Sports are a Way of Life in Cuba
Communist states have historically always put a heavy emphasis on sports to showcase their nation’s power, pride and people.
In fact, Soviet Russia was the dominant Olympic power when the state was still going strong and East Germany flexed its muscles by winning an absurd amount of Olympic medals and records (not taking into account the accusations of doping use).
Sports were considered important enough for the Soviet Union to send coaches to other nations and help develop training programs based on the Soviet model — all to promote their ideals and showcase their success.
Cuba, one of the few remaining communist states in the world, is no exception to this rule. Sports are alive and kicking in the hearts of the Cuban people and government, and are a way for the people to temporarily exchange relative poverty for entertainment and to open up to the rest of the world.
Playing baseball is by far the favorite sports-related pastime of the Cuban people although it is closely followed by boxing – the art of bruising.
“…if you’re up for an authentic experience, there is no better way than to practice boxing with the locals under the shining Cuban sun.”
In no other country can one find a purer expression of boxing than in Cuba, although professional boxing had been largely banned here until recently — the money involved contradicted the socialist ideology of Cuba.
Performance-enhancing drugs are mostly unheard of, and proper boxing equipment is even harder to find.
Inside a Havana Boxing Gym
As someone who has practised boxing for more than four years I was astonished when I was told to use the equipment “over there” — the finger of my trainer was pointing to a row of ragged bandages, worn gauntlets and a collectively used mouthpiece.
I did actually bring my own boxing set but it was safely stored at the casa particular (a private Cuban homestay) ready for use the next day. Why all the ragged equipment, in a country so keen on boxing? Is it because of el bloqueo, the United States’ trade embargo against Cuba? I don’t know. Most of the equipment in this gym had been donated by foreign visitors.
After having searched every nook and cranny in downtown Havana and enlisting the help of locals to find the gym, my plan was to just introduce myself and confirm the next day’s session.
However, I was told there would be no training tomorrow — so I went to the row of ragged bandages, picked the ones which still had velcro tape on them, and joined the warming-up session.
Apparently the boxers here weren’t all that used to foreigners joining their training sessions, and my arrival drew a small crowd of curious onlookers.
After the warming-up session my appointed trainer gestured me and a Cuban boxer of about my age over to the ring.
“He is the fastest boxer we have here”, he told me in reasonably good English (he was the only person at the gym who could speak the language).
We all stepped into the ring and went about practising combinations, me and the local boxer switching roles from attacking to defending while my trainer yelled out Spanish boxing terms such as derecho (jab) and gancho (hook). The language barrier wasn’t a problem: the language of boxing is universal.
Having done this and some work on the boxing pads my trainer picked one of the tougher looking guys and ordered us to do some light sparring. And this is where I was surprised.
First of all, the Cubans master the technique of boxing like no other. My trainer was able to spot mistakes in my posture I had never noticed before and was also able to give me advice I still use back at home to get an edge over my opponents.
Second, the Cubans in the gym really do box in a ‘relaxed’ way. This does not imply that it was an easy fight — it was as hard as it gets — but the punches carried an air of respect and consideration for the opponent.
And this ‘air of respect’ wasn’t limited to my fight — I saw the same thing happening in the other bouts that day. Was this an accidental occurrence? I don’t know, but I think it shows the Cuban people’s love for sports goes a long way, and sports are more an outlet for everyday life than a means to beat other people.
My time at the gym was an unforgettable experience and I can recommend anyone to take a look in one of these hidden gems if you get the chance.
You don’t even need to pick up the gloves if you don’t want to. But if you’re up for an authentic experience, there is no better way than to practice boxing with the locals under the shining Cuban sun.
And I certainly do recommend finishing the visit with a bucket of water emptied over your head.