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 Ba