La Joya, La Joya…”
The cries ring out, whether in the crowded, tiered seating of Havana’s amateur boxing venues, or now, in American venues while fans sip drinks and wave Cuban flags. This jewel is really starting to shine after dusting itself off from a torrid time in Nicaragua and Guatemala, and when talking to Boxing Social, unbeaten talent Yoelvis Gomez (5-0, 5KOs), recalled his younger days and a liking for sparkling stones.
“La Joya means a diamond, or a gem. And I’ve always loved gems since I was young. A couple of my friends always asked me [when I started boxing], ‘So what’s going to be your name when you become a boxer? Your name’s Yoelvis Gomez, what’s going to be a name that sounds good with this.’ We came up with La Joya because it’s something that I always liked and whenever I was younger in school, all the girls would always shout, ‘La Joya, La Joya,’ whenever I would be fighting. So, it’s something that always just stuck with me.”
Still riding the wave of excitement that soaked social media after his most recent outing, Gomez is a man on a mission. Yes, he’s knocked out the notoriously tough, often upset-worthy Clay Collard in just a round, but that isn’t the hill he wishes to plant his flag on. He wants to be out again – soon. Promoter Shane Shapiro, translating throughout, is high on Yoelvis Gomez, stating he’s the best fighter he’s had the pleasure of working with. And now, that he’s had the chance to showcase his ability to an American audience, who knows what the future holds?
“I felt really good; I was excited,” Gomez, aged 24, explains. “And the second I left the ring, I was just thinking about when the next time I’m going to get back inside the ring is. Obviously, I was very well prepared going into the fight. I trained really, really hard and I knew what everyone said about him [Collard], but that gave me the confidence that once I was in the ring with him, I knew what was about to happen. I’m very grateful. I’m thankful to my team for giving me the opportunity and I took advantage of it. Now, I’m just waiting for the next opportunity, and I really can’t wait for it, but I felt really, really excited to finally fight in America.”
Campaigning at light-middleweight, La Joya is primed for swimming with sharks. The division is currently home to world champions Jermell Charlo and Brian Castano (who fought to a draw last year). That doesn’t faze the aggressive, bombarding Cuban, though: “I want to face all of them, but my job is just to train and get ready for the fight. My team knows my capabilities and they just tell me when to fight and I do my job, but I would like to fight anyone. I would like to fight everyone they put in front of me. I will fight any day, anyone, anywhere. Really.”
A childhood spent in Havana with a pair of gloves on is tough enough, but Gomez carried additional pressure that accompanied his surname. His father, Jose Gomez Mustelier, is one of the island’s greatest ever amateur fighters. Capturing an Olympic gold in the 1980 Moscow Games, he was able to add to his World Amateur and Pan American championship golds, establishing himself as one of the finest fighters on the planet. Yoelvis Gomez didn’t match his father’s accomplishments as an amateur, but he soaked up plenty of wisdom from his old man, and views him as an inspiration, even now.
“Growing up was very, very hard. As you can imagine, Cuba’s a tough country, but for someone like me with the name that my father had being a gold medallist for Cuba, it was very, very hard. I was always under scrutiny, and everyone was watching every movement that I made. He’s always with me. And me and my father are very close; he has supported me from the first day of my boxing career. I had around 200 [amateur fights]. My career in Cuba as an amateur was extremely different as it was as a pro. In the amateurs I learned a lot by going to a lot of different countries and as an amateur, I learned the Cuban way of boxing, which is much different than now as a professional.”
Gomez continued, “Back then, because my dad was an Olympic gold medallist, he was always watching professional fights and they were always on around me [on our television] so I was always trying to watch them whenever I could. And I always had to dream of turning professional. So, as soon as I got the opportunity to leave Cuba and become professional in the United States, I went for the very first opportunity that I had.”
A complex, but legal move from Cuba to Nicaragua signalled the beginning of his professional voyage, and it has been beset with difficulties. La Joya, in fact, hasn’t seen any of his family for over three years. Despite harbouring hopes of financial and professional success, the reality for most Cuban fighters is that they’ll have to relationships to those who’ve supported them, helped them grow, and often smuggled them towards the next stage of their journeys.
“First, I went to Nicaragua, and I went there legally thanks to a friend who was able to get me out of Cuba. It was very, very hard for me to leave physically, but also mentally because I was leaving my family and I knew that there was a good chance that I might not see them again for many years. And for someone like me – I’m very close with my mum and my dad – I knew that the chance that I might not see them for many years is a very strong possibility. But that’s not an excuse for me. It was never an excuse. I want to become the best and this is something I had to do in order to become the best.”
“When I left, it was very difficult because in Guatemala [where I’d moved next], there were times where I couldn’t eat, where I didn’t have a place to sleep, things like that. But I did what I had to do to leave Cuba. I’m a free person. I’m someone that is able to say that they can do whatever they want. In Cuba, that’s not possible. Everything is regulated. Now, everything that I suffered, and I sacrificed was worth it because that’s what everyone in Cuba wishes for, to have freedom.”
While Shapiro translates, Gomez interjects with little bits of English here and there, trying to show off what he’s learned recently. The Cuban danger man is full of character, full of life, and his energy throughout his time with Boxing Social is infectious.
“I fight any day. Any day,” he reminds his captive audience. Of course, he wants to win world titles and rule the division. But so few from his shores actually achieve it. “I really want to show everyone that in each fight, they shouldn’t compare me to these other Cubans because while I have a lot of respect for what the others have done, I’m something very different. I’m a different generation, and I’m bringing something special that every single fight fan is going to want to watch and see. First thing: I want to become a world champion.
The second thing: I want to be a superstar. I want everyone to know who I am. And the third thing: I want to give a better name to Cuba and Cuban boxers. It’s a new generation right now and it’s important for me to lead the way. And to always fight with the best in the world.” Gomez glistened under the bright lights on PBC’s Christmas Day card, but now, it seems the time for La Joya to truly sparkle is growing nearer.
With Shapiro and his team by his side, he’s in no doubt that he’ll crash the party at the top of the 154lbs division. But fighters are fighters; that’s what they must believe. For now, the exciting Havana-native powers on and looks set to enjoy a blockbuster 2022, the jewel in the crown of the next set of Cuban professionals…