By Dr. Declan Hill
It was one of the times that I have felt most proud to be Canadian. It occurred in a hot, sweaty Cuban boxing gym on the outskirts of Havana. Today, however, is a day that I am shaking my head in exasperation about our nation.
The two events are linked, here is why. For those readers who follow this blog regularly, you will know that in the last few years I have taken up boxing.
I regularly go to Cuba to train, along with practicing at my local club. This does not mean that I am any good, any fairly well-muscled boy scout could probably take me, but it does mean that I have had the privilege of sharing a gym and a ring with some top fighters.
On one trip to Havana, I went down with a group of much younger fighters. Some of the lads hit the nightlife like a group of marauding Vikings. I have no idea how they did it. This is not a statement of Puritan disapproval; I just do not have the stamina for what they did.
We would get up at 7.00 a.m., then run 7 kilometres, do 300 push-ups, 300 sit-ups and 20 minutes of combinations – along the Malecón sea wall in central Havana: then to breakfast and double/double espressos – then to the gym where we did 3 hours of training and sparring: then back to the hotel for lunch.
After that, I staggered into an ice bath, possibly a lie in on the beach, and dinner, followed by a long sleep. Some of the lads (though not all of them) would hit the night spots, enjoy themselves, return in the middle of the night, and then do it all again the next day!
One of these young men was the superb professional fighter Tony Luis, from Cornwall Ontario. He caused problems with our Cuban hosts because he was so good.
They had arranged a bunch of boxers to spar with us, who were reasonably fit, middle-ranking fellows. Tony beat them up. This was not supposed to happen.
Cubans are a hospitable lot. But boxing is their sport, their unspoken, but strongly felt attitude was that no Canadian should be allowed to come down and thrash them at their own game in their own country.
It would be like a Cuban coming to Winnipeg and being the best player on the ice at hockey. It is just against the natural order. So phone calls were made, favours were pulled and after a few days, two of Cuba’s top lightweight boxers arrived from the ‘Finca’ – the national training camp. I do not know their names.
Even if I did, I would not reveal them as some arcane Communist regulations were probably being broken to allow the local boys to come down and thrash the Canadian. The atmosphere changed markedly in the gym on the day these top fighters arrived.
Before it had been a pleasant, joking place. Now, the Cubans seemed to nod and say, ‘Right. You have had your way. This is our house and you are going to get your lesson.’
Tony Luis was put in the ring with these guys. Any sense of fairness in refereeing or judging went out the window. These were Cuban judges who had had to watch their local boys being dropped for the last four days, now it was revenge time.
Every clinch seemed to ended with the Cuban fighters pulling Tony Luis into an unfair position and slamming illegal punches to his body, while the referee looked abstractedly at the far wall and the judges feigned ignorance.
The sparring lasted 13-rounds. On the way back to our hotel, Tony Luis asked me how he had done, I replied, “Look, you did not get more than 3 hours of sleep last night. You fought some of the top fighters in this country for 13-rounds. You did okay, but I think they won.”
Tony nodded and went to speak to his father – Jorge Luis – one of the best boxing coaches in our country (both myself and Justin Trudeau made sure that he was in our corner for fights).
The next day, not a single one of our guys had gone out to party. We cancelled our early morning cardio exercise. We came into the gym ready. If the Cubans wanted to up their game, our attitude was ‘bring it on’. Tony Luis went back in the ring with the top Cuban fighter.
It was fighting to bring goose bumps to the back of your neck. The best of our countries was there. The Cubans fought like Cubans: style, rhythm, passion and attitude.
Tony Luis fought like the best of Canada: simple, clear, direct and honest. In a tiny, sweaty gym in Havana, it was boxing for the sport purist. There was one moment in third round, when the Cuban tried to do to Tony what he had done the day before – cheat in the clinches.
I do not know how Tony Luis did it, but he seemed to allow the other fighter to bounce off him. Then as the Cuban went back, he hit him with a staggering uppercut to the ribs. It was a punch like a sledgehammer blow. It was a punch you could hear around the gym.
It was a punch that made the Cubans who were watching wince with pain. It made you feel proud to be Canadian. Here was our boy, going toe-to-toe with the best in their country and fighting honestly, cleanly and honourably. It was a great moment.
At the end of the fight, they shook hands and the Cuban said, ‘You are pretty tough.’
Which translated means that was a really, really good fight. Today, however, is a day when I do not feel proud to be Canadian.
However, to this moment,Tony has received very little publicity from Canadian media outlets. It is this cone of silence that drives some of our best athletes away. Think Lennox Lewis, Greg Rusedski and Owen Hargreaves.
This is the reason why they put aside their Canadian identity and joined a society that appreciates their work. This is what Patrick Chan spoke about when he complained about being able to walk down the street in Canada and no one recognizing him, whereas in China or South Korea he is a star. I do not know what will happen tonight in the ring.
But I do know that whatever happens I will be proud of Tony Luis and I will be wondering when will Canadians start to recognize their own?