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Freedom Fighter

Cuban Exile Casamayor Nurtures Boxing Career in Valley

May 19, 2000|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Joel Casamayor paced in circles on the soiled red canvas, his shaved head and face barely visible through the headgear, his hands encased in green boxing gloves.

An assistant trainer readied a sparring partner in one corner of the ring that barely fits in the old Van Nuys storefront-turned-gymnasium.

It's only a few days before Casamayor's biggest professional bout since defecting from Cuba four years ago, a super featherweight clash with Korea's Jongkwon Baek for the undisputed World Boxing Assn. title, and the workout is supposed to be light.

"He's just going to go easy today," trainer Joe Goossen said of Casamayor. "We don't want any injuries at this point."

"Yeah, right," said another assistant. "Just watch."

Casamayor pulls no punches. And he doesn't back down either. It's not his makeup. It's not how he won an Olympic gold medal and a world championship. For him, it's full-speed ahead.

So he throws combinations and covers against the ropes and swiftly slips from trouble, his remarkable quickness and defensive skills on display until Casamayor calls it a day after five rounds.

"He's my star pupil because of his hunger for knowledge of the game, his hunger to get into shape and his hunger to win," Goossen said. "He's possessed right now.

"We're going to bring that [belt] home."

*

Casamayor can hardly wait to battle Baek on Sunday in Kansas City, Mo., in a fight he is dedicating to 6-year-old Cuban shipwreck Elian Gonzalez, the subject of an international custody dispute the last few months.

Gonzalez, of course, is better known in the U.S. than Casamayor, who is 20-0 with 12 knockouts and the interim WBA champion after a 12-round decision over Mexico's Antonio Hernandez last June.

But Casamayor, 28, wants much more than just a secondary belt. He is after the belt won in October by Baek (21-0-1, 18 KOs), who is making his second title defense. Casamayor believes he can get it.

"I've watched him on video and I think I have him figured out," Casamayor said. "He fights straight forward and that's good for me because I can counterpunch."

That's Casamayor's strongsuit. A 5-foot-6 left-hander with slick footwork, Casamayor fights from different angles, never giving an opponent an easy target. He has a lethal left uppercut and is quick to find and attack weaknesses.

Nine of his knockouts came in the first or second round, including in his pro debut against David Chamendiz in September 1996 in Miami. Chamendiz lasted 1 minute 34 seconds.

Casamayor had to work much harder in his last bout, defending his interim title with a 12-round decision over David Santos in November in Miami. It was only his fourth fight of 10 rounds or more.

Goossen is not concerned about Casamayor's conditioning and even less about his ability.

"He's blowing guys out of the gym right now," Goossen said.

*

The pretenders who have passed through the Goossen gym have far outnumbered the contenders, but Casamayor is among the handful of legitimate fighters to train there.

He started working two years ago with Goossen because there were too many distractions at home in Miami. Goossen molded former middleweight world champion Michael Nunn early in his career and now trains Lance Whitaker, the WBC Continental Americas heavyweight champion.

"We decided to send him out there because we felt he had to be with real professional trainers," said Miami-based Luis De Cubas, who manages Casamayor and several other former members of the powerful Cuban boxing team. "Joel has been a different fighter since he's been out there."

Casamayor splits time between Miami, where he has a wife and 8-month-old son, and Southern California. He rents an apartment near the Van Nuys gym and sometimes trains at a Goossen facility in Denver. His preparation to fight Baek started soon after the Santos bout.

"It's been hard work," Casamayor said. "But it's been like that for the two years I've been [training] here."

*

It took a gut-wrenching decision for Casamayor to get this far.

In July 1996, Casamayor was on top of the amateur boxing world as he trained with the Cuban team in Guadalajara.

He had a 380-30 record and was a favorite to win an Olympic gold medal in the featherweight division in Atlanta, four years after winning the bantamweight class at the Barcelona Games.

But Casamayor was increasingly at odds with Cuba's national team trainers after being suspended in 1994, allegedly for testing positive for a banned diuretic, a charge he denied. He also was under pressure to join the Communist Party and had heard rumors Cuban officials might not allow him to fight in Atlanta, fearing he would defect.

So he walked away from the Cuban compound in Guadalajara, leaving behind a 5-year-old daughter, a girlfriend and his parents in Guantanamo. No one, not even teammate Ramon Garbey, who bolted from Guadalajara a few days earlier, knew of Casamayor's plan.

"The worst part is I never got to say good-bye to anyone," Casamayor said. "I miss my daughter a lot."

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