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Friday, February 7, 2014
This way out

By Peter Keating and Brin-Jonathan Butler
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 17 Cuba Issue. Subscribe today!

DREAMS DIE HARD, even when they face roadblocks the size of an island. And hope springs eternal, even from boxing venues as antiquated as City Hall, opened in 1936 in the port city of Cork, Ireland. Seven years ago, inside its limestone walls and under the giant chandeliers of its concert hall, half a dozen Irishmen fought on a card dubbed the Valentine's Weekend Massacre. The locals, with nicknames like Billy Boy and Sinky, easily dispatched their opponents -- a motley crew of Brits, Slovaks and a Pole -- recording four TKOs. So Gary Hyde, the then-38-year-old promoter who put the evening together, had every reason to be satisfied with himself; he had shown the raucous crowd of 1,000 fans a good time. Still, in the waning light of success, he wanted more -- better talent, a bigger stage.

It was in that sea of faces that Michael Flatley, the world-famous step dancer and a man who knows about bigger stages, approached Hyde to critique the night. "You're missing a superstar in the making," said Flatley, whom Hyde had invited as a guest of honor. "Somebody we can all get a feel for and follow through to big titles."

Hyde, a garrulous big man with a pink, pockmarked face and a quick, megawatt smile, asked in turn: "Where am I going to get one of those?"

He was familiar with the local scene; he had donned gloves himself more than 100 times as an amateur before opening a couple of pubs. Hyde knew there were some good fighters around, but nobody world-class.

"Maybe go to one of the poorhouses of the world," Flatley offered.

Immediately, Hyde flashed back to 2001 in Belfast, to the time he met members of the Cuban national team at a pub following the World Amateur Boxing Championships. The Cubans had been lined up like sitting ducks, he had thought. And one baby-faced duckling in particular had caught his attention: Guillermo Rigondeaux, who had won Olympic gold in 2000 and would again in 2004. "Rigo just kind of shouted out to me," Hyde recalled later. "Very, very special-like."

That was Feb. 17, 2007. Within two weeks, Hyde was in Havana -- funded by savings from several of his small businesses -- planning to smuggle boxing champions off the island and bring them to professional competition abroad. "All we had to do was get them 12 miles," Hyde says. "Once you were 12 miles off the coast of Cuba, you were in international waters. I didn't think about the consequences after that."


AHMET ONER WAS a shrewd brawler. An aggressive, often cologne-drenched German, he had grown up in Duisburg -- a sizable city known for its blast furnaces -- and studied economics at the University of Duisburg. Oner ran with rough crowds as a young man; he worked as a bodyguard, a debt collector, even a bouncer at a brothel. "Gentlemen would come and stay for half an hour or an hour, or they would fall in love with a lady and not come out, so I took them out," he recalls. "Sometimes they had three cousins with them, so I would take them all out. My punches were fast and clean." Indeed, Oner compiled a 16-5-2 record as a pro boxer, winning lower-level German titles as a light middleweight and light heavyweight before launching a company called Arena Box Promotion in 2006.

Rigondeaux
Leave, and boxers risk losing their families and the love of their countrymen.
Like Gary Hyde, Oner had the vision to look beyond the Baltic tomato cans so many Europeans were promoting, to Havana. Cubans dominated amateur boxing at the time, and he knew if he could translate their success to the pro ranks, he could land lucrative TV deals.

Oner got his big break in December 2006, when the Cuban national boxing team traveled to Venezuela to train for the upcoming Pan American Games. Three members decided to flee, including Olympic heavyweight Odlanier Solis. "You know what it meant: returning to Cuba at the end of the year to our families empty-handed," Solis said in an interview with FightNews.com after he fled. He had won gold at the 2004 Athens Games, but he understood the Cuban government would offer no financial compensation for success. "I decided I had enough. I chose freedom."

Two of Solis' gold-medal-winning teammates joined him in breaking ranks: flyweight Yuriorkis Gamboa, who had sold his Olympic prize for $1,500 back in Cuba, and light flyweight Yan Barthelemy. The three men hopped a bus and rode 16 hours to the Colombian border, according to Solis, talking as little as possible to keep secret their Cuban accents.

Once across the border, Solis called Miami lawyer Tony Gonzalez, whose connections to many Cuban-born athletes had helped him develop a reputation as a fixer in these situations. Gonzalez agreed to wire money to the athletes and fly them to the city of Medellin so they could defect at the U.S. Consulate. But once they arrived safely in Medellin, their spontaneous plan began unraveling. The American Consulate denied them visas, and word quickly spread around the boxing world that they had disappeared.

What followed is a series of events both common and unique to Cuban athletes. When they first leave, all anybody knows is that they're gone. In the clandestine world of dubious contracts and money passed through not-quite-legal channels, nobody knows whether they have managers or promoters. And even if they do have deals in place, it doesn't necessarily mean they're off-limits. The right to control the fighters abroad is a race among managers to claim the boxers themselves.

So as Gonzalez spread word through his network that he was looking to negotiate with promoters, Oner seized the moment. "F--- all these guys, we make a deal," Oner says he told Gonzalez. "One million euros for you, and I'll pay the fighters extra." He also told the lawyer he could establish residency for the fighters in Germany and get them visas to work in the U.S. "I convinced him to listen, believe me," says Oner.

"Our rivals were on the next plane," says Malte Muller-Michaelis, former general manager at Arena. "We just happened to be the fastest group, and Ahmet could offer them a lot of money."


AS WINTER TURNED to spring in 2007, Oner's boxers touched down in the U.S. around the same time Gary Hyde landed in Havana, ready to offer fighters the chance for a new life. He checked into the Habana Libre hotel, and, introducing himself as "Miguel" -- his given name is actually Michael -- Hyde told locals he was writing a book on Cuban boxers.

Hyde went to seek out La Finca, the school where amateurs lived and trained. But when he couldn't see any way through the gates there, he found his way to the Rafael Trejo Gym, a small outdoor space where various boxing greats, including Rigondeaux, were known to work out. "It reminded me of a handball alley," he says. "A boxing ring in the middle, a few seats. The whole place looked like it cost $500."

Hyde put the word out that he wanted to meet top fighters, dropping cash in an effort to incentivize anyone who would listen. A few days later, success: His trail of monetary bread crumbs landed him a meeting with Rigondeaux at a restaurant in Havana's Central Park.

A broad-chested bantamweight with narrow eyes set atop high cheekbones, Rigondeaux was known as the best amateur boxer on the planet. He had emerged from a coffee farm in the small town of La Prueba to win seven national championships and two gold medals at the Olympics. Then 26, he hadn't lost a fight in eight years, and he strode with such swagger that other park-goers steered clear of his path.

Rigondeaux skipped a little when he saw Hyde, remembering him from their first encounter. And when Hyde opened the conversation by trumpeting his cover on researching Cuban boxing, Rigondeaux let him know the preamble was unnecessary: "Professional boxing?" he asked, his dark eyes meeting Hyde's. Both men feared that talking about leaving Cuba was hazardous, and actually attempting it could lead to years in prison for the boxer. But Rigondeaux stayed, ordering rounds of rum and cigarettes, and soon the two men were plotting.

On March 20, Rigondeaux signed a contract authorizing Hyde to manage and promote him for five years, paying Hyde 25 percent of his earnings, including TV rights and endorsement money. Hyde went on to obtain an identical contract from light heavyweight Mike Perez, another fighter out of La Finca. Now all they needed was a way out.

Lacking in logistics what he had in imagination and cojones, Hyde began looking into speedboats, Jet Skis, submarines -- anything to carry his fighters from their island to his island. When he wasn't in Havana, he financed them from Ireland until he could return, supplying them with cellphones and a debit card, sending them books with 500-euro notes glued inside. The path to defection that seemed most promising was to sneak his fighters out through Mexico. Every year thousands of would-be emigres hide in vans or trailers and head for the western coast, usually to Pinar del Rio, a province famous for making cigars. There they board large speedboats, 20 or 40 or more men, women and children at a time, and pay routers, who often are also drug traffickers, for derecho de piso (right of passage). They risk arrest and kidnapping, not to mention getting shot by the Cuban military. But if they succeed, they land 200 miles away in Cancun, usually in the northern end of town, which is frequented by fishermen and ferries and not many tourists. So in September, Hyde decamped for Cancun and started looking for Cuban restaurants, boats with Cuban flags -- anyplace to make a connection.

A couple of days in, Hyde asked a friendly taxi driver about finding Cubans. "You'll see them walking in the streets," said the driver, pointing out a passerby demonstrating the Cuban amble. "If you can imagine being on an island for 100 years with no need to hurry, that's what it's like. Toes outward, walk on your heels, move from side to side as much as toward anywhere."

Ultimately, Hyde didn't need the walk-spotting technique; the taxi driver knew a friend who knew a friend who was able to locate a Cuban who agreed to link Hyde with routers. "I told him I was staying at the Cancun Palace, so he came over with his wife and his daughter and stayed with me," Hyde says of the music industry pro with whom he had connected. "He'd unload my minibar in a suitcase and bring it home while being piss drunk the whole time too. After a few days, he tells me he can deliver a boxer from Cuba."


Rigondeaux
The fighters wanted to defect. The promoters began to circle. The race to freedom was on.
JOSE MARTI, THE Cuban patriot who fought for independence from Spain in the 19th century, famously wrote, "La patria es agonia y debar." (The homeland is agony and duty.) It's a reminder that achieving freedom often requires suffering. And in the era of the U.S. embargo, it's also a statement about the ties that bind, about how Cuba exerts a powerful hold on its people, even those who try to leave.

With Hyde away working on logistics, Rigondeaux was having a hard time untangling his passions in Cuba. For one, he was fighting for scraps and unable even to legally express the opinion that he desired more. "You are a champion, and it means nothing," he says of Cuba. "We are like dogs. After all your time is over, you end up telling stories on a street corner about when you used to be a star."

Yet at home, Rigondeaux had two parents, including a father who strongly supported the Cuban Revolution; eight brothers and sisters; a loyal wife, Farah Colina; Guillermo Jr., his 5-year-old son; and a 15-year-old stepson, Julio Cesar. Leave, and he risked losing all of them, and the genuine love of his fans and countrymen, permanently.

There was an upside to Rigondeaux's wavering, however. It allowed Hyde the opportunity to test the Mexico escape route with Perez. The 21-year-old didn't have Rigo's pedigree, but he was immensely talented -- he had won gold at the world junior championships in 2004 -- and was eager to leave.

Perez rendezvoused with Hyde's routers and made it off the island with the smugglers, but that's as far as the plan got before things went awry. First, a Mexican naval vessel unexpectedly passed by Cancun, forcing the speedboat Perez was hiding out in to stay at sea for three days until it left. Trapped in the hot sun, Perez and his smugglers ran out of water and were attacked by bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Even after making it to dry land, things continued to deteriorate. When the routers couldn't reach Hyde on his cellphone to set up the trade -- he was en route from Ireland to Mexico -- they threatened to shoot the boxer for sport. "Where's your f---ing manager, man?" they asked Perez. "You're like a rabbit to me."

When Hyde and the routers finally talked, they agreed to a meeting at the Cancun Palace hotel the next day. A beat-up white car pulled up with Perez in the backseat, and Hyde paid the fee -- in all, he invested about $200,000 in getting Perez out. But he had his man. Once they were alone, Perez had just a couple of words to describe his experience to Hyde: "Loco, man."

That night, Hyde and Perez stayed in an all-inclusive room at the Cancun Palace, complete with a Jacuzzi. Sitting on the side of the bed, Hyde looked at Perez, flipping in the tub like a dolphin, and began to laugh. "I saw his black head in those white suds, and Jesus Christ, I just wanted to kiss him," Hyde says. "It was such an achievement."


OVER THE STRETCH of time that Rigondeaux didn't defect, Hyde continued passing funds to the fighter. But unbeknownst to the Irishman, other managers and promoters had been using that time to court Rigondeaux as well. Like many Cuban fighters, Rigo didn't know the first thing about contract law or personal finance, and he didn't have a lot of practice saying no to authority figures. So Rigondeaux said yes, without realizing fully what that meant, to more than a few suitors. Among them: the agents of Ahmet Oner.

In all, Hyde invested about $200,000 in getting Perez out. But he had his man."

In fact, while he demurred at Hyde's attempts to smuggle him out by speedboat, Rigo made other plans to flee from the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in July 2007. One night in late July, Rigondeaux left the athletes' village with welterweight Erislandy Lara, who had won gold at the World Amateur Boxing Championships two years earlier. The two went to Help Discoteca, a Rio nightclub, and met with Arena representatives to plot their escape. The following day, they didn't show up for their fights, and for the next two weeks, the agents shuttled the fighters among safe houses -- first a local hotel, then in the nearby city of Niteroi, then in the coastal town of Araruama -- while Oner's most trusted henchman, a Hamburg lawyer, tried to finalize the paperwork for their departure.

Fidel Castro, raging against the "German mafia" and international money stealing Cuban boxers, had the federal police on high alert. Cuban officials started claiming it was a missing persons case, and with the heightened security around the Games, two of Oner's agents got stopped at the Rio airport. Police picked up Rigondeaux and Lara walking along the sands of Araruama on Aug. 2. They were allowed to call their families, which hammered home the potential consequences of trying to avoid deportation back to Cuba. Neither man requested asylum in Brazil or Germany. Two days later, Brazil shipped them back.

Lara went back to Guantanamo, to a two-room apartment that had a computer -- a reward from Castro after Lara's world title -- but no phone. Rigondeaux arrived home to find that the government had confiscated his Mitsubishi Lancer -- "like the one in The Fast and the Furious" -- which he had earned for winning Olympic gold. "They didn't take my house, but only because I had my wife and children," he says. "Otherwise they would have taken that too."


AFTER RIO, RIGONDEAUX was miserable. Police followed him everywhere, and his old compadres shunned him. "I would go places, see other athletes, and it's not their fault, but they couldn't even say hi to me," he recalls. "They would have to pretend not to know me. Your friends can't even shake your hand, because if they did, they would be sanctioned themselves. Can you imagine what that feels like?"

Deprived of the only work he had ever known, sidelined from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Rigondeaux sank into watching traffic from the balcony of his house. Visitors watched him drink one Bucanero beer after another and chain-smoke, using the tail end of each Popular-brand cigarette to light the next. He wondered if what Hyde called his money drip would be the only reward for his ambition. Asked during that period where he got the set of gold teeth he sometimes flashed, Rigondeaux deadpanned: "I melted my Olympic medals into my mouth."

Ultimately, getting punished for not defecting pushed him to make another attempt. This, of course, was welcome news to Hyde, who was aware of Rigondeaux's contract with Arena as well as the failed escape. But Hyde felt confident that he had the inside track on getting Rigo off the island, and he continued cajoling Rigondeaux to leave, going so far as getting the boxer a permit to work in Ireland and keeping a boat on notice to depart within 24 hours. In November 2008, Hyde sent Rigondeaux another couple thousand euros, even though he was getting what he calls "itchy feelings" that the fighter would try to leave with someone else. Hyde's key router tried to reassure him: "If Jesus Christ is here, he won't get Rigo. You set us up with Rigondeaux, and he's coming to you."

Oner too got wind around the end of 2008 that Rigondeaux wanted to make another attempt. Not wanting to rely solely on whatever documents Rigondeaux had signed in Rio, Oner sent another Arena operative to get the fighter's signature, according to a 2009 account by Gerhard Pfeil for the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. And she wasn't the only one. "The problem with Rigondeaux is that he signed more contracts than autographs," says Muller-Michaelis.

One day in early 2009, Rigondeaux stayed home to play with his young son, then told his wife he was leaving for Santiago, a city in eastern Cuba. Instead, he headed west with three other boxers and boarded a speedboat captained by the brother of a smuggler known as the Caribbean Queen, who earned his nickname by dressing as a woman to keep from getting shot at by the Cuban authorities. They made it to Cancun, then were taken to the U.S. border, where they hopped a fence and told American guards they wanted to defect.

It was Hyde's fears come true; Rigondeaux had cut him out of the loop again: "He used my boat with someone else's money."


IN THE FIVE years since Rigondeaux came to Miami, Cuban boxers haven't taken over the sport for a series of reasons the athletes never expected but that a cynic could have predicted. The men responsible for smuggling Rigo and the other Cuban fighters off the island launched a full-scale human turf war, plunging everyone involved into big-time boxing's weird world of endlessly shifting alliances and betrayals. Oner had deals with the group that brought Rigondeaux to a local Miami promoter and put together the Cuban's first three professional bouts. But Hyde quickly filed a lawsuit to force Rigondeaux to adhere to his earlier contract, and in April 2010, a circuit court judge ruled in Hyde's favor. (Thanks to his legal victories, Hyde will continue to manage Rigondeaux until at least Sept. 15, 2015.)

Oner had his own troubles to deal with. Around 2009, Arena's investors, worried about finances, brought in people to put controls on his spending. "Ahmet didn't like that," says a former Arena official, and a power struggle ensued. Then that August, two gunmen fired three shots at Oner as he was leaving a Hamburg office, hitting him once in the left leg. He had the bullet removed, but the attack remains unsolved. "It could be the Cubans, but I don't know," Oner says. "Nobody had the balls to call me and tell me."

Meanwhile, prosecutors had been after Oner for years, charging him with, among other things, instigating a brawl at a Hamburg match and trying to blackmail a rival promoter for 500,000 euros. In February 2010, Oner took a deal for 16 counts of extortion and assault, giving him a 22-month suspended sentence and a 120,000-euro fine.

Rigondeaux, now 33, is the most brilliant counterpuncher this side of Floyd Mayweather Jr. But he has earned a curious distinction: He's an undefeated unified champion whom other boxers don't want to fight because he's too good and whom promoters don't want to show because audiences find his style of fighting boring. His career resembles indentured servitude more than anyone exchanging Cuban for American citizenship would probably have expected.

His progress in the U.S. has been idled for long stretches by various legal and promotional battles, and fights have been sporadic in recent years. Rigondeaux missed the kind of guidance he had in Cuba and has bounced around the country working with various trainers. From 2009 into 2010, he briefly trained with coaching legend Freddie Roach. "I said to him, 'What have you been doing since I saw you a couple of months ago? Have you been training?'" says Roach, who called the Cuban one of the greatest talents he had ever seen. "He said, 'No, today's my first day.' I told him, 'They sent you to me 12 days before a title fight?' That's wrong. He didn't fight the fight. I got fired."

But like most boxers who left Cuba, the deepest problem Rigondeaux has with his new life is profound isolation -- even when he is surrounded by thousands. In November 2010, Rigondeaux was set to fight in his first world title match, against Ricardo Cordoba at Cowboys Stadium. But just before the fight, Rigo learned his son was ill. There was nothing he could do to help, and his anxieties showed in a performance that came across as disinterested. Sure, Rigondeaux won that night, but sitting by himself after the fight, wearing his oversize belt, he looked terribly small. Told later that he looked alone, without even a sense of gratitude toward the people around him, Rigondeaux replied, "Well, wasn't I alone?"

Brin-Jonathan Butler is the author of "From Traitor to Champion: The Guillermo Rigondeaux Story," which will be published by Picador USA in June.

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