Cuban boxer Andy Cruz is training to become a professional in the United States

As the timer rang to begin Round 3, Andy Cruz pursued Rostyslav Sabadash with a stiff jab.

Sabadash, taller and bulkier, facing backwards. Cruz, a Cuban boxer who won the lightweight gold medal at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, beat him with two other long lefties.

Cruz is one of the most accomplished fighters to ever emerge from Cuba’s acclaimed boxing program. In addition to his Olympic gold, he has three world amateur titles and has won the Pan American Games twice. But in mid-May, Cruz arrived in northeast Philadelphia to learn how to box like a pro: He will make his pro debut on July 15 in Detroit, in a 10-round bout against a sturdy veteran named Juan Carlos Burgos.

Cruz fired two more jabs and then a right cross. Cruz’s manager Yolfri Sánchez watched the sparring session from ringside. His head coach, Derek Ennis – nicknamed Bozy – was sitting on the apron. Sánchez hired Ennis to replace Cruz’s amateur habits with pro techniques: hitting with authority, staying in range, catching and countering.

Another Cruz right-hander started a heated exchange of blows. Ennis reined in his gym’s new star.

“That’s not what you want to do,” Ennis said. “Someone taller than you, don’t stand there and mess with them. Be smart.”

Cruz’s boxing IQ, speed and timing helped him become what many observers consider to be the finest Cuban of his generation. A falling out with the Cuban Boxing Federation last year prompted him to leave the country, making Cruz boxing’s hottest free agent — and its most intriguing prospect.

In May, Cruz signed a three-year deal with Matchroom Boxing that will guarantee him seven-figure pay, and Cruz’s supporters expect he will dominate the talented lightweight division through next summer. Professional success, however, will depend on how well Cruz adapts to both his new country and a new version of a familiar sport.

“The training is fine, but I have to fight,” he said in Spanish after the sparring. “I’m anxious. I’m excited. I like working under pressure. Then you get the best out of me.”

Cruz speaks little English and Ennis speaks even less Spanish. Sánchez translates, and so do their smartphones. But Cruz is fluent in fistfighting. The boxing database BoxRec credits him with 140 amateur wins. He followed Ennis’ advice immediately.

Pivot point. right cross. upper cut

Both punches connected.

“That’s it!” Sánchez screamed in Spanish.

Cruz first attracted attention in the United States in July 2021 when he danced in the ring to celebrate his Olympic gold medal while silver medalist Keyshawn Davis of the United States stood in front of a TV camera in the stands. Rapper Snoop Dogg and comedian Kevin Hart parodied the moment in a widely viewed video clip, drawing laughs, but boxing fans focused on the outcome.

Davis was a cherished amateur and is currently a budding lightweight contender, and Cruz had surpassed him – and not for the first time. Cruz is 4-0 against Davis.

“I had never seen anything like it,” said Eddie Hearn, chairman of Matchroom Sport. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it was like watching an artist draw a painting. I was fascinated by the ease with which he defeated the best amateurs in the world. I never really expected to sign him because you don’t really expect Cuban fighters to go pro.”

One javelin thrower, Yiselena Ballar Rojas, left the national team last summer during a stopover in Miami en route to the IAAF World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. And Yaimé Pérez, the discus bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, left the team in Miami after the World Championships.

And boxer Yoenlis Hernández, the only Cuban to win gold at the World Amateur Championships in May, left the team on his way home from that tournament, escaping during a stopover in Panama.

For his part, Cruz claims he would have stayed in Cuba had he not been kicked out of the pro team.

“I was very disappointed,” said Cruz, who turns 28 in August. “I wanted to leave, any way I could.”

Last June, Cruz traveled from his home in Matanzas, 65 miles east of Havana, to Moa, a coastal city in eastern Holguin province, as part of a risky conspiracy to leave Cuba by boat. He fell asleep at the home of the man who organized the trip and awoke to police handcuffs on him. After four days in detention, Cruz was allowed to return to Matanzas but was permanently removed from the Cuban national team and banned from the country’s boxing gyms.

For the next four months, training meant shadow boxing and an hour-long run every afternoon. Cross training meant playing soccer. Without his monthly national team stipend — 10,000 Cuban pesos, or about $400 — Cruz ran out of money.

With no income and few prospects as a professional boxer, Cruz said he had considered selling peanuts for a living. At least he could then monetize his boxing success: If you choose between providers, why not buy from the Olympic champion?

“I was a little scared that my door on leaving the country would be closed and it would cost me my career,” Cruz said. “Those six months in Cuba were hell in the sense that I didn’t do what I care about most and what I enjoy the most. That’s boxing.”

Speculations about Cruz’s future simmered throughout the summer, eventually reaching Sánchez, a Dominican Republic-based baseball agent who specializes in Cuban talent. Sánchez wanted the boxer to be able to legally leave Cuba and worked with Cruz to organize the necessary paperwork.

As of November last year, Cruz had a passport and a one-way ticket to Santo Domingo.

Cruz arrived on November 5, 2022, wearing a white Stephen Curry jersey and a big grin. He weighed 152 pounds, 17 more than the 135-pound lightweight limit, but had lost some muscle since winning the Olympics.

“He was smaller than I imagined,” Sánchez said. “I thought he was taller.”

From there, Cruz’s US attorney worked on the visa Cruz would need to live and train in the country, while Sánchez and Jesse Rodriguez, his US-based manager, negotiated with the promoters. By early May, Cruz had secured both his visa and endorsement deal with Matchroom Boxing.

Cruz traveled to Philadelphia where he works with Ennis along with the trainer’s son, welterweight contender Jaron Ennis – he boxes most afternoons and works on strength and conditioning most evenings. When he’s not working out, Cruz often parks in front of the TV in the extended-stay hotel room he shares with Sánchez and plays MLB The Show 23.

Cruz sent his mother a new iPhone on a trip from Rodriguez to Cuba. Cruz asked Rodriguez to bring back his Olympic gold medal and a container of ground peanuts. He misses Cuban food, he said, but he misses his family even more. The souvenirs would remind him of both.

“It’s the first time I’ve spent so much time away from them,” he said of his parents, brother and one-year-old son. “They were witnesses to everything that happened to me. They knew I had no choice but to go.”

Cruz spent the final four rounds of his sparring session training a local hopeful named Angel Pizarro. Cruz is leaner, stronger and 10 pounds lighter than when he left Cuba. After landing a sharp jab and hard right-hand punch, Pizarro smiled and nodded to acknowledge Cruz’s new muscles.

“He’s a bully!” Pizarro shouted to the crowd around the ring.

Ennis said his goal wasn’t to turn Cruz into a Mike Tyson-esque power-puncher, but to bring pro strength to the speed and skill that made Cruz a great amateur.

“I don’t take anything away — I just add something, refine it, and teach it my style,” Ennis said. “Catch the left hook with your right hand. Roll under shots, come back with the counter. That’s what I’ll let him do.”

For his part, Hearn said Cruz was already primed to defeat the elite of the lightweight division, including Gervonta Davis, the knockout artist who sells tickets; Shakur Stevenson, runner-up at the 2016 Olympics; and Devin Haney, the undisputed champion. A future duel with Keyshawn Davis is a given – the two have been attacking each other social media since last spring.

But first up is Burgos, a hardened goaltender whose record of 35-7-3 includes decision losses to Haney and Keyshawn Davis.

While most pro debuts are scheduled for four or six rounds, Cruz’s fight against Burgos is scheduled for ten rounds. The length of the fight is a testament to the fact that promoters and regulators already consider Cruz a veteran.

And it signals that after several false starts, Cruz believes he can quickly rise to the top of pro boxing.

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

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