There are rumours swirling on Trip Advisor that a “champion boxer from the Sydney Olympics” has been hanging around the streets of Cienfuegos, Cuba, interfering in the hospitality sector as a clever side hustle.
He’d block the path of tourists en-route to restaurants of their own choosing – good ones, recommended by friends or websites – and convince them that his restaurant (the one he was representing, at least) was special.
It was a trick, the reviews stated, and one that had been played on repeat. Gold medals don’t mean much in a country that forbids professional sport. Yet slipping and sliding remains the USP of Castro’s boxing elite. Art imitates life.
“We googled the boxers from the Sydney Olympics, and he didn’t look like any of them,” the review continues. Maybe even that was a part of his act. Those fighters left in Cuba, regardless of their achievements as amateurs, are often toiling, draped in the riches of loyalty alone, and paid in handshakes or respectful eye contact.
Thank you for not turning your back. Few defect, electing to sacrifice their sense of nationality, their idea of home, in search of what they deserve. But for the boxers left behind, often this is life.
In Cienfuegos, the greatest fighter from Cuba’s cleanest city is just an unspoken memory. Robeisy Ramirez (9-1, 5KOs) left his native country in 2018 with the help of Jo Hastings, a Tampa, Florida-based chef, and now, when speaking to Boxing Social, he seems happier than ever.
Ahead of his excellent fight opposite unbeaten contender Abraham Nova, acting as chief support for Top Rank’s light-heavyweight unification fight between Artur Beterbiev and Joe Smith Jnr, Ramirez oozes confidence and class.
“I’ve asked the same question, ‘Why the fight hasn’t perhaps been promoted more aggressively?’ Because it’s certainly, in my opinion, a very important fight. This is important because I understand that the winner is pretty much guaranteed an opportunity for a world championship or least a title eliminator.
“So, whoever wins the fight is really knocking on the door of a world championship opportunity. But I’m really feeling confident in predicting that there’s a possibility it might not go beyond eight rounds and that I will soundly defeat him.”
Ramirez, previously riled on Twitter by comments from his opponent, continued: “The better the fighter, the better the opposition, the better Robeisy comes out. And the better my results, [I mean] you can see my progression. How I look, how I feel, and how I’m performing in the ring is a result of those changes that we’ve made.
“He said a specific comment about me being obsessed with the gold medals, some nonsense or crazy [talk] that I was hearing from him. ‘The gold medals didn’t mean anything; he lost one of the gold medals when he lost his pro debut, and he will lose another at my hands,’ that’s what Nova said. I don’t consider myself a talker; I’m not into the whole social media trash talking – when I do, it is warranted. It is merited.”
The gold medals meant something all right; they meant $30,000 in cash – the handsome sum at which Ramirez, now 28, reportedly sold them. His run throughout the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic games is frankly ridiculous.
He overcame Andrew Selby, Michael Conlan and Tugstsogt Nyambayar as an 18-year-old Cuban sensation, and then bettered that achievement at just 22, toppling Murodjon Akhmadaliev and Shakur Stevenson, now both supreme champions at their respective weights.
Yet the World Amateur Championships somehow escaped him, with Andy Cruz selected in his place, despite Ramirez beating his countrymen that same year.
“Those two Olympic gold medals created the expectation of what level I need to achieve in the pro ranks. They were a result of a specific stage of my life, and yes, I reached a very elevated level, but it is entirely different [now]. There are five fights in 10 or so days in the Olympics. Preparation is different.
“The idea now is really to retune, refocus my mind and my body for new levels as a professional. I have left that stage behind, and I do not compare one to the other. The Olympic stage has nothing to do with what I expect to achieve in the pro ranks, which is, of course, greatness as well.”
He looked set for greatness after news reports of his defection spread like wildfire, and after landing in Mexico, and then in the United States, Ramirez signed with powerhouse promotional company, Top Rank.
Bob Arum compared his signing to that of Vasiliy Lomachenko (by way of their competing amateur trophy cabinet, of course), and things seemed extremely promising. Build the story, the fighter doesn’t need building.
Many will recall watching Ramirez’s debut, opposite Adan Gonzalez, unfancied-but-game travelling opponent placed against supernatural skill, the Cuban magician. It didn’t work out as planned. In one of the year’s biggest betting upsets, Gonzalez floored Ramirez early, and emerged with an enormous split-decision victory.
Had it really all been for nothing? Hiding in Mexican towns, avoiding the authorities and the rampant cartels who were waging war just a few streets away, Ramirez had sacrificed everything. Yet, here he was, eventually in America, but on his back and left with both hands draped by his sides, empty vessels that had failed their engineer.
“The impact of that defeat, of what happened that first fight was to realise that I needed to make changes and needed to make the right decisions in regard to my career,” explains the man who’d once boasted an amateur record of 420 wins and just 30 defeats.
“First and foremost, I realised I needed to change corners and that’s how I encountered Ismael Salas. As a result of that decision of joining forces with Salas, I really feel that I have learned the pro style of boxing; then, I was better able to hone my skills. As a result of that change, I feel that has improved the trust that my promoter, Top Rank, has in me now.”
Gonzalez had enjoyed his moment in the sun, and just 11 months later would suffer a comprehensive, unanimous defeat at the hands of a renewed Cuban champion. They couldn’t let El Tren roll on without revisiting its first unsuccessful passenger stop. A misfire, no doubt.
And it has been plain sailing since then, amassing a total of nine victories on the spin and recently showcasing his ability in Glasgow, Scotland, when demolishing a normally solid Eric Donovan. Ramirez was particularly fluid that night, putting his shots together with terrific aplomb, displaying a ruthlessness that abandons top Cuban amateurs post-transition. It was his defining moment.
Thinking back to his time in Cienfuegos, ‘Rocky,’ as he’s affectionately known by those who helped him escape Cuba back in 2018, remembers the relentless hard work of his parents, and describes his upbringing as “middle class.” But Cuban middle class, at that. On his face, he wears a large smile separating tiny scars and blemishes, recalling those early days as a child with a dream that would twist and turn, and take difficult shape.
“My parents always worked and all I can say is at least we had food, and there was always food on the table and that made us happy. I decided to invest most of my time in every single sport available, whether that be soccer, baseball, karate, track and field. I did it all and I was always hanging out at the beach because my town is a beach town.
“I’d spend my time, my afternoons on the water whenever I could. Me and my sister lived in what I would describe as a relative tranquillity, despite the very well-known hardships of the dictatorship in Cuba. Hunger, health crisis and all these things were almost a mystery to me.
“I lived a happy childhood. I still talk to my friends, the same friends that I came up with and that support me. Since five-years old, I still talk to these guys. I started boxing about 20 years ago when I was like eight-years old, and the truth is, it was like a get out of school card for me. That was my get out of school card – look where boxing has taken me.”
It has taken him all over the world: Germany, Mexico, USA, Scotland, to name just a few. But it hasn’t yet given him what he deserves. Until the big championships arrive – the ones he doesn’t have to sell on a whim for some extra living allowance – he hasn’t quite justified his defection or his decision.
Ramirez remains one of the most talented amateurs of our generation, and he is about to put a stamp on his professional career.
Back in Cienfuegos, while the “champion boxer from the Sydney Olympics” spends his time harrying confused tourists into back-alley restaurants for tiny sums after telling them stories of the ‘good old days,’ the locals will fondly remember Robeisy Ramirez, though they may not scream his name from the rooftops, they know he was one of the greatest.
They’ll wonder what he’s doing, how he’s getting on, if he’ll ever come back to Cuba. But this – unlike the art of culinary deception being worked in the opening paragraphs – is no trick. He has escaped; he is hungry to make something of himself. Because pats on the back don’t pay the bills, and even legacy can gather dust under the cover of imposed darkness…
“As a boxer, I think what people will remember the most is what I consider a trademark, which is my happiness. I’m always smiling. Sometimes I’ll even stick my tongue out. It is not out of disrespect. It is just out of a sheer enjoyment of the moment.
“I know it’s a dangerous sport but I’m enjoying it. That’s why I smile, and the better things go, the happier I’ll be. Of all the things I’ve done, of all that I’ve accomplished as a fighter in 20 or 30 years, they should remember that I was smiling. And that I was a good son, brother, and the best father I could be.”