Among other things, Cuba is famous for the exquisite aroma of its tobacco, natural beauty of its beaches, and one-of-a-kind taste of the rum made of sugar cane; but this Caribbean archipelago is also internationally renowned for the huge quality of its ball players and boxers, many of which could be included in any top 100 rankings of all time. Baseball is Cuba’s national sport, but boxing has given the country the highest number of gold medals in the Olympic Games (37).
People say that Cuba’s first boxing gym was opened as far back as 1910, so the country has over a century of history linked to this sport. When taking into account this long period and the significant number of figures that have stood out, handpicking the very best turns out to be a complex task; but Panamericanworld has taken the risk to put on the table a list made up of 10 fighters that became legends of Cuban boxing.
Eligio Sardiñas, known as “Kid Chocolate”, can be described as the most complete Cuban boxer in the first half of the 20th century. Chocolate’s first professional fight took place on March 3, 1928, when he gave Jose Sotolongo KO in the fourth round. He later went to the United States with his manager, Luis Felipe “Pincho” Gutierrez, where he developed a successful career. The Kid became famous at the Northern territory because of his many wins. One of his most famous fights was held against Al Singer, at Polo Grounds stadium, on August 29, 1928.
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Chocolate won 45 fights until August 7, 1930, when he was defeated by Jack Kid Berg. The Cuban athlete was once again victorious and was given the opportunity to fight for the world title in the junior lightweight category, against Benny Bass. That duel was held on July 15, 1931, at Philadelphia’s Barker Bowl Stadium. Chocolate gave Bass a real beating in the first six rounds. When the bell rang for the seventh round, the coaches threw in the towel and Chocolate conquered the first professional boxing world title. The next world crown came after defeating Lew Feldman, in the featherweight category, in New York. The Kid successfully defended this crown twice, against Fidel La Barba and British Seamond Watson.
Gerardo Gonzalez, “Kid Gavilan” is another great Cuban pugilist that developed most of his career in the United States. Gavilan didn’t have an impressive physic for a welterweight. He was only 5 feet and 2 inches tall, his arms were short; however, he was characterized by an extremely fast fighting style. Gavilan made his debut on U.S. soil in November 1946 and it couldn’t be better, since he easily took Johnny Ryan down, after just 5 rounds.
There were a series of achievements and everybody was thinking about the world crown, but Ray Sugar Robinson was standing in the way. The much-anticipated fight took place in Philadelphia, on July 11, 1949. According to sports journalists, it was an intense fight on the ring and Robinson prevailed over his rival. Gavilan had to wait another year. Ray was already retired and it was the proper time. On May 18, 1951, in a crowded Madison Square Garden, New York, Gavilan defeated Johnny Bratton in 15 rounds and became world champion in the welterweight category.
The Kid defended his crown in seven fights and couldn’t be taken down. He even fought in front of the Cuban public in Havana, against Billy Graham. After 15 intense rounds, Gavilan held his title. All in all, Kid Gavilan had 143 professional fights and won 107 of them, 28 KOs, 30 defeats and he was even in six fights. He was never knocked out.
JOSÉ “MANTEQUILLA” NÁPOLES
“Mantequilla” Nápoles is described as one of the most technical Cuban boxers of all time. As an amateur fight, he had a record of 114 wins and only one defeat. He moved to Mexico in 1962 and continued his professional career. The Cuban athlete got the world welter crown on April 18, 1969, after prevailing over Curtis Cokes in thirteen rounds, in Inglewood. After defending his crown three times, Napoles fell against Billy Backus, but he took his revenge and recovered his title until 1975. As a professional fighter, “Mantequilla” got 77 wins, 54 of which finished with a KO, and he lost seven fights. In 1990, he was included in the International Hall of Fame.
Stevenson has been the best Cuban boxer of all time and the most famous amateur heavyweight in history. The power of his punch was a legend and his was usually compared to Muhammad Ali. These two great titans were about to clash, but the duel was never held. In 1971, at the age of 19, Stevenson was already a member of the Cuban national team and, a year later, he won the first of his three Olympic crowns.
After his outstanding performances in Munich, the success in the first World Boxing Championship, hosted by Havana 1974, and his easy triumph in the Mexico Pan-American Games, in 1975, Stevenson was labeled as the favorite to hold his Olympic crown in Montreal, in 1976. At the Canadian city, the Cuban fighter delivered four KOs.
Four years later, Stevenson participated in the Moscow Games, where he showed his superiority and set a hard-to-break record: ten consecutive fights without letting his rivals make it to the final bell. The third Olympic title allowed him to reach the record set by Hungarian Lazslo Papp and the list of three-time champions was later joined by another Cuban pugilist: Felix Savon. Stevenson won 170 fights, fell ten times and only Russian Igor Visotski could defeat him twice.
This prodigious athlete is the amateur boxer with the highest number of title in history. His records are impressive: three Olympic crowns, six world championships, three Pan-American editions, three Central American Games. He was never a very technical boxer, but Savon perfectly knew how to combine jabs and right punches, along with hooks to the stomach that destroyed any defensive strategy prepared by his rivals. His punches were never as spectacular as Stevenson’s, but Savon lived in the era of extreme protection for boxers, with head protection and gloves designed to avoid damaging the anatomy of athletes.
Savon fought in the 91-kilogram category and his Olympic reign began in Barcelona, 1992. Four years later, he stood out in Atlanta and met the records set by Stevenson and Papp in Sidney Olympic Games, which was his hardest event because his body was not the same at the age of 32. After the victory at the Australian city, the Cuban pugilist wanted to keep on fighting because he was still strong, but the rules established at the time by the International Association stopped amateur boxers to stay on the ring after they were 32 years old. So, Savon had to give up boxing.
This brilliant fighter collected all the titles given by the International Boxing Association in different levels (world junior champion, world senior champion and Olympic champion). Kindelan won two Olympic crowns, in Sidney 2000, where he defeated Ukrainian Andriy Kotelnik, 14-4, and Athens 2004, where the Cuban boxer beat British Amir Khan. That is why the AIBA gave him the Val Baker Cup and Kindelan became the third Cuban pugilist to receive such award, preceded by Teofilo Stevenson and Roberto Balado. Moreover, Kindelan won three World Championships: Houston, 1999, Belfast, 2001 and Bangkok, 2003.
This super heavyweight had a short but intense and successful boxing career. Balado stood out for his great moves on the ring, excellent techniques and powerful punches. Balado first made headlines back in 1987. The World Junior Championship was held in Havana and the fighter easily conquered the gold medal. Two years later, in 1989, he made his debut in the main team and was one of the four Cuban athletes that collected a title in the controversial Moscow World Championship. Two years later, he held the world crown in Sidney, 1991.
His best moment came in the Barcelona edition of the Olympic Games, in 1992. Balado had four fights in which he scored 54 punches and barely received 9. That is why he was given the “Val Baker” award, as the finest boxer in the Olympic event. After Barcelona, Balado won his third world title, in Tampere 1993. On July 2, 1994, the boxer was driving to his usual training session in Wajay, but his car was crashed by a train. There was no second chance for the champion.
This lefty fighter, in the 63.5-kilogram category, was never paid so much media attention, not like other pugilists included on this list; but he can be undoubtedly ranked among the best Cuban boxers of all time. His first great victory was the Olympic title in Barcelona Games, back in 1992, where he won his four fights, with 91 punches scored and barely 13 received. Four years later, he held the Olympic crown in Atlanta. Moreover, Vinent won three world championships: Tampere 1993, Berlin 1995 and Budapest 1997. A retina injury took him into retirement when he was still in great physical shape.
In his amateur boxer stage, Guillermo Rigondeaux was by far the best man in his division (54 kilograms). He won two Olympic titles: Sidney 2000 and Athens 2004. He also conquered two world championships, in 2001 and 2005. All in all, he had 247 fights, won 243, and only lost 4. Afterward, the “Jackal”—his nickname— decided to go pro and he has been very successful (he was super bantam weight champion of the WBA), but he has also had complex moments. His record as a professional is made up of 17 wins, no defeat.
JULIO CÉSAR LA CRUZ
The “Shadow” is presently the most complete Cuban boxer. His style is quite peculiar, since he keeps a low guard and his fast moves and dodges take rivals out of balance. His list of achievements includes five crowns in world championships, between 2011 and 2021, and two Olympic crowns, obtained in 2016 and 2021.