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Bill Dwyre

Defection was worth fighter's weight in tequila

September 13, 2008|Bill Dwyre

LAS VEGAS -- For Cuban boxer Joel Casamayor, coming to America was more happenstance than political. It was more about tequila than tactics.

Casamayor is 37 now, 12 years removed from the international intrigue that surrounded his defection two weeks before he was to box for his second gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

He has been a good pro, especially effective at 135 pounds. He has lived in Miami since his escape from Cuba, has won a couple of titles in the alphabet-soup world of prize fighting, and will carry a 36-3-1 record into tonight's matchup with popular Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez, who is 48-4-1. Because Marquez is 34, this is probably a boxing finale -- grand or otherwise -- for one or both.

So that makes the retelling of Casamayor's defection story somewhat more fitting.

It was two weeks before the start of the Atlanta Olympics. The Cuban boxing team, which had dominated the tournament in 1992 in Barcelona and had gotten a gold medal from Casamayor at 118 pounds, was training in Guadalajara.

By his own account, Casamayor was not a happy camper. For his gold in Barcelona, the Cuban government had given him a bicycle. He had been exposed enough to the rest of the world to know that Soviet gold medalists got cars and apartments and Americans filled the pocketbooks of their golden people and put them on Wheaties boxes and TV.

Casamayor sold his bicycle to buy a pig for his family.

So when things went badly at the Mexican training camp, the Cubans insisting he fight at 118 again, even though he was nowhere near that weight with two weeks to go, he feared being sent back to Cuba, his career over.

"I would be cleaning backyards," he says.

With no clue what to do, he went to the house of a friend, watched a telecast of the first fight between Macho Camacho and Roberto Duran and drank lots of tequila. That, of course, furthered his weight problem.

He returned late that night to Cuban camp and was met at the door by the head trainer, Alcides Saragusa, who marched him directly to the scale. He weighed 135 pounds and was, for all intents, a dead man in the eyes of Cuban sports officials.

"I laid in bed wide awake," Casamayor says. "I waited until everybody was asleep. I knew I couldn't go back to Cuba. Then I snuck out."

He was hidden by his friend from Guadalajara, and moved from home to home, deeper and deeper into the city, as Mexican police, not wanting this high-profile mess to attract big headlines in their country, pledged full cooperation with Cuba.

At the same time Casamayor disappeared, so did world champion Ramon Garbey, a light-heavyweight who many thought would become the next Teofilo Stevenson, a legendary Cuban Olympic star.

Casamayor found his way to Garbey, and Casamayor's Mexican friend got them both to the border at El Centro, where they declared their intentions to defect and were put in holding cells.

Enter Bob Arum, then as now an internationally known boxing promoter.

"There was a guy from the Dominican Republic," Arum recalls, "and he was telling me how this Garbey was the next great heavyweight, and I had heard a little about him. So I got a good immigration lawyer, got them out of San Diego and signed a contract with Garbey.

"I remember, there was a little guy who came with him in the deal. It was kind of like, you hook the big fish, and there was a little one, hanging on. So you keep them both."

The little fish was Casamayor who, along with Garbey, spent his first month in the United States, living unlike most defectors. He and Garbey lived in a suite in Bally's in Las Vegas.

Arum says Garbey, under contract with him and working out so Arum could get him in a fight, immediately found the lure of females and alcohol in his new environment too much.

"He went insane," Arum says.

Then, one day, Garbey and Casamayor went away.

"They were just gone," Arum says. "We went to the hotel and everything had been cleaned out. They just disappeared, and we were very concerned, for maybe a week or more."

Then, he found out that Garbey and the little fish, Casamayor, had been spirited off to Miami by a man named Luis DeCubas. Arum agrees that the fighters would be more comfortable in Miami but didn't agree that DeCubas could steal away a fighter he had under contract.

Lawsuits were filed, DeCubas eventually paid Arum for his trouble and life went on, Garbey fighting with mixed results for DeCubas and, according to Arum and Casamayor, never really straying from his choice of parties over training.

Arum has no time for Garbey, and refers to DeCubas, whose son of the same name now manages Casamayor, as a "scumbag" and a "wannabe promoter." But he says his impression of Casamayor is that he has turned out to be "a nice guy who has stayed on the straight and narrow well enough to have a good career."

Casamayor has gotten most of his family, but not all of it, out of Cuba. That includes paying for a successful boat run a year ago that brought his mother, brother and 16-year-old daughter to Miami.

Most likely, there is one prized possession he will never get back.

"I had a trophy case, with 200 trophies on the wall," Casamayor says. "They came into my home after I was gone and took one thing out. The gold medal. It is in a museum now."

He shakes his head, smiles wistfully, and adds one more word.

"Fidel," he says.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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FIGHT FACTS

Who: Joel Casamayor (36-3-1, 22 KOs) vs. Juan Manuel Marquez (48-4-1, 35 KOs).

When: Tonight, 6.

Where: Las Vegas.

TV: Pay-per-view.

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