Joel Casamayor was not the first to escape Cuba and not the first boxer to escape Cuba. However the the impression he made on the great Cuba fighters we see all over the World today is un-deniable.
Jorge Luis Gonzalez and Diosbelis Hurtado had preceded Casamayor by making escapes from the country. He was not the last boxer to escape Cuba; Juan Carlos Gomez, Odlanier Solis, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Erislandy Lara would all follow. Casamayor was a trailblazer. He was the first Cuban Olympic gold medalist to defect. This was a path followed by Barthélemy, Gamboa, Solis and Rigondeaux who have since become some of those most exciting and high quality boxers in the world. The story of Casamayor, the trailblazer, is a fascinating one.
Casamayor would take his chance to defect in 1996. It came a month before the Olympics, in Guadalajara, Mexico where the Cubans were training. All was not good at the camp with discontent growing. Casamayor was struggling to make 118 lbs that the Cubans were insistent he make. At the camp, less than a month before the Olympics he was at 135 lbs.
He was not the only dissatisfied Cuban, as Ramon Garvey would also defect five days prior. The coaches had presented them the chance of going to Atlanta and boxing or languishing in shame in Mexico. They chose to head to Tijuana where they stumbled across each other before crossing the border together. Casamayor, despite stepped up surveillance due to Garvey, just walked out of camp to see his friend. He went to that friend’s home and was then sent on a bus to Tijuana. Casamayor indicated he had planned to defect in Atlanta but chose to make his move when he realised he may not even get to go. In his first interview with American press, Casamayor stated he “would rather die than box for Fidel Castro.”
Casamayor was an unbelievable amateur. By 21, he was an Olympic champion and probably could have expected to at least challenge for two more Olympic medals and World Championships. He’d been a great junior, becoming the junior world champion in 1989. He was very impressive at the Olympics, defeating Wayne McCullough in the final and breaking three bones in his face after stopping opponents in both the semi and quarter finals. As he tells it, even then he was disliked by the government and only got to the Olympics due to an injury to his teammate, Enrique Carrion the 1989 World Champion. Casamayor would only win silver in the 1993 World Championships, losing to Alexander Hristov.
His next World Championship experience was a painful one in 1995. He lost in the first round to Raimkul Malachbekov who became a double World Champion. The poor results can be explained by Casamayor being disillusioned with life at home. Casamayor no longer enjoyed fighting for Cuba but wanted to be a professional champion. Arnaldo Mesa was his replacement in the 1996 Olympics. He beat Malachebkov on his way to winning a silver, showing just how good the Cubans were. His amateur record finished at an incredible 363-30.
He was from a poor family, but his athletic gifts gave him a way out. At six he begun boxing and Casamayor was sent to a special sports academy at seven having grown up in Guantanamo. At 10, he attracted the attention of boxing coaches who offered him a scholarship. He won local and regional titles before winning a national amateur title. If he was not boxing, Casamayor would likely be selling mangoes on the street.
The first talk of discontent came when only receiving a bicycle as a reward for his Olympic gold medal. He believed it was punishment for refusing to join the Communist Youth League. He would sell the bicycle in order to buy a pig for his family, with his Dad Reymundo being a hog farmer. Casamayor never got to say goodbye to his daughter, something he called “the worst part.” He had also not let his Mother know. She first found out when a soldier barged his way into the home and took his Olympic medal. He left with line “your son sold himself for a Coca-Cola.” She would not know whether she would ever see her son again. Casamayor later described it as “how my life has always been. Hard luck, pain, loss, these are my friends. This is what I work with.”
After being release at a Californian immigration center, it was Bob Arum who signed both Casamayor and Garbey. He believed Garbey was the main attraction and described Casamayor as the “little fish hanging on.” The pair were kept in a hotel in Las Vegas. Garbey found the luster of women and alcohol far too difficult to resist. It was a common tale for the Cuban boxers as they no longer wanted to train, Jorge Luis Gonzalez perhaps was the most famous example. Diosbelis Hurtado and Luis DeCubas, founder of Team Freedom which was an expat Cuban professional team, who the fighters had spoke to in Mexico believed Arum had all but kidnapped them and pressured them into signing contracts they did not understand. DeCubas booked the pair flights out to Miami where they would join his team. Dino Duva would be promoting them. Arum still harbors ill will over the situation.
Even his nickname comes with a story. El Cepillo has usually been translated as the brush. Nothing to do with his bristly hair, it was actually attributed to his uppercuts. The punches scrape the lips and noses, often only barely brushing his opponents but causing them to go down. The other explanation comes from an interview with Casamayor, where he states that he heard a crazy amount of stories about the origin of his own nickname. He gives the translation of 'the butterfly'. I could not find this translation, but the Latin for butterfly is papillo, which is similar. He credits his uncle who gave it to him, aged seven, for his smoothness when driving trucks. Smooth sums Casamayor up. His boxing was mesmerizing at times. Casamayor even recalled when he received an award for penmanship as a boy.
It says a lot when there is a suggestion that Floyd Mayweather ducked an opponent. These assertions tend to either be false or make sense given the low reward-high risk aspect. Casamayor was probably somewhere in between the two. Fans would be well within their rights to suggest Casamayor did not legitimately lose until he was 36 and past his prime. He was supremely talented and for years competed against some of the best super featherweight and lightweight talent in the world. He did not rush like many of the great amateurs of today, fighting for his first world title aged 28 following 17 victories. He beat Antonio Hernandez for the interim belt and Jong-kwon Baek for the real thing.
Against fellow unbeaten champion, Brazilian knockout artist Acelino Freitas, Casamayor would come out with his first official loss. You probably cannot call it a robbery, but the outcome is certainly disputed. Freitas takes early rounds with aggression and body shots. Casamayor hardly takes any clean shots, but loses points for hurting on the break and a knockdown. From the middle of the fight he takes over becoming the aggressor looking at times capable of stopping Freitas. Max Kellerman explained after the fight “Casamayor proved he is the best in the division despite losing a decision.”
At short notice he underperformed against Nate Campbell, perhaps himself being lucky. The first two of his trilogy with Diego Corrales saw them split results. He stopped him first time out in six rounds due to cuts in his mouth. It was an exciting war, so far from the defensive master classes often criticized as boring that Cuban boxers have an undeserved reputation for. The second was a controversial split decision. Casamayor was again so often the aggressor striking with power and precision, especially in the second half of the fight. It was another decision that Casamayor probably should have earned and you ended the fight believing Casamayor was the better boxer.
Diego Corrales is forever linked with Jose Luis Castillo, Casamayor is perhaps not recalled in the same category as those, but he should be. He took on Castillo for The Ring lightweight title, after Floyd Mayweather had left the division. Casamayor chose to show dominance early with precise counterpunching. In this big fight, Castillo would take over in the second half and with his power punching he took a controversial split decision. It was in another bout where Casamayor could feel aggrieved to come up on the wrong side of a decision. Next time out he would once again find himself receiving a bit of a gift against Almazbek Raiymkulov when being given a draw. Turning 34, Casamayor was seen as a fighter on a decline. It was 16 months before Casamayor would take on a name opponent in the third of his trilogy with Corrales. Against an unmotivated Corrales, deep into personal battles that would play a role in his upcoming death, Casamayor won a decision for the WBC and Ring Lightweight titles.
Casamayor was stripped by the WBC as he signed to fight a rematch with Freitas to unify with the WBO title. When a lawsuit was threatened they named him interim champion. He beat Jose Armando Santa Cruz by a truly awful decision, but when he signed a contract to fight Michael Katsidis for the interim WBO title he was stripped of the WBC belt again. Against the unbeaten Aussie, seen as the future of the division, Casamayor rolled back the years. He dropped Katsidis twice, got up off the canvas and delivered a truly stunning boxing lesson as the underdog. It really was the ultimate performance from the veteran version of Casamayor. He would then go onto face Juan Manuel Marquez, losing by stoppage.
Throughout the fight Casamayor enjoyed great success with superb counters and was judged harshly on the cards at the time of the stoppage. The final acts of his career were losing to Robert Guerrero who he would put on the canvas for the first time and then being stopped by Timothy Bradley.
Casamayor was typically slick as many Cuban amateurs are. Just to add to the difficulty in figuring out Casamayor was that he was a southpaw. His speed usually stood out, both foot and hand. Casamayor was very hard to hit for the majority of his career with a great change of angles, especially once he worked a fighter out. He was small but when he needed to, he could engage in battle. Dan Goossen called him a “natural badass.” His power was probably underrated with his best shot being a vicious left uppercut. He adapted to an extent that most Cubans boxers struggled to at the time. You could point to the fact he probably had a class edge on some of them, but Roger Bloodworth has told of how many Cuban boxers found themselves to be heroes in Calle Ocho, capital of the Little Havana section of Miami.
They did not have to be a champion. Casamayor chose to split time between Miami and Southern California where he trained with Dan Goossen. Casamayor spoke of a desire to follow his Olympic win with becoming a world champion, a desire that stuck with him as a professional. His defense and work on the inside improved immeasurably whilst he also became something of a dirty fighter willing to use whatever it took. Joe Goossen described it as diamond polishing with Casamayor doing 30 to 40 rounds of sparring.
Casamayor was one of the first Cuban boxers after the professional ban to really enjoy success in the ranks. The story goes so much deeper than that! Casamayor was exploited for his talents by a system where special individuals are not meant to stand out. Casamayor wanted to be special and given where he came from who can blame him. Little of his earnings remain and his Olympic medal probably sits in a museum in Cuba. Casamayor may not have a lot to show for his career in some ways, but he has paid for the majority of his family, including his Mother to join him in the United States.
Underrated by many, Casamayor was the victim of questionable decisions, yet Casamayor was also the benefactor of some questionable decisions.
With Casamayor you have to look at the way he dominated world class boxers for periods. He was good enough to do that to some of the preeminent lower weight fighters of his time. His class is unquestionable. He proved that Cuban fighters could be successful as professionals. He led the way for Gamboa and Rigondeaux. Perhaps his legacy should be about something far greater than boxing. Casamayor believes himself and his family are now free. He chased his dream and made it happen. A true trailblazer.