On our first morning out in Havana, Ali dragged us straight to the Rafael Trejo boxing gym, one of her favorite places in the city. It is one of the oldest boxing gyms in Cuba. It’s outdoors, it’s intimate and it is where every great champion in the country has passed through and trained.
The popularity of the sport in Cuba is an example of the powerful and lasting influence of 1950’s American culture on contemporary Cuban culture. In the 1960’s, Fidel Castro had banned all professional sports from the island, but Cuban boxers kept rolling with the punches and the Rafael Trejo gym is always packed with a bunch of ripped dudes (a few gals, too).
We sat ringside while Zippy put on gloves and started throwing jabs. A tide of emotion overwhelmed me when I realized that for 60 CUC, an Olympic champion will literally sell the outfit off his back (rumor has it even that a lot of them even sold their medals). It is a fact that Cubans working outside of the tourism industry make about 20 CUC per month, and athletes are not an exception. However, without any money incentive, they trained harder in the ring than anywhere else I’d ever seen.