By James Goyder

Photo by Jerry Redfern

Cuba has arguably the most extensive amateur boxing infrastructure in the entire world and the country has claimed 67 medals at the Olympic Games, trailing only the United States in the overall table.

There are estimated to be nearly 19,000 boxers and 500 coaches in Cuba today, but while the best fighters can bring glory to their country, they will never be able enjoy the kind of wealth or freedom there which would potentially be on offer in the West.

The most famous boxer to defect recently is Guillermo Rigondeaux who won two Olympic gold medals before slipping away to Mexico on a speed boat in 2008. The following year he launched his pro career and is currently a 13-0 world champion with a notable 2013 win over Nonito Donaire.

Rigondeaux can command purses of close to a million dollars these days but not all Cuban defectors are so fortunate. Rolando Castellano Rodriquez, who skipped the country in order to work as the boxing coach for the Cambodian national team, might not be making millions but says he is better off than he would have been back home.

“I feel good in Cambodia and the situation in Cuba is not the best. Life is better here, this country has more possibilities for me,” he said.

Rodriquez, who hails from Havana, works every afternoon with the Cambodian national boxing team in a brand new gym which has been built next to the crumbling old Olympic Stadium. He was initially sent to Phnom Penh by the Cuban government but decided to extend his stay.

“The Cuban government had an agreement with the Cambodian government and they sent me here in 2010 to train the national team but I didn’t go back to Cuba when the government told me to, and as a punishment I am not allowed to return for five years,” he said.

Cambodia actually ranks as a considerably poorer country than Cuba, but Rodriquez is able to supplement his salary by offering private coaching to expats and says boxers back home are much more restricted in terms of their potential income.

“Most of the Cuban boxers want to be professional because the money is much better, but right now they don’t have that possibility unless they can find a way to leave Cuba. In Cuba if you are an amateur boxer you get a salary of 20 USD a month from the government.”

While financial security and freedom were the main motivational factors behind Rodriquez’s decision to defect, he also has the opportunity to try and contribute towards turning Cambodia into a boxing powerhouse.

The sport is nowhere near as popular as it is in Cuba, where any child who shows potential will get fast tracked onto a government sponsored coaching program, but Rodriquez believes that one day Cambodia will produce a boxing champion.

“There is a lot of talent in Cambodia but they need to work hard. In the future a Cambodian boxer could win an Olympic medal, why not?”

Rodriquez oversees the training sessions at 2pm every afternoon, keeping a watchful eye on the team as they shadow box and corrects any slight flaws in their technique that he might spot. To say that the standard is lower than it would be in Cuba is something of an understatement, but he hopes the boxers will benefit from his experience.

“I started boxing when I was eight years old because a cousin brought me to a boxing gym. I had 284 amateur fights but I stopped when I was 21 because I damaged my eye. The style of Cuban boxing is unique in the world but I am trying to teach the Cambodians this style.”

A recent change in the regulations has opened the door for professional boxers to compete at the Olympics, and the Cambodian team is already reaping the benefits as they are able to stay active and earn a living by fighting.

“Our fighters fight every weekend, the federation and the TV channels organize events every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They are professional fights, amateur doesn’t exist anymore there is only pro and semi pro, so now you can be a pro fighter and go to the Olympics,” Rodriquez explained.

One professional who has been making waves on the Cambodian circuit is not a native of the country. Reymi Castellano Aleyi from Cuba is currently 5-0, with his first two pro fights taking place in Cambodia and the most recent wins coming at events in the Philippines.

Aleyi, who served as a sparring partner for Nonito Donaire ahead of his world championship showdown with Simpiwe Vetyeka, also happens to be Rodriquez’ son and his Father is predicting big things for him.

“My son was an amateur champion in Cuba so why can’t he be a world champion? My son has fought Rigondeaux twice and even though he lost both times, it was a good experience for Donaire to get to spar with him,” he said.

While his son has refined his style through hundreds of amateur fights and years of training, the boxers that Rodriquez works with on an everyday basis in Cambodia are a lot more raw. None more so than Muen Mei Keah who comes from a background in Kun Khmer, the country’s equivalent to Muay Thai, and has only just started to try and master the sweet science.

Kun Khmer fighters tend to rely on their elbows more than their hands and Rodriquez has to teach the 13 year old the very basics of boxing, but Keah says he is determined to follow in his Father’s footsteps by succeeding at the sport.

“My father is Eh Poutong, he is a legend in Kun Khmer and he also won a medal in boxing at the SEA Games. I want to win a medal too, for my Father.”

While it is too early to assess Keah’s potential as a boxer, there are two exciting Cambodian prospects who Rodriquez says fight fans should keep an eye out for.

“I think the two most talented boxers on the team at the moment are Von Viva, a Kun Khmer champion who fights at 81 kgs, and Svay Rota who fights 64 kgs.”

It’s going to be extremely difficult for a Cambodian boxer to reach the level where they are ready to seriously contend for a medal at the Olympics because this small team will be competing against nations which have thousands of fighters to pick from.

The first step towards producing a world class boxer is to provide access to elite coaching at an early age, and if anyone is capable of nurturing a Cambodian prospect to the point that they are ready to compete with the top fighters in the world, it is the man from Havana.