Trail Of The Unexpected: Boxing in Cuba
Get fighting fit with Fidel
Saturday 26 July 2008
I'm famous. It didn't take long. I had been in Havana for only a few days before strangers began to point at me. "El boxero inglés", they would say. Old men and young children mainly; they would raise their fists, give me a thumbs up, slap me on the back and laugh. At first it was just in the area around the gym where I train, but my fame is spreading. When I run along the Malecón – Havana's seawall, where the citizens come to relax – I get a cheer as I pass. I'll be a sporting legend before long.
Technically they're correct. I'm English and I'm in Cuba to box. But a boxer? No. Before this trip I had never thrown a punch in the ring. In bar fights, yes I am ashamed to say, but I was young and it was never a proper, calculated, educated punch. And that irked me. Because throwing a punch is a life skill. Not a do-or-die essential tool of survival, but one of those change a tyre, gut an animal, play a hand of poker skills that it's just good, as a guy, to know.
So I came to Cuba to learn how to throw a punch. But I also had a theory to test: there is no better way of getting stuck into a local culture and meeting people than by fighting them. Travel is about breaking down barriers and nothing does this quicker than simply slugging it out.
It doesn't matter who you are, what you do or where you're from; when you step inside the ring you meet your opponent as an equal on common ground. I don't want to find out about myself by getting into a fight. I want to find out about the other guy by fighting him. But I do want to win; this is not sociology.
I can think of no other human activity besides fighting whose values are shared so widely, irrespective of culture, class or creed. What's good, brave and decent in a grand dojo in Kyoto tends to be all those things in a sweltering gym in a favela in Rio. Across these shared values we build bridges.
How a nation behaves in and around the ring says a lot about its collective psyche. Think of the wily playfulness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the stiff deference of Japanese karate or the mysticism of kung-fu.
In reality the theory can go hang, or so I thought after my first hour in the ring with Ramón, my trainer. I wasn't getting to know Ramón. For I start, I couldn't see him for the sweat in my eyes. And as for building bridges I couldn't understand a word he was saying, but could register the pity in his voice as I flailed wildly at the pads. My arms felt like lead; my legs like jelly. The air was 100 per cent moisture. In the noon heat my brain was fusing. During a break from the pads, a class of eight-year-olds laughed at me as I tried to skip rope. I wanted to go home.
I was training at the Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo in Havana. It's not much to look at: a dusty courtyard, a solitary punch bag and a ring under a corrugated iron roof, but in the world of boxing this is holy ground. This one gym alone has produced more Olympic medallists than most entire countries.
Señor Pototo (crazy name, crazy guy) was a local fixer and guide who helped me book my accommodation and introduce me to Ramón.
Pototo said the best way to get plugged into the place was by staying in a Casa Particular, sharing the home of a local family. He fixed a room for $20 (£10.50) a night, including breakfast. The Casa was in the heart of the old town and the heart of Habanero culture. From my balcony each evening I witnessed a Cuban soap-opera. Music and drama spilled out of every doorway and window.
By the end of the first week I had something resembling a stance, and not only could I throw a punch but I could rip out a few basic combinations. And the theory? It does work. Bob and weave in a ring with someone for long enough and two different cultures can fuse into the unspoken and unwritten culture of the structured fight.
I had walked into a strange gym and made friends with cool people who showed me a side to their country, and themselves, that I wouldn't otherwise have seen. I learnt a lot about Cubans by fighting them, although I never laid a glove on Ramón. He had the classic Cuban stance: so laid-back he could have been surfing.
Life in Cuba is hard. Everyday is a battle to survive which they call La Lucha, "The struggle". It involves a lot of ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing. No country or people have a monopoly on suffering, but only the Cubans realised that in life, like in the ring, being laid-back is the best defence, and only the Cubans have the good nature and pure grace to turn that struggle into a dance.
The writer flew to Havana with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com), which flies twice weekly from Gatwick to Havana. Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo is at Calle Cuba 815, Havana (00 53 7 862 0266). The cost of training depends on who you deal with - haggling is advised. Aim to pay about $25 (£13) for half a day with an instructor.
Señor Pototo can be contacted via the website www.cuba-junky.com
Derecho: Straight punch
Señor, mi hermana pega mas fuerte que Usted! "Sir, my sister hits harder than you!"
Muere, Imperialista de la puta: "Die, Imperialist scum"
Deja de llorar: "Stop crying"
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