Robert Cassidy examines the career of exiled Cuban boxer Antonio “Puppy” García in this article for boxing.com. Follow the link below for additional photos and videos.
“I think the reason I had so much sympathy from the public was because I was a brawler. I used to bleed a lot. That’s why I was so popular…”
When Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Joel Casamayor risked their lives to defect from Cuba, they knew that glory awaited them. They knew that if they continued to train hard, money and fame would soon follow.
The American dream, right?
When Antonio “Puppy” García risked his life to leave Cuba, the only thing he knew that awaited him was freedom.
The American dream, right?
How bad must a situation be for you to walk away from your wife, your children, your brothers and sisters? When a man walks away for millions of dollars, he is taking a calculated risk. There is the idea that a better life awaits. Perhaps, like Gamboa, he becomes influential enough to bring family here too.
García had no such earning power, no such potential. He left on principle, knowing that a better life awaited because of those principles. He left during the Mariel Boatlift.
The Mariel Boatlift began April 20, 1980 when Cuban president Fidel Castro declared the port of Mariel open to those wishing to leave the island. At least 1700 boats, most from South Florida, arrived in Mariel to pick up and transport Cubans to freedom. It ended on October 31 of the same year and it is estimated that 125,000 Cubans fled Castro’s communist way of life.
In what was initially supposed to be relief for those seeking political asylum, Castro opened his prisons and mental institutions and allowed an array of troubled individuals to leave with those who opposed the Communist party. The political opponents were labeled gusanos (worms) by Castro, as for the rest, it was simply a way to transfer his headaches to the United States.
Thus, those arriving in the United States did so under a shroud of suspicion. No one was quite sure who was a political prisoner or a petty thief or a murderer. Then, the opening scenes of the 1983 film “Scarface,” during which Al Pacino’s murderous character arrived on the Mariel Boatlift, did more to tarnish the reputation of the refugees than Castro ever could.
In theory, the boatlift was conceived for Cubans like García. He described himself as a Prisoner of War and had the scars to prove it. García, one of the most beloved fighters on the Havana fight scene of the late 1950s, came to the United States via Mariel. He died at the age of 72 in Miami on October 23, 2005. Before his death, I was fortunate enough to interview him several times about his life in the ring and his political journey.
“When I was a little boy my aunt called me puppy (pronounced “poopi”), like a little dog and the nickname stuck. I started boxing professionally when I was 16 years old. I think the reason I had so much sympathy from the public was because I was a brawler. I used to bleed a lot. That’s why I was so popular.”
At the end of his career, somewhere between 1959 and 1960, García was on the verge of fighting Hogan Kid Bassey for the world featherweight title. He was unbeaten over his last dozen fights but the changing politics of his country forced him into inactivity.
“Angelo Dundee and my manager were working on that title fight,” said García. “It was supposed to be in the Orange Bowl.”
García was a national featherweight champion and enthralled the public with a brutal three-fight series with compatriot Ciro Moracen at El Palacio Deportes in Havana . In a sense, he was boxing royalty, fighting first in the shadow of his older brother Lino, a top featherweight who went 10 rounds with Hall-of-Famer Sandy Saddler in Havana in 1947.
Quickly, though, Puppy began to outshine his brother.
“The biggest idol in Cuba was Puppy García,” said Dundee, in a 2001 interview for the documentary, “A Fighting Chance.” “He never made a bad fight. He was exciting. He was a brawler and a bleeder. They loved him in the fight clubs in Havana.”
Enrique Encinosa left Cuba as a child shortly after the revolution. He is a boxing historian and radio talk show host in Miami. He was friends with García up until the fighter died.
“Puppy García was definitely the most popular boxer Cuba ever had,” said Encinosa. “In a sense, Cuba had other fighters that transcended Cuba. Kid Gavilan, Luis Rodriguez became world champions. Puppy was a rated contender but his entire career was carried out inside of Cuba.”
During his career, García left Cuba just twice to fight in Venezuela. This was prior to the revolution and Cubans athletes were able to leave the island regularly. García rarely did and they loved him for it. In 2008, while in Havana, former major league pitcher, Connie Marrero, 97 at the time, remembered García fondly.
“He had the most charisma of any fighter in Cuba,” said Marrero. “He had the most fans.”
“When he was hurt, he was more dangerous than when he wasn’t hurt,” said Encinosa. “Puppy García was the Cuban Micky Ward. He was a guy who the crowds loved. He was loaded with charisma.”
The adoration García received from the boxing public only made his political problems worse. According to García, in 1961, at 4:00 am, a group of Castro’s soldiers busted into his home and took him away. García, who was 27 at the time, refused to support the Communist party and thus spent the next nine years in prison.
García became a convenient target, one that Castro used as a symbol of the government’s power. If they could bring a man like Puppy García to his knees, no man was truly safe.
“I was against the Communist party so I went to jail,” he said. “While in prison, in 1963, we were celebrating the 24th of February, which is a very patriotic day in Cuba. The guards surrounded me with guns and started hitting me. They smashed my ankle. They cut open my head. It was horrible. I was sent to a nursing facility to heal.”
“I’ve had political prisoners tell me that Puppy received more beatings in prison than he ever did in the ring,” said Encinosa.
Nine years later, at the age of 36, García was released from prison. Even if he wanted to continue boxing, his ankle was too severely damaged.
The first real chance he had to leave Cuba was on the Mariel Boatlift. García remembered people trying to get out of Cuba through the Peruvian Embassy. It became a portal to freedom on April 1, 1980 when six Cubans crashed a bus through the gates and were granted political asylum. As punishment to that country, Castro removed all guards from the embassy and announced it was open to the public. As a result of that event, President Jimmy Carter said the United States would accept 3500 political prisoners from Cuba.
Such an offer was an affront to Castro, so he seized the opportunity to embarrass Carter and his government. On April 20, the odyssey began.
“I left in the Mariel Boatlift,” said García. “It was quite a journey. I was a Prisoner of War. When Mariel happened people took advantage of it. I left Cuba by myself. I left on Mother’s Day, May 11, 1980, and I arrived in Key West, Florida on May 12, 1980. My life was in danger and twice they stopped me in Cuba before I left.”
García remembered the site of thousands of Cubans leaving in overcrowded boats. He remembered the rough weather and the rougher seas. For García, and thousands of other Cubans, nothing that lay ahead could have been worse than what they already endured.
“I was aware that a lot of homosexuals and criminals were leaving the island,” he said. “But I wanted to leave the island so badly that I didn’t care about the crowd around me. I wanted to leave the island as soon as possible. I knew that Fidel Castro let go a lot more than political prisoners.”
García lived modestly in Miami, renting a duplex and working for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. There are many places in Miami where he was remembered, even revered. Among those who keep García’s legacy alive is Ramiro Ortiz, the former Boxing Commissioner for the State of Florida.
“He was one of the first big name athletes who turned his back on the Castro regime,” said Ortiz. “And he took some tremendous beatings because of that. But you know, for someone who had gone through so much, someone who lost so much, he never showed any bitterness. Other people would take about what he endured, but not him. He was a modest man, a gentleman. And in the end he won, because he was here. He was free.”
For the original report go to http://www.boxing.com/antonio_puppy_Garcíathe_cuban_micky_ward.html