Is Lara the next Cuban sensation?

Junior middleweight enters toughest test of career against Alvarez on Saturday

Originally Published: July 10, 2014
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

Joel Casamayor, a white towel draped over his slumped shoulders, sat on a chair in his dressing room, tears running down his wizened face. He was just two months shy of his 37th birthday, and the dream that had begun when he fled Cuba's national boxing team -- four days after arriving in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games -- was, for all intents and purposes, over.

He presented a forlorn contrast to the devil-may-care "El Cepillo" who had frolicked his way through his pro career with the casual confidence of a man born to box. He had lost a few fights along the way but always bounced back, winning titles in two weight classes. But the 11th-round knockout he suffered at the hands of Juan Manuel Marquez in September 2008 was different -- and Casamayor knew it.

There's an edge to Lara that has been missing in many of the Cuban boxers who arrived in the United States during the mid-1990s, which could very well be the aspect of his makeup that will allow him to succeed where others have failed.

Like so many talented Cuban expatriates who found their way to the United States in an attempt to further their boxing careers, Casamayor had fallen short of expectations. He did better than most but left you with the impression that he could have done more -- if only he hadn't taken his talent for granted and focused a little bit more.

Maybe Casamayor wept as much for those lost opportunities as he did for the lightweight championship Marquez had just taken away from him.

Now comes junior middleweight Erislandy Lara, another graduate of Cuba's celebrated amateur system who escaped his country's authoritarian drudgery (on his second try) and set up shop in the U.S. after having his first two pro fights in Europe. So far he has fought remarkably well against progressively tougher opposition and gained a mini-cult following among boxing's more astute cognoscenti.

Saturday's pay-per-view fight with Saul "Canelo" Alvarez at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Showtime PPV, 9 p.m. ET) should go a long way toward telling us whether Lara is on his way to becoming the next Cuban sensation -- or another in a long list of hotshot amateurs who never quite lived up to their advance billing.

Cuba's rich boxing heritage was tethered to the United States from the start. The sport took root there when bouts featuring North American boxers were staged to entertain tourists. It wasn't long, however, before the locals had their own thing going, and by the late 1920s, Cuba's first boxing superstar was strutting his stuff down Broadway, flashing a smile almost as bright as the Great White Way itself.

[+] EnlargeMarquez vs Casamayor
AP Photo/Eric JamisonFormer Cuban standout Joel Casamayor, left, never quite lived up to his full potential despite winning titles as a professional.

Kid Chocolate was a flamboyant 5-foot-6 dandy who wore the best tailor-made suits money could buy and took his pleasure when and where he pleased. He fought in a style as slick as the brilliantine he plastered on his hair, moving around the ring with fluid grace, adroitly avoiding his foes' offerings and firing salvos of punches he had perfected by watching films of Joe Gans and Benny Leonard.

According to Nat Fleischer, founder and editor of The Ring, Chocolate was a "human magnet who found little difficulty in continuously breaking attendance records." Fleischer also wrote that the Cuban dynamo was "instrumental in convincing promoters that mixed-race matches could draw enough money to warrant their promotion."

That assertion was confirmed in 1929 when approximately 50,000 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to witness "The Keed's" close decision victory over New York City Jewish fighter (and future lightweight champion) Al Singer. The gate was $215,266, the equivalent of $3 million today, and a remarkable sum for a non-title featherweight bout at the dawn of the Great Depression.

While other Cuban standouts, such as Black Bill and Kid Tunero, fought with success in the U.S., it wasn't until the arrival of Kid Gavilan in the 1940s that America again fell in love with an extravagant character from the "Pearl of the Antilles." Like Chocolate, Gavilan was a fun-loving, free spirit whom Bert Sugar described as "the equal of another early TV favorite, Desi Arnaz, as he rumba'd and danced his way through his fights to a Latin beat."

Gavilan's extroverted personality and swashbuckling fighting style made him a TV favorite, and 34 of his fights were broadcast on national television before his Hall of Fame career ended in 1959. Unfortunately for the former welterweight champ, that was the same year Fidel Castro ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed a one-party socialist state.

Nationalizing businesses and confiscating private property was a significant cog in the new regime's plan to build a Marxist paradise, and Gavilan was one of the first to feel the sting. They took everything he owned: a house, a six-unit apartment building and land worth an estimated $750,000.

Eventually, in 1968, Gavilan was allowed to return to the U.S. for medical treatment, where he remained until his death in 2003, poor but as effervescent as ever.

"Maybe somebody should tell Castro to send me a check," he joked during an interview with writer Jack Welsh in 1985. "Or at least a cigar."

Fair or not, Chocolate and Gavilan are the yardsticks by which all Cuban fighters who came after them are judged. Even if Lara defeats Alvarez, he would still have an awful long way to go before he would be considered in the same league as "The Havana Bon Bon" and "The Cuban Hawk."

[+] EnlargeErislandy Lara
Ray Spencer/Hoganphotos/Golden BoyAt 31, Erislandy Lara sits at the peak of his prime without having fallen into the traps that have affected some of his countrymen outside the ring.

Lara will never be a devil-may-care bon vivant like Chocolate and Gavilan. It's just not in his DNA, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A colorful personality, in and of itself, does not a great fighter make, as was amply demonstrated when 6-foot-7 Cuban heavyweight Jorge Luis Gonzalez arrived on the scene in the 1990s.

Gonzalez was arrogant, lazy, held a much higher opinion of himself than was warranted and enjoyed nothing more than the sound of his own voice. But he sure knew how to get noticed. You've got to give him that. Riddick Bowe finally ended the gigantic ruse, but not before an awful lot of money, time and effort were wasted on a fighter whose talents didn't come close to matching his outrageous persona.

While Lara is virtually unknown outside of boxing circles in the U.S., he's not exactly a shrinking violet. He crashed Avarez's postfight news conference, after the Mexican knocked out Alfredo Angulo, and called him out. He followed up with an aggressive social media campaign that continued even after Canelo agreed to fight him.

There's an edge to Lara that has been missing in many of the Cuban boxers who arrived in the United States during the mid-1990s, which could very well be the aspect of his makeup that will allow him to succeed where others have failed. In some respects Lara is more like the displaced fighters of the 1960s than his contemporaries.

That first exodus of Cubans was comprised of exceptional fighters such as Luis Rodriguez, Jose Napoles, Ultiminio "Sugar" Ramos, Benny "Kid" Paret and Jose Legra, as well as lesser lights Florentino Fernandez, Jose Stable and Angel Robinson Garcia. Together, they gave birth to what is widely considered the Golden Age of Cuban boxing. Rodriguez, Napoles, Ramos, Paret and Legra all became world champions, and Rodriguez, Napoles and Ramos ultimately joined Chocolate and Gavilan as the only five Cubans enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

[+] EnlargeGuillermo Rigondeaux
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesCuban fighters like Guillermo Rigondeaux faced an entirely different -- and often dangerous -- set of obstacles compared to their predecessors.

Today's Cuban fighters face a different set of problems than their predecessors. Getting out of Cuba has become a much more dangerous ordeal. If they can find a sponsor (usually a manager or promoter) to put up the money, they are ferried across the Caribbean at night in high-powered speedboats and smuggled into Mexico. Those less fortunate have been known to take desperate measures. Eliecer Castillo and his brother Eliseo made the trip on three inner tubes bound together with tape, drifting in shark-infested waters for five days before finally being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The first taste of freedom for many Cuban emigres can be overwhelming. Just reaching the U.S. is a bigger prize for some than winning a boxing championship. In his 2009 article, "The Imperfect Defectors," journalist Don Steward wrote: "Left to their own devices, they suddenly find themselves with their own money, their own car, their own apartment, and the freedom to eat whenever they want."

A decline in dedication and discipline is only part of the story. The superb craftsmanship developed during extensive amateur careers comes at a price. Some Cuban expats, such as Yan Barthelemy, seemed to have lost their speed and reflexes by the time they turn pro.

"It's not that they are shot fighters," said Enrique Encinosa, the author of "Sugar and Chocolate: A History of Cuban Boxing." "They just came here too late or were worn out from 10 or 12 years of amateur fighting."

The 31-year-old Lara, who had his first of professional fight in 2008, seems well-preserved in spite of his lengthy amateur apprenticeship and has also avoided falling into the traps that have waylaid so many of his contemporary colleagues.

He faces a demanding challenge in Alvarez, not only in the ring but also on the scorecards. After Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, Canelo is boxing's largest pay-per-view attraction, and it's never easy getting a close decision over the golden goose.

[+] EnlargeErislandy Lara
Ray Spencer/Hoganphotos/Golden BoyDespite lacking the charisma of former Cuban stars, Erislandy Lara has an opportunity to take his career to the next level against Canelo Alvarez.

Two other recent candidates, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Yuriorkis Gamboa, have been found lacking -- Rigondeaux at the box office and Gamboa in the ring. Now it's Lara's turn.

"I see Lara as sort of a hybrid. He combines the slickness of Rigo with Gamboa's willingness to trade punches," said journalist Bobby Cassidy Jr., who visited Cuba in 2008 while working on a documentary that explores the lives and times of the first wave of boxers who broke free of Castro's grip. It's called "A Fighting Chance," something Lara certainly has going into Saturday's duel with Alvarez.

If Lara does prevail, expect comparisons to Chocolate and Gavilan to commence immediately after his arm is raised in victory. And why not? Regardless of recent disappointments, it's difficult to imagine that the ongoing influx of Cuban boxers won't produce at least one great fighter.

Maybe Lara is the one.

Of course, lacking the charisma of Chocolate and Gavilan, Lara would have to win the fans' support strictly on the merits of his fighting ability, especially if he wants to remain a significant pay-per-view player. Still, there is nothing particularly glitzy about Canelo, and he has done all right for himself.

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