An accomplished Cuban boxer takes his first professional steps in the United States

Derek Ennis (aka Posey), watches Andy Cruz through the ropes, at his gym in Philadelphia on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

PHILADELPHIA – As the clock ticked down to start the third round, Andy Cruz chased down Rostislav Sabadash with a jab.

Ascended, the tallest and largest, retracted. Cruz, the Cuban boxer who won gold at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, landed two more punches with his left hand.

Cruz is one of the most successful boxers to come out of the famous Cuban boxing program. Besides his Olympic gold medal, he has won three amateur world titles and won two Pan American Games. But in mid-May, Cruz came to Northeast Philadelphia to learn to box like a pro: He’ll have his first boxing fight in Detroit on July 15, where he’s going into a 10-round fight against a tough veteran named Juan Carlos Burgos.

Cruz landed another pair of punches and then a right cross. Cruz’s manager, Yulfri Sanchez, watched the practice session from the front row. Their head coach, Derek Ennis, aka Boozy, sat on the parking lot. Sanchez hired Ennis to replace Cruz’s amateur habits with professional techniques: hitting with power, staying within range, catching and countering strikes.

Cruz’s other right hand started a heated exchange of blows, so Ennis had to stop the new star in his own gym.

“It’s not what you want to do,” Ennis said. “When someone’s older than you, you don’t just stand there and take blows with them. Be smart.”

Cuban boxer Andy Cruz, during a training session at a gym in Philadelphia on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

Cuban boxer Andy Cruz, during a training session at a gym in Philadelphia on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

Cruz’s boxing intelligence, along with his speed and timing, helped make him a boxer considered by many observers to be the best Cuban of his generation. A dispute with the Cuban Boxing Federation led to his departure from the country last year, making Cruz’s boxing agent the most controversial and most interesting.

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In May, Cruz signed a three-year contract with Matchroom Boxing that will guarantee him a seven-figure payout, and Cruz supporters believe the fighter will dominate the lightweight division, a division rich in talent, by next summer. But professional success will depend on how well Cruz adapts, whether to his new country or to a new version of a familiar sport.

“The training is good, but I need to fight,” he said in Spanish after the training session. “I’m impatient. I’m excitable. I like to work under pressure. That’s when I bring out the best in me.”

Cruz speaks little English while Ennis speaks little Spanish. Sanchez translates, just like his smartphones. But Cruz dominates boxing. BoxRec’s boxing database gives him 140 amateur wins. He took Ennis’ advice without hesitation.

the hub. frontal crossed. “Uppercut”.

He landed both punches.

Sanchez shouted in Spanish “That’s it!”

Cruz first came to attention in the United States in July 2021, when she danced in the ring to celebrate her Olympic gold medal as silver medalist Keyshawn Davis from the United States posed for a TV camera. Rapper Snoop Dogg and comedian Kevin Hart mocked the laugh-out-loud moment in a widely watched video, but boxing fans were focused on the aftermath.

Davis was a highly rated buff and is currently on the rise fast, and Cruz has outdone him, and it wasn’t the first time. Cruz 4-0 against Davis.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Eddie Hearn, Head of Matchroom Sport. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it was like watching an artist paint a painting. I was blown away by the ease with which he beat the best amateurs in the world. I really didn’t think I’d sign him because you don’t really expect Cuban boxers to become professional.”

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Cruz was scheduled to make his professional debut in May 2022, under a new partnership between the Cuban Boxing Federation and Cuba’s Golden Ring Promotions. Mexico. Cuban boxers can move up the professional rankings and the federation will receive a portion of their payments. Boxers will still be eligible for international competition.

The deal was intended to feature the entire Cuban team, but Cruz was the headliner. A video promoting his scheduled engagement remains on the Golden Ring’s YouTube page.

But the day before the Cuban delegation was to travel to Mexico, Cruz was cut off from the team. In some accounts, officials indicated bad behavior and poor practice habits. But Cruz said the move was precautionary, a decision by officials who feared leaving the team in Mexico.

In recent years, Cuba’s once-strong athletic program has struggled to retain top-tier talent, with some athletes leaving national teams during trips abroad and others fleeing the country altogether. Several world-class athletes were among the more than a quarter of a million Cubans who immigrated to the United States last year.

Cruz spent the last four rounds of his training session tutoring a local player, Ángel Pizarro. Cruz is leaner, stronger, and weighs 10 pounds less than when he left Cuba. After landing a powerful uppercut and right hand, Bizarro smiled and nodded in recognition of Cruz’s new power.

“He’s a thug!” Bizarro shouted at the crowd around the ring.

Hearn said that Cruz was already ready to take on the elite of the lightweight class, including the famous knockout artist Gervonta Davis. Shakur Stephenson, 2016 Olympic runner-up; And Devin Haney is the undisputed champion. A future confrontation with Keyshawn Davis is a natural: the two have blasted each other on social media since last spring.

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But first up is Burgos, a veteran boxer whose 35-7-3 record, including decision losses to Hani and Kishon Davis, will determine whether or not Cruz enters the professional arena.

Although most professional shows are scheduled for four or six rounds, Cruz’s fight against Burgos is scheduled to last 10 rounds. The length of the fight is proof that the promoters and organizers do indeed consider Cruz a veteran.

And it’s a sign that after many false starts Cruz believes he can quickly rise to the top of professional boxing.

“I want to win all of my fights, to win all of my belts,” Cruz said. “I want to do what I did in amateur boxing. I had a great race and I think I can repeat it.”

Year 2023 The New York Times Company

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