Héctor Vinent: The ‘where’ and ‘why’ of Cuba’s champion

At first glance, you wouldn’t want to meet this guy in a dark alleyway, either in Istanbul, Turkey, or Santiago de Cuba.

The stern-looking figure almost breaking the lens with a glare taken straight from centre-ring is wearing Adidas and has a small scar above his eye. Well, small for somebody of his chosen expertise – not profession, I should emphasise. The damaged skin, healed in haste, doesn’t quite tell the story of hundreds of fights, or the surgery on his retina that crushed honest dreams of making history. But it has healed, and so has he.

Taking one look through the limited social media of this ex-Cuban great provides you with two, opposing characters. The sportswear adorned in this edgy, black-and-white image could be taken from the set of a gritty, urban film set in the outskirts of Paris. It makes a change from the colourful shirts and wedding guest attire, from the smiling man stood on the beach, enjoying time with his family and his thoughts.

The days of adoration in Havana are long gone. The question isn’t, ‘Who is Héctor Vinent?’ It’s more a combination or ‘Where? And why?’

A double-Olympic gold medallist at the young age of 24, Vinent was named Ring Magazine’s 5thgreatest Olympic boxer. But, although tipped to fight for his third – and then eventually fourth – gold medal, he instead disappeared from competition, sinking into the black hole that often consumes Cuban amateurs, swept away like lost luggage, unclaimed whilst bustling passengers continued about their business.

After being tracked down by Boxing Social, Vinent, now based in Istanbul after being permitted to leave Cuba with the government’s blessing, was refreshingly honest when discussing the end of his career – and more pertinently, the crushing end to his Olympic vision: “The injury I suffered was a retinal detachment. After my operation, I thought about returning to the gym after several consultations, but it was concluded that I could not continue fighting. I have never officially retired. The injury actually happened at the Atlanta Olympic games during my second fight, but I kept fighting myself with that injury until 2000. They did a check on my eyesight, and it came out that I had this detachment.

“I told my coach to let me compete in the Sydney Olympics (2000), but they left me behind,” Vinent explained. “I felt quite sad because I was moving away from what I set out to win – my four Olympic golds. Today, every time I remember that I get upset, even now. After they gave me the news that I could not train or compete, that news hurt me, but I did not fall into a depression. Instead, I quickly acted and began to study and train children in a gym in Havana, until I could heal those wounds. It was quite difficult to heal because every time I saw my friends competing on television, I just cried in silence.”

It’s tricky to imagine this man – who even now fills his t-shirt with broad shoulders and definition – weeping at the confirmation of a broken sporting dream. After all, there wasn’t much money involved, right? But boxing in Castro’s Cuba wasn’t binary, and Vinent’s story, and his subsequent reinvention in Turkey, is layered. Through conversation, he was happy to peel a few of those layers back, including early life in one of Cuba’s most colourful, lively cities.

“I was born and raised in Santiago de Cuba,” Vinent tells Boxing Social. “The first memories of my childhood are of many children playing together; we used to go to the river and to the swimming pools, we bathed in the downpours, and we played hide and seek until I started boxing. I started boxing at the age of 13. I had a bit of stage fright and, when I saw children and young people training and sweating, it made me more nervous. But you quickly adapt to that world of boxing.

“I have a humble family without any money, but I never thought I would be in boxing for money, things just gradually happened. I just always thought of winning gold medals; I never thought of being a rich man. I always dreamed and thought of medals. For winning a medal they [the Cuban government] would give me some material gifts, for example, a house or a car.

“But even then, it was a very difficult trip, my first visit to the gym. I was recruited for a sports school, then I was recruited for the National Youth pre-selection of Cuba where I won National and International titles. I was World Youth champion and I was recruited for the national team. There, the task was very hard because I came across boxers that I saw on television. That’s when I started chasing my goals to become just like them. I’m talking about boxers like Félix Savón, Ángel Espinoza, Oreste Solano, Arnaldo Mesa, Enrique Carrión, Juan Carlos Lemus, and many more. And some treated me well, but others were suspicious and weren’t welcoming.”

Of the Cuban amateur stars, one stands alone: one of only three triple-Olympic gold medallists, heavyweight star Félix Savón.

Savón, who was also a consecutive, six-time World Amateur gold medallist, was a fighter shrouded in mystery and was reportedly once offered seven-figures to defect from Fidel Castro’s Cuba permanently to square off against then-ferocious American world champion, Mike Tyson.

Savón remained though, resolutely cementing his status as a Cuban hero, and for a young Vinent he was the definition of true leadership: “He was the one who led the warm-up, everything, he was a very disciplined boxer, he had no absences from training, and he was the first one there for everything. You would have to describe him as a shooting star because he was unique in the world of amateur boxing and very brave.

“Félix Savón really was the El Capitan of the team. Though, I learned from all of the good things these guys showed me in the ring and on the streets, and currently I am in contact with all those fighters who are [still] alive; they live in Cuba and in other countries. It wasn’t because they were nervous nor worried [that they made those early days difficult]; later I understood why they did it, it is a litmus test you must pass. If you can hold on, you are accepted, but if you don’t, you must leave the national team.”

The 48-year-old didn’t just find acceptance amongst the Cuban greats of his generation – he thrived. The Santiago de Cuba-native began winning tournaments while Cuba, and the rest of the amateur boxing public, began taking notice. In 1990, at just 17, he captured the gold at the World Juniors, and, in 1992, he would couple the Cuban National title with his first appearance at the sport’s greatest amateur spectacle, the Olympic games. And so, it was in Barcelona, Spain, 1992, that Héctor Vinent took boxing by storm.

He faced five different opponents and conceded just 13 points during the whole competition, securing the gold medal with a victory in cruise-control opposite his former foe, Canada’s Marc Leduc (Vinent would win 11-1 using AIBA’s old targeted, point-scoring system).

“I had never been to an Olympic Games,” the light-welterweight podium-topper recalled. “I was impressed to see the diversity of the people from all over the world without racial differences and sharing joy in their athletes. I was impressed to see an athlete who won a bronze medal and then cried like a child. In my experience, I just saw normal competition because I did not know that it had so much meaning to win an Olympic gold medal. Soon, I understood the value of that Olympic medal and I felt quite good because I beat a Canadian in the final who had beaten me two years before.”

But he would double the weight around his neck and stretch the target on his back, toppling his opposition and retaining his Olympic title in Atlanta four years later: “For me, [Barcelona 1992] was the best Olympic games in history. I won two consecutive Olympic golds; Barcelona, I was 20-years old, and in Atlanta I was just 24. I was young and I was a prospect, fancied to win four Olympic medals. That fame grew and my name resounded on radio and television nationwide; they greeted me in the streets, they asked me for autographs. [How you react to that] depends on your personality and intelligence because fame can raise you as high as possible, but it can also lower you as low as you can be.

“For me, it was positive because many doors were opened for me; friends, women, old friends in Cuba and elsewhere, all across different countries. I never imagined taking that leap so fast [towards national fame], things were just gradually taking place. Nor did I look for that record of four Olympic golds, systematic training was marking my next steps and that was all I focused on: improving. Nowadays, sometimes these things bring back the bad memories of not being able to meet my goals. But for my friends and family, I am very proud to have won two Olympic gold medals.”

I’d recently read a small-but-telling excerpt of Brin-Jonathan Butler’s book ‘The Domino Diaries’ where he described training under the tutelage of Vinent in the legendary Cuban facility, Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym. Far removed from his own, patriotic Olympic triumphs, the poor trainer looked shocked when he caught the eye of a young would-be defector, lingering in the shadows, endangering the gym’s reputation.

The young boy, dressed in Nike cap and knock-off designer clothes, was Guillermo Rigondeaux, himself then a two-time Olympic gold medallist and at large. He was a disgraced, failed escapee of Castro’s communist Cuba, banished indefinitely from boxing, and Vinent knew what it meant for the gym having this fallen hero on their premises.

“Anyone in sports can no longer be seen talking to him. We could lose our jobs. You can talk to him,” the author was told bluntly.

Butler revealed what ‘The Jackal’ had done with his own medals: “He [Rigondeaux] sighed. ‘Oh, you know, I melted down both my gold medals into my mouth’. I didn’t know where to go from that statement.” Well, it was a far cry from seeing them dangling over the fireplace. In reading that segment, I pondered what could have been the potential, alternate future of Vinent, escaping Santiago de Cuba on the promise of a better life, just as Rigondeaux eventually managed, winning multiple professional world titles and winning millions of dollars in the ring. Sacrificing reputation for riches isn’t easy to swallow, but he revealed there were offers on the table.

“There were many offers [to turn professional] from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the United States, Puerto Rico and other countries that I do not remember. Those offers are made by approaching you as a friend; then, after they gain your confidence and trust, they tell you. They also invite you to a restaurant or cafeteria, to their room if they are in the same hotel or they send a friend to ask you if you will think about it. The problem is that since I was a child, they told me that professional boxing is bad, that they do not take care of you, that they steal your money and that you end up in poverty.

“In the end, I could never fight professionally, and I ended up in poverty in the amateurs anyway,” Vinent solemnly concluded.

Now, he can be found training fighters in Istanbul. Boxing, MMA and anything in between; he has grown to love the European nation despite missing home. Vinent remains Cuban through-and-through; he is proud, though maybe disillusioned with what could have been.

You get the sense he isn’t angry at losing out on the riches afforded to countrymen Erislandy Lara or Luis Ortiz when they headline huge events; it is the Olympics that still throws sharp, stiff jabs, reminding him that history narrowly emerged victorious by contentious decision. Wins over soon-to-be professional champions such as Shane Mosley, Fernando Vargas and David Diaz are a testament to Vinent’s boxing ability, and leave a lingering ‘What if?’ But he’s in Istanbul, Turkey now. And what’s done is done.

“Life is normal, training in the morning, afternoon and evening. And they respect my work here because since they’ve found out that I was working in Istanbul, many coaches have asked me for my services, and they have brought me athletes to train. They also invite me to amateur boxing competition and professional boxing events. My advice to aspiring young boxers would be, first: discipline, daily training and a lot of concentration in training. You must be brave, enforce positive thinking and visualise all that you want in your career as a boxer. I learned about all of boxing, and I would like to teach people everything I learned. My goal now is to continue working with boxers and within boxing wherever they need me; in Cuba, Turkey, Spain, wherever I want.”

Wherever he wants. There aren’t many from Cuba’s beautiful, complex boxing academies that can boast the world as their oyster. But Héctor Vinent can – and despite scraping by financially and fizzling out of the public eye, that means more than leaving the love of his country behind.