In a story that was little reported when it occurred, three top Cuban boxers defected last December in Venezuela while training for the recent Pan-American Games in Rio. Odlanier Solis (heavyweight), Yan Barthelemy (light-flyweight) and Yuriorkis Gamboa (flyweight) were all Gold medalist from the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. These were among the best Cuban boxers at the time, especially Solis who already had THREE gold medals from the World Boxing Amateur Championships. Predictably, the Cuban government called it a "theft of talent" when they did not return.
The three boxers eventually made it to the US, but immediately thereafter flew to Germany where they now plan to begin their professional boxing careers. The latest news on these three athletes is they each are undefeated in three professional bouts. Also, this week it was reported that Yuriorkis Gamboa has moved to Miami and planning to fight this month at the Miccosukee Indian Gaming on the 24th. His promoter, Ahmet Öner, believes Gamboa will become a world champion by the end of next year.
But, the road to becoming professionals in the West wasn't easy.
In the film Victory is Your Duty, last year's defection of these three prize fighters was included. One young Cuban boxer described them as traitors, a descriptor which suggests the prevailing attitude on the island where revolutionary indoctrination is prevalent. One scene in the film reveals that each youth boxing academy competing in the Havana national finals also competes for additional points by decorating their designated rooms with revolutionary symbols. The best show of nationalistic pride by the regional academy brings it closer to the national title.
All three fighters knew of the possible consequences of leaving those revolutionary roots, but it still seemed difficult to anticipate in reality. "It was a hard decision," said Odlanier Solis, who like Gamboa left children in Cuba. "It may be months or years before we see them... But I believe in the end it will be best for them." Solis couldn't hold back his tears when he made these comments in a Miami Beach press conference last March. Long separated families are part of the Cuban exile tragedy. But, all three fighters supported each others dreams of becoming professional world champs. "My family can now rest [because] they, like me, will now have a much better life starting from this moment... I can't wait to get in the ring and give it my best," declared Solis to Diario Las Americas.
It was a relief to Solis, and the others I'm sure, because just weeks prior to his South Beach appearance the three boxers were denied visas to enter the US. Antonio "Tony" Gonzalez, lawyer and manager of the three boxers called the denials "a very sad day for liberty and international sports." Gonzalez helped the three boxers sign their first contracts into professional boxing with Arena Box Promotion in Germany, which gave the best offer and signed each fighter to three-year, seven-figure contracts. According to Gonzalez, the three boxers, who crossed into Colombia through Venezuela's porous border, had all the necessary paperwork to enter the US: temporary visas in Colombia, work visas from the US, "bank accounts in Hamburg, Germany," and, of course, three-year contracts to fight in Europe.
The three boxers were very lucky to have eventually made it out of Colombia, a luck that other Cubans did not have that same month. This past February, news outlets were reporting about several Cuban doctors who were stranded in Colombia, some of whom were definitely denied entry by the US despite a recent policy (Parole for Cuban Medical Personnel [PDF]) that allowed their exclusive entrance. The news shocked many in Miami because some of the Cuban doctors, who were originally sent to Venezuela and then illegally crossed into Colombia, had been waiting for several months (some up to six months!) for a reply by the US embassy and Homeland Security. Solidaridad Sin Fronteras (Solidarity Without Borders), a local humanitarian group from Miami, helped in providing legal assistance to these stranded Cuban doctors. Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of Solidarity Without Borders, said that these parole applications shouldn't have taken more than three months.
By early March, about three months since defecting, Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy and Yuriorkis Gamboa were already in the US, and soon on their way to Germany. By the end of April, Solis already had his first knockout on record.