now that might not seem like an overly impressive number but considering that Bradley is from Southern California and Holt from New Jersey, it’s pretty robust. I’d be willing to bet that there’s not one state in the union where that fight would have drawn as well.

Time and time again, this province has proven to be one of the most vibrant boxing markets in the whole world.


I was informed via email by Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer that two separate venues in Guadalajara, Mexico are being looked at as possible destinations for Saul Alvarez’s next outing on June 18th. OK, will the media need to bring bulletproof vests along with their laptops?...Speaking of the “Super Six,” the May 14th bout between Andre Ward and Arthur Abraham has been finalized for the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA (which is great. That’s my favorite local venue)...Highly touted junior lightweight Jose Pedraza has his second professional outing scheduled for March 29th at the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill in New York City...Is it just me or is “Bob’s Burgers” on Fox the most bizarrely funny show currently on?...It’s good to see that the conflict between Bob Arum and the Donaires hasn’t gotten personal...oh, wait...Is it just me or does Chris Brown really need to buy a heavy-bag to work out his frustrations? If he gets into any more fights, Al Haymon will probably have him headlining a “Boxing After Dark” card by the summer.......

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