New Faces Give Cuba Advantage Other Fighters Were Sent To Preliminary Competitions. A Bit Of Gamesmanship.

Posted: August 06, 1992

BADALONA, Spain — Cuba has proved to be the most powerful - and perhaps least known - boxing team at these Games.

While the United States has only three boxers in the Olympic semifinals, nine of the 12 Cubans who traveled to Spain will head into the semifinals, beginning today, including the one with the best chance for a gold medal, heavyweight Felix Savon.

That powerful showing was expected, but the composition of the team may not have been. The Cubans have exercised some gamesmanship at these Olympics, particularly regarding their rivalry with the U.S. team.

In at least six weight classes, Cuba replaced the fighters whom most of the other teams expected to be here.

Astoundingly, each of the boxers who stayed home was ranked at least No. 6 in the world last year. How many nations can say they have world-class boxers watching the competition on television?

"They have a very good junior program," U.S. head coach Joe Byrd said. ''And they train for years. We only trained for two months, and that's not enough time to put together a team for this level of competition."

Byrd suspected as far back as March that the Cubans would send some unknowns to Spain. At the World Championship Challenge in Tampa, the Cubans and Americans went head-to-head in several matches. First one Cuban lost, then another, then another, leading Byrd to wink slyly.

"I know what they're doing," Byrd said at the time. "This isn't the team they're going to send to the Olympics. They want to make us overconfident."

Cuban head coach Alcides Sagarra maintained that he did not try to trick the U.S. team by bringing all the rookies to the Olympics.

"They just happened to make the team," he said. "They were just better fighters than the ones they replaced. It's no mystery."

Of the six newcomers, four have advanced to the semifinals. The most impressive rookies have been light welterweight Hector Vinent and bantamweight Joel Casamayor. Vinent has routinely won by 15-point margins in the competition, while Casamayor stopped Roberto Jalnaiz of the Philippines in the first round to advance to the semifinals.

Besides Savon, the excellent gold medal prospects include veterans such as super heavyweight Roberto Balado and light flyweight Rogelio Marcelo, who should have an easy time now that his principal rival, American Eric Griffin, has been knocked out of the tournament, stymied not by his opponent, Rafael Lozano of Spain, but by the computer scoring system.

"It is not hard to understand why we are so good," said Teofilo Stevenson, the legendary heavyweight who now works with the Cuban Ministry of Sports. "Our fighters train very hard, and they are very disciplined. I would like to invite you to come down to Cuba so you can see how fighters should be trained."

Does Cuba take any satisfaction in having nine fighters in the semifinals, while the U.S. team has only three?

"Everyone thinks the United States is our main rival," Sagarra said. ''But we always beat them. Why should we consider them our rivals?"

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