Sunday, September 19, 2010

Movie maker reveals harsh life of Cuba's young boxers fighting for future

Movie maker reveals harsh life of Cuba's young boxers fighting for future
Sep 19 2010 Steve Hendry, Sunday Mail

WHEN other kids are learning their tables, the young boxers of Havana
are learning how to throw - and take - a punch.

Now film-maker Andrew Lang has revealed the astonishing dedication of
Cuba's young fighters - and what happens when the glory fades.

The boxing stars of the future are hand-picked between nine and 11, with
Fidel Castro's communist regime paying for their accommodation, training
and lodging.

They rise at 4am, training in darkness for two hours, before putting in
a full day at school and returning for another two-hour training shift
at 4.30pm.

They do it on a breakfast of one egg, a cup of milk and bread plus one
visit a week to their families. Their motto is "Victory is a duty".

It has become a matter of national pride that Cuba has dominated boxing
at the Olympics for years.

But when the medals are won and the plaudits fade, the stark reality of
life in the poverty-stricken Caribbean island remains as harsh as ever.

And as documentary maker Andrew discovered, it can mean turning their
back on everything they've sacrificed so much for.

The Edinburgh University graduate, 29, was in the midst of directing his
award-winning film Sons Of Cuba, about the boys of the Havana City
Boxing Academy, when news came through that three of the country's 2004
boxing gold medallists had defected to the West and turned professional.

He witnessed first-hand the devastating effect it had on the young boys
who saw the fighters they had looked up to - Yuriorkis Gamboa, Odlanier
Solis and Yan Barthelemy - suddenly branded traitors.

When filming was completed on Sons Of Cuba, he visited Gamboa and
Barthelemy in their new home in Miami.

Gamboa is a success. On September 11 he defeated Orlando Salido to unify
the WBA and IBF Featherweight titles. But Barthelemy has fared less well
and was dealt a major setback when he was beaten in his last fight at
the end of last year. Andrew said: "I went to Miami to make a short film
about them.

"It was really like the two Cubas, the one in Havana and the one in
Miami. It's a big contrast, a completely different way of life.

"Day-to-day poverty is part of the huge challenge of living in Cuba.

"Miami seems to be the absolute epitome of capitalism. You can't walk
round a corner without seeing ads and talk of money, loans and sales.

"Professionally, these fighters have had varying degrees of success.
Gamboa has become a superstar and is probably making a lot of money.

"Barthelemy is maybe not doing quite as well. He has lost a couple of
fights and is probably not earning very much at all.

"I think, generally, they probably find it very hard to adapt to life in
the US because they are used to coming from a very tight family
environment and an environment where, training-wise, everything is laid on.

"They have been told what to do, how to do it and when to do it their
whole lives.

"Suddenly they are in a new country where there is money, there are
girls, drink, drugs, nightclubs and a lot of people trying to profit off
them. It couldn't be more different from Cuba and it's a very hostile

"Gamboa said he would really like to go back to Havana, not to live but
at least visit, but he is not allowed to. They are considered traitors.
It's a huge adjustment to make. I think they will always miss Cuba."

Andrew's visit to Miami features as one of the extras on the DVD release
of Sons Of Cuba, which is out tomorrow.

It's a remarkable film which follows three boys - Cristian "The Old Man"
Martinez, Santos "The Singer" Urguelles and Junior "The Dalmation"
Menedes - through eight months of training as they prepare for Cuba's
national boxing championship for under-12s, which could lead to the

Making the film was something of a boxing match for Andrew, as he had to
bob and weave his way through the revolutionary administration to be
allowed to film in Cuba.

Then he had to make regular reports on what he had been filming. He also
had to get the boys of the Havana City Boxing Academy in his corner and
learn to fight his emotions. Andrew said: "We got to know the boys,
their families and their coach well.

"There were times when we were sobbing behind the cameras. The crew and
I had a very similar outlook - a mix of admiration, pride and slight
horror sometimes because we felt the boys were being pushed too hard at

For instance, when they didn't have enough to eat because they were
being put in strict weight divisions.

"But I'm full of admiration for their amazing dedication to the sport at
such a young age."

Andrew had to step back in the ring, as it were, when he returned to
Havana last December for the Cuban premiere, another extra which
features on the DVD release.

He said: "I was nervous about showing it in Cuba but it seems to have

"People were happy with how they were portrayed and, on the political
side of it, it wasn't too negative. But the film does deal with things
which aren't talked about in Cuba, like the defections.

"The consensus was that it pushed those things as far as it could
without getting anybody into trouble. It was a gratifying and moving
experience to get that reaction.

"The most encouraging thing was the boys, who are all now 14 or 15,
liked the film."

He'll be keeping an eye on their future. With Castro returning to health
and public life - he fell ill during filming - and his brother Raul now
president, things are unlikely to change in Cuba in the near future.

If any of the boys from Havana City Boxing Academy go to the 2012
Olympic Games, they could face the same choice as predecessors Gamboa,
Solis and Barthelemy.

And Andrew will be watching with interest.

He said: "In terms of the boys' personal careers, once they get to 20
and 20-plus, they will be faced with that decision of whether to go
professional or not. I have to say it would make a fascinating film if
one of those boys defected and one didn't."

Sons Of Cuba is out on DVD tomorrow.

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