Everyone knows the same handful of facts about Cuba. Cubans make the world’s best cigars. They drive American cars left over from the 1950s. Their extravagantly-bearded revolutionary leader Fidel Castro used to make immensely long speeches. Americans can’t visit Cuba, in spite of their supposedly constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of travel (strictly speaking, they are allowed to visit, but they aren’t allowed to spend any money if they do, so in practice they can’t). And in amateur boxing, Cubans win everything in sight.
The reason for starting with this list of appalling clichés is that it appears to comprise the sum total of John Duncan’s knowledge of Cuba, and Cuban boxing in particular, prior to embarking on the writing of this book. This does not stop him abandoning his job as a sports writer at the Guardian and persuading Frank Warren, of all people, to provide financial support for his quixotic attempt to arrange a fight between Cuban heavyweight Felix Savón and Mike Tyson, despite the facts that, firstly, professional boxing is illegal in Cuba, and secondly, a previous attempt at exactly the same thing ended in failure, despite a $10m offer to the Cuban from its rather-better-qualified author, Don King.
Long experience teaches the reader to be wary of any book whose subtitle begins “A Journey Into . . .”, since it more or less guarantees that the book will be much more concerned with the journey, or more specifically the journeyer, than with whatever subject into which it is putatively a journey. This book is no exception. In the early stages Duncan agonizes over, among other things, his decision to leave the Guardian and the arrangements he needs to make to let his property in London, topics which are of interest to exactly nobody. His attempts to arrange meetings with Frank Warren are also related in excessive, and occasionally fawning, detail, emphasizing Duncan’s own inexperience and unsuitability for the job at hand. Self-deprecation done well can be charming: when it is overdone, as here, the reader cannot help but ask why he should not take the author at his own estimation, and give up on him entirely.
Matters improve when Duncan arrives in Cuba. He does a fair job of sketching how, through a mixture of rum, humour, compassion, and a complete disregard for rules and regulations, Cubans survive poverty, oppression and endless bureaucracy. More importantly, despite the utter implausibility of his mission, Duncan makes impressive progress in meeting and interviewing boxers and administrators of all levels, all the way up to the likes of Savón himself and fabled national coach Alcides Sagarra. He is even included (though it is not clear whether he is invited) on the Cuban team’s trip to the World Championships in Hungary in 1997.
But all this says much more about the openness and friendliness of the Cubans than it does about Duncan’s nose for, or grasp of, his story. So limited is his understanding of boxing and its culture that one wonders whether the reason for his suggestion of a Savón-Tyson bout is that Mike Tyson is the only boxer he has ever heard of. It is clear to the outsider that his failure to make more progress than he does is down to the fact that he is just not equipped for the task, and the Cubans know it. He is genuinely amazed to discover that boxing involves skill and strategy, and that boxers are capable of both enjoying it and discussing it in detail. When Felix Savón holds out a friendly fist for Duncan to “bump”, he pathetically wraps his hand round it. In the face of this sort of ineptitude, no amount of self-deprecation can suffice.
However, it is not all bad news: and given that the history of Cuban boxing is full of great fighters, great characters, and great fights, how could it be? Many boxing fans, especially the casual fans at whom the book is apparently aimed, will find much of interest in Duncan’s portraits of a handful of figures from Cuban boxing history, notably Kid Chocolate and Teófilo Stevenson (though these are scarcely revelatory, and were probably more interesting and useful in the days before Wikipedia, Boxrec and the other numerous online sources that were not available when this book was published in 2000).
Better still – much better, in fact – are the lengthy interviews Duncan carries out with less well-known figures in Cuban boxing, where he mostly keeps the focus off himself and on his interviewees. The embittered Angel Espinosa, retired, divorced, penniless and living with his mother, complains of how the system treats those who serve it loyally: conversely, Joel Casamayor, pining for his 5-year old daughter in Miami, and struggling to get either a break or a fair deal from professional boxing’s often commercially-minded judges (Cuban boxers, unlike Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, almost never draw big crowds), shows the sacrifices and painful uncertainty of a life in exile. Most affectingly of all, Duncan tracks down the ex-wife of the near-legendary Kid Gavilán. Gavilán too was mistreated and exploited by the Cuban system, but was eventually given permission to leave at short notice: his wife was not. He departed, never to return, and after waiting seventeen years in Cuba, she finally and sadly petitioned for divorce. “Our story is a true love story,” she says, “but Cuba got in the way”. As so often in boxing, the toughest chins don’t necessarily belong to the boxers.
But these undoubted high points do not compensate for the book’s other flaws. For one thing, the writing itself is often clumsy. There is the occasional solecism: Duncan writes “The day of the final [of the 1978 World Championships] built to a crescendo for the Cubans.” Any competent writer (and his editor) knows that you don’t build to a crescendo: the crescendo is the building. Elsewhere, Duncan gives a long, tedious account of the process of finding Kid Chocolate’s grave, presumably to give the reader an idea of just how long and tedious a process it was. It would have been much, much better simply to write “it was a long and tedious process”. And he writes of Savón: “he has so much bulk around his shoulders and back that it looks as if he has a giant armpit ringed by muscle”. What does this mean? Does he have a giant armpit ringed by muscle – just the one? Or does it just look like that? But then what does that look like, if it doesn’t look like someone’s muscled back – which is what was supposed to be the subject of the description in the first place?
For another thing, Duncan just doesn’t display enough curiosity. More than once, he inexplicably fails to follow obviously promising suggestions from his interviewees. Perhaps he is too self-obsessed, or perhaps talking to the Cubans generally is so easy that he forgets that his job is to ask for more than is straightforwardly offered. Sagarra suggests, surely absurdly, that Cubans’ proclivity for boxing is related to their love of dancing. This is passed over without comment. Casamayor hints that other boxers are keen to join him in Miami and turn pro but don’t because they are afraid of the consequences – but, writes Duncan, “He didn’t elaborate . . . I didn’t push him”. Why not?
But the biggest problem is the condescension inherent in the very project itself. Boxing plays a huge part in Cuba’s national history and identity, but from the start Duncan treats the country, its boxing history and even its boxers as something akin to a school summer project. He appears to think that trumpeting his own lack of qualifications is endearing, when the effect is quite the reverse.
We started with a list of clichés, and we close with another. There is
undoubtedly a great book to be written on boxing in Cuba. But, despite its
numerous high points, “In the Red Corner” isn’t it.