Double Olympic and world champion, now a trainer in Havana, Héctor Vinent Charón.
Photo Simon Bohrsmann
HAVANA, 3 September I was in a gym in Havana not because of a desire for violent exercise but thanks to a travel book about boxing in Cuba. Here, two sports inspire national fervour. One is baseball, and the other is boxing. Both sports are totally amateur, because professional sport was banned by Fidel Castro after the revolution.
The only way to make your fortune as a player or a fighter is to defect. Few do. It’s part of the Cuban enigma that some things are more important than hard cash. You enter the gym through a small door off a sweaty street. It opens into a small open air arena with hard wooden benches. In the centre is the ring with very worn ropes and a battered canvas.
It looks like a hurricane went through here. Like everything in Cuba, people make do with what they have. The book (In the Red Corner: A Journey Into Cuban Boxing) was written by former Observer journalist John Duncan who, 15 years ago, left his job as a sportswriter and headed to Cuba to try and arrange a mega-fight between heavyweight fighters Mike Tyson and Cuban champion Félix Savón.
Fifteen years later and I walk into Héctor Vinent Charón. I am boxing illiterate, and I don’t know who he is; or that he is twice an Olympic gold medallist and twice a world champion. He was sidelined from boxing by a detached retina. Now he trains young fighters at this gym. He is a quiet man, far from the posturing, shouting, fame-obsessed boxers we know. He poses in worn, old blue gloves that must have pounded many an ear over the years. young fighters train Young fighters learning the basics with Alberto Gonzalez Caturla. Photograph: Simon Bohrsmann Working alongside Charón is Alberto Gonzalez Caturla. Alberto is big, and his nose is a history of life in the ring. He tells me he once worked as a trainer in Newcastle and he has enough English to translate for me. “Tell people to come here for training,” he says.
He asks me to photograph his battered business card, which I suspect is his last copy. Today he is teaching the basics to a group of boys. They come from the streets around here, and it’s classic Havana. Old, crumbling, overcrowded. You wonder what Cuba will be like in 10 years for these boys, when they are young men. I also meet the young champions. They pose for photographs like experienced models. Many have their hair cut in the current fashion – a Mohican centre plume and shaved at the sides.
There is plenty of status at least in being a national boxing champion in Cuba. Into all this walks the seller of fried, triangular snacks that resemble samosas. They aren’t what you’d call the latest in nutritional science. Everybody seizes one, except me, who pays, and sparring resumes. What is striking about Cuba, and this gym, is how slowly things change. If they change at all. Sport in our world is sophisticated, powered by money and technology. Here, they just keep going as best they can and out of it still come some of the greatest boxers on the planet.