Creating Kings of the Ring

By Janelle Clausen

Havana, Cuba – Aging sheet metal, rusting beams and aging walls protect the open-air Rafael Trejo boxing gym from the elements. The tarmac is torn, there are cracks in the concrete and the fences are aging with rust. The stands themselves, elevated behind two sides of the ring, are well trekked by tourists daily.

A variety of worn down boxing gloves lay on the first and second row of the stands, waiting to be used. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

But worn boxing gloves are lined up on the first row of stands, ready for use, and the lively red ropes command attention. A small group of potential boxers, wildly varied in age, color and origin, conversed among themselves like family with a goal of getting better.

The gym is tucked away. Only a small sign with its name points to it, and only a “small wall of champions” greets you upon entering. But this place is one that has helped Cuba forge Olympic champions ranging from three-time heavy weight champion Félix Savón to the legendary Teófilo Stevenson. It has even earned the attention of Floyd Mayweather Jr., who has won twelve world titles in boxing.

Consequently, the Rafael Trejo boxing gym has quite some weight to it.

“This is the most important gym,” said Nardo Mestre Flores, 64, a fair-muscled coach with a whistle hanging from his neck. “[But I’m] ashamed this is all we have to offer.”

Coach Nardo Mestre Flores, 64, demonstrates appropriate technique. Photo by Alexa Coveney.

And just how important is boxing itself? What started as a tourist attraction reserved for North American boxing became a nationwide spectacle aligned with revolutionary ideals. There are over 20,000 boxers on the island, nearly 500 coaches, and about 200 facilities, according to the Cuban Boxing Club website. It’s considered second place only to baseball.

Flores described this place as a rundown historical center. He said that, despite its role in keeping up a long Cuban boxing tradition, the government doesn’t give them money. “We need it,” he said, “and deserve it.”

The style the coaches like Flores try teaching here at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym is just as revolutionary as the man it’s named after. Rafael Trejo Gonzalez led the 1930s university student protests against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, whose regime saw economic turmoil, political instability and suppression. Trejo was murdered for it.

Photo by Rick Ricioppo.

Photo by Rick Ricioppo.

Today, you can find all sorts of people here: children young as five, both genders, and the occasional photographer from Colorado. “This school is free. That’s why the results are so good,” Flores explained, noting that it allows the most driven people to come and train here.

To Cubans like Flores, boxing is almost a revolutionary art. He joked that they have had coordination since they were in the womb of their mothers. Children take in the music whenever the mothers went to parties—in a way, learning to dance before  they ever emerged.

“The children of other countries are cold,” he said, shivering and withdrawing to demonstrate, “while our children are out in the streets and dancing.”

Flores holds up an article written about him in a French magazine. Photo by Janelle Clausen.

“[We’re] defending what’s ours,” he added. “We break the chains so we can be free.”

And Flores certainly broke his chains. He began around 18 years old in the 48-kilogram category, but advanced well. His Olympic titles and nine years on the Cuban National Boxing team show it. A French magazine appropriately profiled him as “The Black Prince of the Ring.

It has yet to be seen if these others will break their chains as well.


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