Many nations have rich and proud traditions in the sport of boxing, but none excelled as much as Cuba. The kings of amateur boxing come from the unlikely small Caribbean Island famous for its cigars and one-of-a-kind sugar cane rum.
They managed to conquer both amateur and professional boxing with a unique blend of good genetics, iron discipline, and a unified methodology that produced generations of amazing fighters.
In this article, we will look at what makes Cuban boxing stick out from the rest, how history shaped their success in the amateurs as well as some of the most distinguished pugilists of past and present.
History of Boxing In Cuba
The main catalyst for Cuba’s success in boxing was politics, but even before the turmoil of the Cuban revolution, the country had several world champions. It is said that the first boxing club in Cuba was opened in 1910.
By 1959 Cuba already had 6 professional world champions that were widely loved and held as national heroes. Let me remind you that this was in the golden age of boxing when the world champion was THE world champion, not one of 4 or 5 different ones. The likes of Gerado “Kid Gavilan” Gonzalez, Eligio “Kid Chocolate” and Jose Napoles paved the way for future generations and grew the popularity of the sport immensely.
As great champions as these early boxers were, they do not represent the Cuban style of boxing we recognize today. Using far more aggressive tactics than the generations that followed.
Everything changed in 1961. The Revolutionary government of the late Fidel Castro banned professional boxing, as well many other sports as they saw them as corrupt. As a part of the socialist world, the Soviet Union aided Cuba’s government in its aim to turn sports into a national effort and sent experienced trainer Andrei Chervonenko to Cuba. The situation in the USSR with professional sports was identical and fighters had to fight for their country instead of money.
Sports became a national priority and the government made a great effort to develop the youth, so a very competitive program was implemented in the schools. This way talent was found early and developed into great champions.
Why does Cuba dominate in the amateur system?
This national policy led to the implementation of a standardized uniform teaching system all across the country. Unlike in the USA where every coach can have a different training method, the Cuban system introduced a step-by-step learning method that teaches all the fundamentals of boxing in a particular order. After a few short years in the new regime and the results started to materialize.
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Enrique Regüeiferos and Rolando Garbey won the first silver medals for Cuba. The Cubans were just getting started. Four years later in Munich, a very strong team, led by the “father” of the Cuban style we are discussing in this post, Alcides Saggara Caron, arrived in Germany and made history. Bantamweight Orlando Martinez became the first Cuban champion and a few hours later the legend Teofilo Stevenson won his first of 3 consecutive Olympic gold medals.
Reasons behind the success
In this age, the Cuban boxers believed the ideology of their nation despite the harsh economic realities of the socialist country. Teofilo Stevenson famously reject a multimillion-dollar offer to fight Muhhamad Ali saying
“What’s ten million dollars compared to the love of the Cuban people?”Teofilo Stevenson
The pinnacle of Olympic success for Cuba came in the 1980 games where they won 6 gold medals, two silvers, and two bronzes.
Their tale didn’t end there. Cuba continued to dominate the amateur ranks and still do to this day aside from a medal-less event in Beijing 2008. What’s remarkable is that Cuba boycotted the games in 1984 and 1988, but still holds the highest medal count in history. They have won a total of 73 medals 37 of which were gold.
A very good explanation of the amateur success of Cuba was given by former Irish Olympian and world champion Barry McGuigan.
“Cuban boxers are genetically predisposed to boxing. Their genetic make-up aligned with the volatile Latino temperament, world-class trainers, and iron discipline make for an explosive combination,”Barry McGuigan
What is the Cuban Boxing Style?
The Cuban boxing style is often compared to a dance, the focus on movement, precision, and tactics instead of power. Of course, not all fighters fight the same. The main thing I can pinpoint is that it characterizes it is rock-solid fundamentals.
You can often see even accomplished western boxers with some very obvious technical flaws. They were just not taught all the basics when they began their journey in boxing. The Cuban system follows a strict program that teaches the proper guard, movement, punching, and defense step by step, so every boxer has excellent proficiency in every skill and before finding his style that matches his physique and mentality.
Here are a few bullets that characterize the Cuban style:
- Footwork is essential
- Defense first
- Strong pawing jab
- Hit and dodge
The Cuban style was heavily influenced by the old Soviet-style, which relied on the same fundamentals. The main creator of the system that brought so many medals to the Caribbean country is Professor Alcides Sagarra Carón. He perfected the art of hitting and dodging that became known as the Cuban style of boxing.
Boxing’s ruleset heavily limits the body weapons that can be used to only punches. This created the need for boxers to come up with different ways to open up the opponent. This is why movement, footwork, and securing an advantageous foot position and angle are essential for success more so than in other striking martial arts.
The Cuban school understood this very well and left no stone unturned. I dare you to find a Cuban boxer, regardless of weight class that doesn’t have stellar footwork. A good example is the great Teofilo Stevenson, who despite his formidable size stayed light on his toes and bounced the entire time.
A great emphasis is placed on the pendulum step and circular motion. The next step is learning how to punch while moving. This is a skill that is severely lacking in many other boxing schools and even in quite a few high-level boxers.
Every single footwork pattern is drilled endlessly until it becomes second nature. With the help of small cones and the proper knowledge, you can learn the finest points of footwork. Luckily for us in the age of YouTube, there is information for everything and Cuban boxing is no exception.
The art of boxing is to hit and not get hit. While American boxing values the knockout more than anything else, the Cubans and the Eastern European boxing schools (https://myboxinglife.com/eastern-european-boxing-style-breakdown/ ) follow the first rule.
You will find many similarities between present-day greats Oleksander Usyk and Vasyl Lomachenko and Cuban boxers. The high guard used by the Cubans in combination with the very active footwork and evasive capabilities means they will be very hard to hit.
Looping and powerful punches tend to leave you more open to counter-attacks. To follow to rule of defensive first, Cubans and Eastern Europeans often rely predominately on the 1-2 combination, because it’s the safest to use. This of course does not mean they don’t use other punches, but it’s usually only if the opponent is already hurt, tired, or thoroughly outmatched.
In a natural continuation from the previous point, Cuban boxers often use strong counter-attacks. The correct positioning provided by the footwork allows for very powerful counters. Another condition for good countering is the use of straight punches because they don’t leave you in a bad position if you miss, unlike heavy looping hooks.
A staple of many Cuban boxers, especially southpaw ones, is the so-called pawing jab. This technique is performed by extending the lead hand, instead of firing it as a punch which is the standard jab. The “paw” serves a few purposes but is a catalyst for most other attacks.
It measures distance, obstructs the view of the opponent, and if the fighters are in a closed stance (orthodox vs southpaw) it also occupies his lead hand. It can also be used to set up a better foot position.
Not all Cubans fight the same. Some use more power shots, others use the pawing jab as a base for their whole game, others rely more on counters. But the one thing that is common among all boxers that went through the Cuban boxing schools is solid fundamentals and stellar footwork. From there every boxer develops his unique style.
Notable Cuban fighters
Cuba has produced many amazing boxers and we can’t list them all here. It’s also important to note the different eras of Cuban boxing. The earliest champions like Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan became world-renowned professional champions, but they as well as Jose Napoles developed their fighting careers in the USA. All these men were aggressive punchers that won crowds and titles with their hard fists.
The next generations of great boxers competed only as amateurs, as the Cuban government had strictly forbidden professional sports. Here we will put perhaps the greatest Cuban champion Teofilo Stevenson, whom I mentioned multiple times in the post. The 3-time Olympic champion had a shotgun of a right hand, but what was even more impressive was the way he materialized these knockouts.
He held his guard high, was always light on his feet, and was often compared to Muhammad Ali for his ease of movement. And his signature straight right was always fired in a textbook-perfect way without any wind-up.
Stevenson won 170 fights in his career many of which by knockout. And don’t forget that these were amateur fights, meaning they were only 3 rounds long.
Other great amateur fighters were 3-time Olympic gold medalist and 6-time world champion Felix Savon and Mario Kindelan, who won two Olympic and two world titles.
Cuban’s return to the Pros
A new trend emerged in the 2000s. Cuban fighters were still forbidden to turn pro, but some of them started to look for ways to defect from the country and reach the USA where their skills were highly valued not only in the eyes of their compatriots but also financially.
The most famous case and by far the most successful is Guillermo “The Jackal” Rigondeaux. His first attempt to escape Cuba was in 2007 alongside teammate Erislandy Lara. Their attempt was inspired by 2004 Athens teammates Odlanier Solis, Yuriorkis Gamboa, and Yan Barthelemy. All of whom had very successful professional careers.
Rigondeaux and Lara were later caught by the police and returned to Cuba where Rigondeaux was banned from the national team. By that time, Rigondeaux had exceptional accolades – gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and two World Championship golds. He finished his amateur career with the eye-watering 400 fights (the number varies all around the internet), of which he lost only 12.
In 2009 he finally managed to escape Cuba via boat to Miami. His decision to turn proved to be the right one. In his prime, The Jackal demonstrated the superiority of the Cuban style to the world and held the WBA, WBO, and Ring super bantamweight titles between 2013 and 2017.
If you want to watch the Cuban style personified, then look no further than Rigondeaux. He took the boxing fundamentals to perfection. Essentially a 1-2 fighter, Guillermo used superior timing, rhythm, and distance management to outsmart the opposition. He is an elusive mastermind who according to Freddy Roach is “the best counterpuncher I have ever seen”.
He has amazing balance, agility, power in both hands, and expert footwork. Sadly, he was not always an easy sell to American fans, who prefer knockout artists to master technicians. But do yourself a favor and study one of the brightest talents in boxing for the last 50 years.
All of the defected 2004 team deserve your attention. Lara, Gamboa, and Rigondeux all managed to win world titles and all will serve as a great example of the style of boxing that Cuba bred. While the 2004 team are either retired or in the twilight of their careers, Yordenis Ugas is an active boxer riding on his latest win against legend Manny Pacquiao, albeit far from the Philippinо‘s prime.
If you are a fan of pugilism then you will enjoy the Cuban style of boxing. Technical precision, balance, precision, agility, flawless movement all to hit and avoid being hit in return.
If you would like to read more articles like this make sure to check out the following:
- Eastern Europen Boxing Style analysis
- 7 Types Of Boxing Fighting Styles
- Top 18 Countries Boxer Come From
- 5 Ways of Attack In Boxing – Bruce Lee’s Attacking Philosophy
- 6 Key Boxing Defensive Techniques – Hit And Don’t Get Hit
- How To Start Boxing On Your Own in 10 Steps
- Best Online Boxing Course Lessons
Or why not check out my individual boxing fighter styles analysis articles here.
In a week that will go down in boxing history, fans were treated to a display of sheer dominance as two of the sport's pound-for-pound best fighters, Terence Crawford and Naoya Inoue, showcased their...
Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua's headline fights of 2021 and 2022 involved the pair going head-to-head in the ring following years of keen anticipation. Overall, Usyk got the better of the English...