MBA student Eric Muhlberger describes fulfilling one of his life dreams of boxing in Cuba
Ever since I started boxing in 2012, I had known that Cuba has a rich and proud history of boxing prowess. Over the past winter, I traveled to Cuba with a handful of classmates from the Kellogg School of Management and visiting a boxing gym was #1 on my “must do” list. Before leaving the US, I researched on blogs and websites, coming up with a gym named Rafael Trejo as the best place to seek out.
Remember that name – we’ll come back to it. Being my typical self, I didn’t write it down and I found myself in Cuba without the gym name, internet, or a post-5th grade level of education in Spanish. One day as we explored Old Havana, we spotted a man with boxing gloves, dressed as though he’d just left a gym. We approached him and he said that he trained at a gym called Kid Chocolate. When we arrived, we were met with a locked gate and a wave of disappointment.
On our last day in Havana, we returned to the gym to attempt to gain access once again. Once again, the main door was locked. We navigated our way around the block and finally found a security guard who let us in but said there was nothing going on. Just as she said, the sprawling gym was completely empty. We asked her in desperation if there were any other boxing gyms in the city. Shrugging, she mentioned Rafael Trejo. Bingo!
We set out immediately to find the gym. Now in the middle of the afternoon, we arrived and were greeted by a blind man sitting on a stool who told us that the gym had closed for the day. We went ahead and knocked anyways, to no avail. At that moment two men approached us and reiterated that it had just closed and people were done working out. Dejected, we asked if they usually trained there and they said that they had just finished. Confused as to why we cared so much, one of the pair asked what we were doing there. Through a fluent in Spanish friend, I told him that I had been boxing for years and wanted to visit a gym while in the country. The unnamed boxer said that he usually trained groups in a town square nearby. Asking if he’d be willing to train me by myself, we quickly agreed on a price and set off for the square. As his friend, who we found out to be a national title holder fighting as a heavyweight, peeled off, we set up shop near the harbour under a tree, cobblestones under foot.
I had half packed for a training session, bringing the essentials of headwraps and a training top. With nowhere to change into my shorts, I decided to spare his time and train in my jeans. Over the next 45 minutes we worked through a typical boxing workout: light cardio, stretching, shadow boxing, 25 minutes over 1 continuous round on focus mitts, and ending in jumping rope.
“It was an incredible opportunity. I ended the session grateful, sweaty, and having earned the distinction of being “much better than the other tourists that try to box”.
My new friend was a well-trained boxing instructor and put me through my paces. As we worked through the session, tourists passed by to take pictures of the happenings. It was an incredible opportunity. I ended the session grateful, sweaty, and having earned the distinction of being “much better than the other tourists that try to box”. While sad I couldn’t be a fly on the wall inside the gym, I loved every second of being able to work with a veteran in one of the meccas of boxing.
Boxing has a long and storied history in Cuba, with the sport being introduced to the island in the late 19th century. The first boxing club in Cuba was founded in Havana in 1910, and the sport quickly gained popularity among the country’s working-class population.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Cuban boxers began to gain international recognition, with fighters like Kid Chocolate and Benny Leonard becoming household names in the United States. Cuban boxers also competed in the Olympics for the first time in 1924, with Enrique Estevez winning a bronze medal in the bantamweight division.
During the 1950s, Cuban boxers continued to excel on the international stage, with fighters like Ultiminio Ramos and Jose Napoles winning world championships. However, the sport was disrupted by the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which led to the nationalization of sports and the establishment of a socialist government.
Under the new regime, boxing became a top priority, with the government investing heavily in the sport and establishing a system of government-run training centers. This led to a golden age of Cuban boxing in the 1970s and 1980s, with fighters like Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon winning multiple Olympic gold medals.
Today, boxing remains a popular sport in Cuba, with the country producing a steady stream of talented fighters who compete at the highest levels of the sport. Despite political tensions between the US and Cuba, the two countries have a long-standing boxing rivalry, with Cuban fighters often competing against American fighters in high-profile bouts.