Rafael Trejo Gym – Havana Cuba’s Boxing Haven
“What is One Million Dollars Compared to the Love of Eight Million Cubans? “
– Teofilo Stevenson, Three time Cuban Olympic gold medallist
The sound of Cuban music fills the air as you are walking along the stone streets of old Havana. Tucked in between old and crumbling apartment buildings is an easy to miss single small sign that marks the location of the famous Rafael Trejo Gym. Passing through the small lobby with handwritten schedules tacked to the wall you enter into a large open air courtyard that has been turned into an boxing arena. Built in to the sides of the existing apartment buildings are two sets of stands. In the center of the courtyard is the boxing ring along with a few punching bags. The plaster on the wall is crumbling and cracks run throughout the concrete floors. Just like everything in Cuba the arena is worn down. Looking up you see you are surrounded by homes. An older woman leans out her window hanging up her socks and underwear on drying lines. Just like everything in Cuba the arena is worn down and beautiful.
The Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym is the oldest boxing gym in Havana. It was named for a Cuban law school student who was killed leading protests against the Machado presidency in the 1930’s. In the past 50 years Cuba has won more Olympic Gold Medals in boxing than any other country in the world. This gym is a training home to many of those Olympic boxers and World Champions. The athletes that come to this gym train hard with their coach Nardo Mestre Flores. Flores is a Five time Cuban National Champion and an Olympic competitor.
At 10am the sun was already warming up the arena. With the combination of the humid air and the tough drills from coach Flores the boxers were already dripping in sweat. Completely unfazed by the heat and the sun they continued working on various technical and sparring skills.
Many of these fighters only have an hour or so to train a day. In 1961 Fidel Castro banned professional boxing in Cuba, and while some restrictions have recently been loosened, the country’s top boxers face a tough choice. They can either stay in the country and work and train and live a Cuban life. Or leave the country with the hopes of finding fame and fortune as a professional boxer. Most people stay in Cuba.
Boxing arrived in Cuba as a tourist attraction. A place where championship fights could take place between North American Boxers during the high tourist season. In 1909 Havana had its first professional fight. A few years later the government banned boxing due to the violence on the streets between blacks and whites. Boxing matches had to go behind closed doors. Like all “forbidden” things boxing grew popular throughout the island. For the lower classes, boxing meant a possible ticket out of poverty and for everyone else it was entertainment. In 1921 the Cuba government decided to give boxing another chance and legitimized boxing with the establishment of the National commission on boxing and Wrestling. The lift on the ban brought tourist dollars with these fights. Years later a national boxing academy was established to train talented athletes.
Cuba’s boxing reputation drew foreign boxers such as Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Jess Willard, Joe Lois, Joe Brown, and Sugar Ray Robinson. Cuba did not win an Olympic medal in boxing until after 1959 due to considerable resources being devoted to the development of athletes as a result of the Cuban revolution.
In 1961, the government banned professional boxing again. However, Cuba has built a reputation in amateur boxing. By the 1980s, Cuban boxers were dominant in all major international amateur competitions, including the Olympics. Throughout its Olympic history, Cuba won 37 gold medals (73 medals overall) in boxing. Cuba is the only country that has two three-time Olympic Champions Teofilo Stevenson and Félix Savón.
In 2013, Cuba broke a five-decade ban on professional boxing. Fighters could now compete with international semi-pro teams. In addition to receiving new salaries boxers could now make $500 to $2000 bonuses. Cubans current salaries are close to $20 a month. The best boxers, those who have won medals at major tournaments would be granted a lifetime stipends of up to $300 a month.
In 2016, thirty-six female boxers competed in Rio’s Summer Olympics. It was only the second time in Olympic history that women had competed in the sport. Twenty-five countries including boxing powerhouses such as the United States and Russia, were represented. Cuba was not there. Though the small island nation won six medals in boxing during the 2016 Games, the government bans women from competing in the sport.
Cuba has over 19,000 male boxers across the island but as a result of a ban woman are not allowed to compete in boxing events or training. Right now a group of woman boxers in Cuba are working hard to get government support to form Cuba’s first female boxing team and help dispel a decades-old belief once summed up by a former top coach: “Cuban women are meant to show the beauty of their face, not receive punches.” Officials have said they’re analyzing the proposal and carrying out medical studies to understand the impact of blows to a woman’s body and whether such action is “appropriate.”
While the gym is a training facility for Champion boxers, it is also a place where tourist can come for boxing lessons or just sit in and watch a live training take place. Who knows, you could be watching the next champion or the first woman boxer from Cuba to make the Olympics!
Gimnasio de Boxeo Rafael Trejo
Calle Cuba 815
Tel: 00537 862 0266