Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

EXCLUSIVE: the Cubans are getting ready to rumble.

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The Independent Online

Diplomatic exchanges are not normally associated with boxing but those that have been taking place between the long-estranged governments of the United States and Cuba may have a dramatic effect on the sport’s future.

The apparent thawing of relations between the two countries may result in the lifting of travel and work restrictions which have prohibited many great stars of Cuban sport from turning professional.

Cuba has always produced great fighters since Fidel Castro’s Communist government took power but it’s been impossible for them to punch for pay without fleeing into exile.

The island had already relaxed its anti-pro stance sufficiently to enter a team, the Cuba Domadores (which fittingly translates as “ringmasters”), in the pro-am World Series Boxing. They are the defending champions, with a squad containing several Olympic prospects – who receive prize-money.

In the past Cuba produced great fighters who became world champions but had to defect to do so, sometimes by hopping on a boat or clinging to a raft for the risky crossing of the Florida Straits to Miami.

Now the word is that, under Fidel’s more sports-friendly brother Raul Castro, this bar will gradually be lifted, and I believe eventually we may even see professional tournaments being staged in Havana.

The signs are good. Cuban émigrés already abound in boxing, names such as Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Yoan Pablo Hernandez and Rances Barthelemy featuring either as champions or high in the current world rankings.

Another of them, Richar Abril, will be here on 6 March to defend his WBA World lightweight title against Derry Mathews on a BoxNation-televised show in Liverpool. His story indicates how far Cuba may be softening its hardline attitude.

A former amateur with over 200 bouts, unlike those compatriots who can’t return to Cuba he is still able to go back regularly from his home in Miami because the lanky counter-puncher won a lottery system which allows him to come and go freely.

Cuba, where the sport was prohibited until 1921, has one of the world’s richest boxing histories with major stars such as Kid Chocolate, Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez, Benny Paret, Sugar Ramos, Jose Legra and Florentino Fernandez.

The majority of fighters remained loyal to the Castro regime. The most illustrious was the late triple Olympic heavyweight champion Teofilo Stevenson, as handsome as Muhammad Ali with a more devastating punch. No wonder they called him Castro’s right-hand man.

 

He was around when Ali was at his peak in the Seventies – and what a fight that would have been! But instead Stevenson went into politics, rejecting massive offers to turn pro because he knew it would have meant defecting from his beloved homeland. He said: “What is one million dollars to the love of eight million Cubans?”

His successor, another three-times Olympic heavyweight champion, Felix Savon, similarly stayed amateur, as did the silky-skilled southpaw who pipped Amir Khan for the Olympic lightweight gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Mario Kindelan.

I suppose one question worrying the Cuban regime is how much professionalism might affect an Olympic boxing programme in which they have amassed 67 medals (34 golds). But no doubt they will have noted that Russia and its former satellite nations have not suffered too badly in this respect since opening up to professionalism – and also dominate many boxing divisions, from Wladimir Klitschko downwards.

So stand by, Michael Buffer. The Cubans are getting ready to rumble.

Eubank Jnr gets his chance while Golovkin takes it easy

Fans are asking me how come Chris Eubank Jnr is getting a world title fight before the man who defeated him when they fought in London last November, the reigning undefeated British and European champion Billy Joe Saunders?

Chris is fighting for an interim title, the WBA world middleweight belt held by Russia’s Dmitry Chudinov, whom he challenges at London’s O2 on 28 February.

For some governing bodies, if their current title-holder is injured or inactive then, rather than sit around for what could be up to a year, fighters below him in the rankings can contest an interim title.

VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS: SAUNDERS WIN OVER EUBANK JR

Chudinov is making his third defence of the belt he holds while Kazakhstan’s thunder-punching Gennady Golovkin takes care of other business after his elevation to “super champ” by the WBA.

Meantime Saunders remains assured of his own title shot as the official No 1 contender to Ireland’s new World Boxing Organisation champ Andy Lee.

Should Eubank Jnr and Saunders both win it sets up a possible scenario where, after their great split-decision scrap, they could have the return they both want with two versions of the world title on the line. That would be some showdown.

Terrestrial 

While I applaud the return of boxing to terrestrial television – for which I have long campaigned – it seems crazy ITV’s live screening of the Carl Frampton’s world super-bantamweight title fight in Belfast on 28 February to clash with the major show I am promoting at the O2 the same night. This features Tyson Fury and Eubank Jnr, a show I announced before Christmas.

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Carl Frampton celebrates winning the IBF super-bantamweight title

It is unfair that fight fans should have to choose between the two attractions and they lose out watching one of the events.  How can that benefit boxing?

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