By Circles Robinson
Amateur boxing champs Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara had the rags to riches American dream in their hands. Yet after nearly two weeks of booze, prostitutes and big buck offers they opted out and asked to be repatriated to Cuba.
The case, which has made waves in Cuba and in the foreign press, raises interesting questions about the unscrupulous role of agents operating in the world of professional sports.
Rigondeaux, 25, a Sydney and Athens Olympic gold medalist, and Lara, 24, a world championship title holder, abandoned Cuba’s boxing team in the middle of the Rio de Janeiro Pan American Games on July 21.
By August 2, they had repented, asking to go home and accept sanctions instead of heading to Germany as the property of Arena Box Promotions for a professional career. They were back in Havana on August 5.
President Fidel Castro has written three articles on the subject (July 27, Aug. 4, 7,) and the boxers were interviewed at length and their statements published in Cuba’s leading newspaper on August 9. Castro questioned the ethics of Arena Box Promotions and its owner Ahmet Öner who appears to have an axe to grind with Cuba.
Öner, a 35-year-old Turkish-born ex-boxer, claims he invested nearly a half million dollars to capture Lara and Rigondeaux, and then signed them to a US $680,000 contract to fight professionally in Germany. The boxers deny having signed any contract.
With Öner’s agents telling them how Arena Box had made rich men of three Cuban Olympic champs they had bought earlier in the year, (Yan Barthelemy, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Odlander Solis), many following the case ask why would Lara and Rigondeaux chose to return home where they make less that $30 a month?
The timing of the desertion provoked an unusual situation. Cuban athletes that swallow the bait of foreign agents are never mentioned again in the Cuban media. In the case of baseball players their career stats are eliminated from the following years’ Cuban Baseball Almanac. Boxers drop off the map as well.
Rigondeaux and Lara’s no-show and disqualification by forfeit on July 22 prompted comments from Fidel Castro that mentioned them with first and last names, something completely out of the ordinary.
DPA news service reported on July 23 that the Brazilian Federal Police were trying to locate the boxing stars.DOES EVERYONE HAVE A PRICE?
Most of the capitalist world found Rigondeaux and Lara’s decision to go home incomprehensible. On most occasions, the talent buyers know it’s just a matter of price to convince a Third World sports hero or prospect to abandon his or her country to play in a foreign league or step up in the ring.
Scores of Cuban baseball players, boxers and other athletes are continuously hounded with offers of sizable amounts of money, in the millions for the best, to go professional mostly in the US or Europe. A small minority accept the bait and some become rich overnight. But the vast majority says no-thanks preferring their life in Cuba over the American dream.
Top athletes live mildly privileged lives in Cuba (a car, better diet, often improved modest housing) as compensation for their efforts representing their country. However, the privileges they have do not set them far apart from the rest of society and would be considered insignificant in a capitalist consumer society.
Cuba invests heavily in the preparation of their top athletes from a young age. Three-time Olympic Heavyweight Boxing Champion Teofilo Stevenson was one. The man who was offered a fortune by Don King and other promoters to fight Mohammad Ali and other top professional boxers was one of many Cuban sports glories accompanying the 500 or so Cuban athletes competing in Rio de Janeiro.
Stevenson, who won gold medals in Munich (1972), Montreal (1976) and Moscow (1980), told El Pais newspaper on August 9, “It must be very painful for their families, for a people that have cheered them [Lara and Rigondeaux], and because of the opportunities they’ve had.”
Stevenson further told El Pais: “When I think today about the million dollar offers they are insignificant. What is much more important to me is the affection I receive in Cuba and the millions of revolutionaries around the globe that are working to make this a better world.”
On its website, Arena Box Promotions owner-CE0 Ahmet Öner says: “You can only be the best stable if you have the best horses.” He knows that like horses, once professional boxers have their blinkers put on and get trapped in the highlife they have them for as long as they like.
Then they are spit out on the street where in most cases they are broke within a few years no matter how many millions they made in the ring. Joe Luis, Mike Tyson, Hasim Rahman, Chris Eubank, Scott Harrison and Riddick Bowe are just a small number of bankrupt examples.
Öner was a boxer himself with a short-lived professional career in Germany between 1997 and 2002. Somehow he then obtained the backing to start Arena Box a year ago and shortly after had millions of dollars to purchase Cuban boxers.BRAIN DRAIN AND TALENT THEFT
While some Cubans believe the case of Rigondeaux and Lara is nothing more than two foolish boxers who made a mistake and repented, there are many aspects that make the situation appear out of the ordinary.
Just five days before the two boxers abandoned their team in Rio, Fidel Castro published a commentary on July 17 on the effects of brain drain. It dealt with the issue of the top Latin American professionals being lured by North American and European corporations and institutions after receiving an education in their home countries needy of their services.
Castro quoted a World Bank report: “Brain drain deals a double blow to weak economies, which not only lose their best human resources and the money spent training them, but then have to pay an estimated $5.6 billion US a year to employ expatriates.”
On July 26, the Turkish-German owner of Arena Box said that his agents had signed Rigondeaux and Lara for a half million Euro (US $680,000). The news traveled the world in the mainstream media as another victory over Cuba’s socialist system. The media joyfully recalled that Öner had already purchased three Cuban gold medalists earlier in the year.
On July 27, Fidel expanded the brain drain issue to include talent theft. “What has been the worst problem for poor countries from a technological and economic point of view? Brain drain. And from the patriotic and educational point of view: Talent theft.”
“Cuba has undeniable results and efforts in amateur sports, but suffers more from the bite of the piranhas than any other country,” said Castro.
Four days later, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, host of the Pan American Games (July 14-29), chimed in to Fidel’s concern lamenting the exodus of young soccer players to European and Asian sports markets.THE PARTY ENDS
On August 3 it was reported that Lara and Rigondeaux had been detained the previous day by police “at the popular Praia Seca beach, in the small city of Araruama in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
One story from Reuters made it seem like the authorities had been tipped off to their presence: “According to the police, the boxers consumption habits and Erislandy’s gold teeth led to distrust among the locals.”
In an article dated August 4 titled “Politics and Sports”, Fidel Castro confirmed that the Brazilian Police had the boxers in their custody. “The boxers told the police that they had made a mistake and regretted it. They refused to see a German citizen who very promptly took interest in them, following instructions from a mafia company [Arena Box Promotions].”
“The news [from Ahmet Öner] stating that the boxers were in Turkey while immigration matters were being looked after had obviously been released by the mafia as a smoke screen,” noted Fidel Castro.
Refuting any claims from Öner to the contrary, Fidel added that upon returning home Rigondeaux and Lara “would not be submitted to any sort of arrest […] They will be temporarily transferred to a guest house and allowed family visits. The press will also be able to contact them if they so wish. They will be offered decent jobs for the benefit of sports, given their knowledge and experience.”
In an interview with Cuban TV reporter Julia Osendi on the evening of their return to Cuba on August 5, Lara said he and Rigondeaux took advantage of a moment when the two Brazilians assigned to watch over them were having lunch and told a couple fishermen to call the Federal Police, whom they said arrived some 20 minutes later.
“When the police arrived they asked us if we wanted to return to Cuba. We said yes. Then they asked, ‘Do you know what’s awaiting you in Cuba?’ and we replied we are willing, we committed a serious indiscipline and now we have to pay for the indiscipline we committed.” Rigondeaux said a number of prosecutors were brought in “and they all told us, “Don’t go to Cuba, in Cuba heavy punishment is awaiting you.” “But we said we want to return to Cuba.”
Two days after the boxers were home, Fidel Castro responded to the events with his August 7 article titled “A written record.” After quoting the press reports on the events leading up to Rigondeaux and Lara’s detention and subsequent return to Cuba, Fidel wrote that he thought it was fair to give the boxers a chance to tell their side of what happened to the public.
“Julia Osendi, a television reporter who was well informed about the Pan American Games held in Rio, arranged a meeting with them and made efforts to persuade them to speak with absolute frankness.”
Fidel then warned in the same article that Cuba may not attend an upcoming Olympic qualifying boxing tournament in Chicago. “Just picture the mafia sharks lurking about in search of fresh talent,” he said.
On August 9 Granma newspaper published the text of Osendi’s interview with the two boxers. Although it was not stated, the format led many readers to the conclusion that the boxers were interviewed separately and did not fully tell what happened.
Lara claimed that a Cuban named Alexis and an unnamed German, both with press credentials, had by chance intercepted them outside the villa when they left to go shopping on the evening of July 21, and swept them away to bars and cabarets. There they claim they were softened up with booze, food and women and were taken to a beach on an island where the agents offered them a contract, which they say they didn’t sign.
The boxers told Osendi that once they had eaten they went beyond the point of no return and would never make the following day’s weigh in. Knowing they would be sanctioned they say they feared returning to the Pan Am Games village. So instead, they decided to continue the party which they did for nearly two weeks.
The boxers said they were taken from hotel to hotel accompanied by prostitutes and that the German and Cuban got tired of their refusing to sign a contract and left them in the hands of two Brazilians.PENDING QUESTIONS
Now, over three weeks since the boxers began their odyssey, there are still many unanswered questions about what really happened:
Did Rigondeaux and Lara have previous contact with Öner’s agents before the night of their disappearing act?
Considering the tight security, how did the boxers leave the Pan American Athletes Village?
Could Rigondeaux and Lara have been so naive about the boxing mafia business practices to put themselves in the hands of two people they didn’t know? Hadn’t they traveled abroad on numerous occasions and were always counseled on the scenarios that occur to Cuban athletes competing in other countries?
Why does Arena Box Promotions appear to have a vendetta against the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro? Did Arena Box Promotions really lose a half million dollars in failing to capture their prey? Do they receive secret funds for their talent theft against Cuba?
Who actually called the Police, the fishermen at the request of the boxers, the hotel personnel or suspicious locals?
Why were some Brazilian authorities supposedly searching for the Cubans and then when they were taken into custody others tried hard to convince them not to return to Cuba?