Alcohol, Silence and Clandestine Bets

Vasyl Lomachenko (l) and Guillermo Rigondeaux (r) at the pre-match weigh-in. (World Boxing Org)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernández, Havana, 11 December 2017 —  There are enough cigarette butts left in the room to “fill a truck,” says Roger. In the clandestine betting house that this 68-year-old man manages in the neighborhood of Cerro, this Saturday was the most intense day of the year with the fight between the Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko and the Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Silent, seasoned in illegal business operations, and a friend of more police officers than he wants to confess, Roger has been in the illicit betting business for two decades. He has a select clientele that is willing to risk their money to enjoy that tug of adrenaline from the mix of competition, convertible pesos and chance.

Big League baseball games, boxing matches, car races and soccer championships have shaken the place, camouflaged inside the house. Only people he knows come there, regular customers who know the rules: “No quarrels, no bad words and the loser pays immediately.”

To get to the place you have to cross the living room of the house where the grandmother is watching a boring program on national television and Roger’s grandchildren are listening to music from a wireless speaker. Down the hallway, towards the kitchen, you enter a large room that seems to belong to a different dimension.

Roger was ten years old when “the bearded ones came to power and banned casinos and gambling.” Since then, gambling and bets have been submerged in the illegality from which not even police operations, denunciations and fear have been able to eradicate them. “Cubans carry this in their genes, they can’t take it from us,” he reflects. A betting promoter faces fines or penalties of between one to three years in prison that can increase to as much eight years if there are minors involved.

Several screens show even the smallest details of each challenge. There are eight small tables with four chairs each, a bar and all kinds of posters with sports glories on the walls. A small door leads to a bathroom usually overwhelmed by the amount of beer consumed.

Before entering the room, all guests must leave their mobile phones on the kitchen sideboard, among the containers of sugar, salt and a half-empty bottle of oil. “This is a complicated and I can’t even chance going out on the roof because someone might think of taking a picture,” explains the tanned manager.

Roger met Rigondeaux when “he was a boy who did not even know what he was worth,” he says. He saw him grow in the long hours of training, take to the ring, and earn several gold medals and fall into the abyss. “That boxer had the best and worst of things that could happen to a Cuban athlete.”

In July 2007, during the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Rigondeaux and his colleague Erislandy Lara left the Island delegation. “They were knocked out with a direct blow to the chin, bought with American bills,” said former President Fidel Castro in one of his convalescent Reflections [a newspaper column].

Fidel Castro’s political ally in the form of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, deployed an operation to capture both athletes until they were pushed back to Cuba. The fate of the fighters was sealed and Castro warned that they would not get back into the ring. Rigondeaux lived long months of exclusion in which even his friends did not dare to approach him.

In 2009, he managed to escape from the island to Miami and there he began a professional career on the rise that, this Saturday, took him face-to-face with Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko to compete in the Superfeatherweight World Championship at Madison Square Gardens in New York, in front of more than 5,000 spectators. Many miles away, in Havana, Roger’s place was the scene of pure tension.

Although people gathered throughout the city to watch the fight through illegal satellite dishes, for the official press the Santiaguan born in the same year as the Mariel Boatlift, 1980, is still a “traitor,” and so it kept a stubborn silence.

While the sports publications all over the world announced it as one of the most important matches in the last century, Cuban national television ignored its importance and preferred to dedicate its sports commentaries to the National Baseball Series. “If Fidel Castro ever cursed you, you stay cursed,” explains an local clandestine assiduous bettor.

Indoors, the clash between the Cuban and the Ukrainian was watched with great intensity. During the time the match was broadcast, passersby on the streets of the most populated municipalities of the capital, such as Central Havana, Old Havana or Diez de Octubre, could string together the trajectory of the fight from the sounds of televisions coming from doors and windows.

“Here, there is profit to be made not only on the bets, but also on the consumption,” explains Roger’s wife, who moves stealthily between the tables and the bar, serving drinks and plates with goodies to snack on. Almost all those who have arrived are men, although a couple of them are accompanied by their wives who get bored in front of the screens.

Before it starts, the bets are taken. Everything is written on a long piece of paper that bears names, quantities and other details. Each possibility is considered: number of attacks by one fighter or the other, possible counts of protection, a KO favoring the Ukrainian or the Cuban and even the number of blows against the opponent.

Both pugilists are known for their different styles but also for being “enchanted” and that adds tension among the bettors. They prepare for a transmission dotted with good times and some can barely stay seated, threatening to punch the TV as soon as the match begins.

Roger serves two Cuba Libres while periodically looking at the scoreboard. His boy is losing ground in front of the Ukrainian, but that does not worry him. Sympathy is one thing and money is another. “I bet Lomachenko since he is a safer boxer and youth is on his side because it makes him more daring,” he says.

The room is divided. Some whistle when the Cuban begins to show signs of having been dominated by the Ukrainian, others encourage him to hit harder and to not let himself “eat the coconut” with the rapid movements of his rival. The support for their compatriot is yielding before the bitter evidence that the fight is slipping away from him.

Rigondeaux, El Chacal (The Jackal), 37, came to the fight with two titles as Olympic champion, and 247 amateur fights, of which he lost only four. In his career as a professional he has fought 17 matches with an equal number of victories, 11 of them by KO. He is the world champion in super bantamweight and for Saturday’s bout he had to climb two weight classes.

The 29-year-old Ukrainian also has an impressive professional record of 10 fights, 9 wins and 7 knockouts. From the first attack this Saturday he dominated. He is faster, hits more cleanly and he can decipher the signs of his adversary, whom he pushes to the limit.

The glasses with rum and vodka pass from one side to the other in Roger’s place. One man chews his fingernails and another does not take his hands off his face as he sees how the Cuban is losing to his opponent. Nobody gets up to go to the bathroom, nobody talks. A heavy silence has settled in the room.

The fight ends in failure for Rigondeaux, who can’t fight in the seventh round due to a broken hand. The Santiagiaguan was well below his usual level and showed flaws in his technique, characterized by the power of his left foot and a great defensive capacity. He did not even manage to impress with the movement of his feet, one of the most distinctive features of his “sports choreography.”

Lomachenko rises with the triumph and consolidates his place among the best fighters in the world by defeating the Cuban in an unquestionable way. Roger smiles behind the bar and calculates that he has won about 1,000 CUC between the bets and the products he has sold.

The customers who had no luck pay out their money, one takes a ring from his finger and leaves it on the bar, while the winners smile and ask for another round. When it all ends they pick up their phones and go out one by one through the living room, where the grandmother is sleeping in front of the television.


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