Cuba sends fresh faces to Olympic Games

Aug. 11, 2008, 8:32 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Yordenis Ugas doesn't rest his legs with one round left in his first Olympic boxing match. Instead, the skinny young man trying to fill Mario Kindelan's shoes stands straight in his corner, emulating the great Cuban fighters' macho imperviousness to fatigue.

The last boxer to stand in that coveted spot as Cuba's lightweight champion was Kindelan, the impeccably graceful amateur who won two gold medals, three world titles and two Pan Am Games crowns before retiring in 2004.

Kindelan's most talented teammates are gone as well, tempted away from Beijing by professional riches beyond Cuba's shores. Five Cubans won gold medals in Athens in 2004, but three have defected, and a fourth was kicked off the team for trying.

For the first time in at least 16 years, Cuba has no returning gold medalists at the Olympics. Kindelan, the only Athens champion still in the Castro family's good graces, has been replaced by Ugas, just one of several raw but talented youngsters hoping to keep Cuba's gilded reputation intact.

"In Cuba, we have a great reserve (of talent)," said Teofilo Stevenson, the heavyweight champion who epitomizes Cuban boxing culture. "We've been working for many years, and our guys have been preparing for London (in 2012). We have plenty of talent that longs to make history and demonstrate what the Cuban school of boxing is capable of doing."

From his seat in the VIP section of Workers' Gymnasium, Stevenson sees reason to be confident about Cuba's youngsters. Now 56, the three-time gold medalist probably is the greatest fighter in Olympic history - and he's a Cuban hero for repeatedly refusing to turn pro, even to fight Muhammad Ali.

"Ugas got our third victory, and we're unbeaten," Stevenson said Monday after Ugas easily beat Algeria's Hamza Kramou. Hours later, featherweight Idel Torriente kept Cuba unbeaten with another easy win.

"Gradually, our guys are advancing. I have no doubt they will keep our little country at the top of Olympic boxing."

Stevenson, now the vice president of Cuba's national boxing association, wouldn't predict how many gold medals will go back to Havana, claiming "they all have a possibility."

He just might be right. The Cuban team's transformation has been remarkable since December 2006, when gold medalists Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa all defected during a training session in Venezuela.

Seven months later, two-time gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux and world champion welterweight Erislandy Lara apparently tried to defect in Brazil during the Pan Am Games, but were apprehended and sent back to Cuba. Stevenson argued Rigondeaux and Lara deserved another chance to fight for Cuba, but both were dismissed, with Fidel Castro saying they "had reached the point of no return."

So Lara didn't return, hopping a speedboat to Mexico last spring.

The defections stunned and embarrassed Cuba, and the team refused to travel to the world championships in Chicago last fall for fear of more losses. Still, Stevenson's beliefs were proved correct when the defectors' replacements led a triumphant roll through pre-Olympic tournaments earlier this year, with 10 boxers qualifying for Beijing in every class except light heavyweight, the only spot where Cuba has never won gold.

"Our 10 boxers are going to win," said Cuban coach Pedro Roque. "Gold, bronze, silver, it doesn't matter. They will win."

In the spot where Rigondeaux could have tried to become the fourth fighter in Olympic history to win three gold medals, Cuba has bantamweight Yankiel Leon, who has a nasty right hand but almost no international experience.

Instead of Solis, the Athens gold medalist who succeeded three-time Olympic heavyweight champion Felix Savon, Cuba's representative is Osmay Acosta, who has never won a world title.

Two of the most promising Cubans also have the least maturity - what Cubans call "la cabeza loca," the crazy head.

Ugas is a tall, rangy 22-year-old with stellar punching power, but no significant experience and a penchant for losing his concentration in bouts. Middleweight Emilio Correa, also 22 and the son of 1972 Olympic champion Emilio Correa Sr., won the Pan Am title but hasn't fared well against Russia's Matvey Korobov, his top rival in a stacked division.

Their opponents express a common surprise at the Cubans' relative inexperience. They share Stevenson's belief that Cuba's amateur boxing culture simply runs too deep to be uprooted, even by wholesale change.

"They've got a new team, a young team, and it won't change anything about what we think of them," U.S. coach Dan Campbell said. "That's still 'Cuba' on their shirts. They're the best in our business, up there with Russia. We're all trying to catch up."


Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this story.