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A A chain-link fence painted in a garish green guards the house of the people’s hero. In the overgrown front yard a makeshift punching bag made of car tires hangs from an old mamey tree. The front door opens with a squeak, one step, and you’re standing right in the middle of the living room. With audible effort an old fan tries to force hot air through the small room, but its volume is not proportional to its performance. It’s the host who provides the far more massive draft as he thrusts his 6’4” body into the room. Even now, 16 years after his third and final Olympic victory, Félix Savón, a man of elemental force, enters no space unnoticed. From 1992 to 2000 Savón was the dominant power in the heavyweight division: three gold medals, more than any other boxer in Olympic history. Savón manhandled his opponents with unbridled strength. He was the twelve-cylinder in the kingdom of the rings. An athlete out of the Cuban boxing textbook. Today the 47-year-old no longer boxes. He moves almost in slow motion, whispering more than he speaks. The creaking fan in the house on the outskirts of Havana swallows Savón’s gentle words. We change rooms. In the small room next door it’s quieter. Félix Savón sinks his huge body into a deep chair. Behind, above, next to and in front of him: trophies, certificates, medals – evidence of his life as a boxer, his life as a political symbol. In 28 photos in this room, he says, he can be seen with Fidel Castro. “And I still have several more.” Félix Savón was Fidel’s fist. When the athlete won the Olympic gold for the first time on August 12, 1992, he dedicated the medal to his boss, whose birthday was the following day. Boxing was the cracking straight-arm punch that “El líder maximo” chose after the revolution in the late 1950s to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist idea to the world. Starting in 1968, little Cuba with its mere eleven million inhabitants collected a legendary 67 boxing medals at the Olympics, including 34 gold. No nation found itself even close to coming within striking distance. The self-image of Cuba emerged over decades between the taut ropes of a boxing ring. The life of national hero Félix Savón can be seen as an example. Meanwhile, from the chair in his trophy room, the latter glances at a poster that shows him laughing on a balcony. “Cuba – Land of Champions,” it reads. In 1961, Castro banned the professional sport from the island, denying his boxers the path to the business’ bulging suitcases of money. Millions of training hours and countless gallons of sweat for a grand goal, every four years: The Olympics. “Do not fight for money! Fight for Cuba! Do not fight for glory! Fight for pride!” That was the maxim of El líder maximo. And Savón was his best ambassador. Once, when the famous American boxing promoter Don King offered the Cuban heavyweight ten million US dollars for a professional fight outside his home country, Savón said: “What does ten million get me when I know eleven million are behind me?” Today when he’s on the street in Havana, it gets turbulent. “People go crazy when they see me.” It’s palpable how grateful Félix Savón is that he was allowed to take this route. As a young boy of humble stock in a small village in the Guantánamo Province in eastern Cuba, he sent his sisters ahead if there was fighting in the streets to deal with. But when the government scouts later asked who wanted to box, it was “The Squid”—as Savón was called because of the enormous range of his arms—who signed up. The rest is Cuban boxing history. The national selection system whisked Savón to the top, which in Cuban terms is a three-bedroom house, a large TV and a small Renault in front of the door. “Fidel gave that to me.” Savón says he wants for nothing. A few kilometers toward the center of the Cuban capital Alberto González stands in front of a boxing ring and says, “Cuba is so poor. It lacks so much. But we have boxing. That’s what I live for.” González, 54, was a Cuban boxing champion. Today he coaches youth at the famous Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym. In addition to González, five former champions, including Olympic victors, pass on their knowledge in a bleak ramshackle building under a teetering corrugated iron roof. Every day several training sessions are held between the old spectator stands of the “Gimnasio” – a couple of minutes’ warmup, then into the duel. A little theory, lots of practice. Experts rave about the instinctive approach of Cubans to their popular sport, about the discipline and the physical advantages. Of the nearly 100,000 amateur athletes in Cuba today, almost 20,000 box. Three hours of sweating in a one-on-one. That’s the schedule for everyone. The door to the narrow street into the old town with the cathedral at the end, 100 meters from the sea, is always open. Boxing is the most masculine of all sports. Its epicenter is in Cuba. No country has produced as many worldclass boxers as this tiny island. Félix Savón, 47 Castro’s cracking straight-arm punch 78


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