Heralded Cuban wins in an unusual introduction to pro boxing

Cuban boxer Andy Cruz, right, during training in Philadelphia, on June 7, 2023. Decorated as an amateur, Andy Cruz had an unusual entrance into the pros, fighting for more rounds than typical for a first-timer; afterward, he had an eye on what could be next. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Andy Cruz toted his new title belt while he hugged friends and saluted his followers on Instagram Live. When he and his team gathered for a photo, Derek Ennis, the head trainer, draped his right arm over one of Cruz’s shoulders. Everyone else stared at the camera; Cruz’s attention was elsewhere.اضافة اعلان

He was focusing on the phone in Ennis’ left hand. It was showing a livestream of a bout featuring the lightweight Frank Martin, a potential future opponent.

For Cruz, who won Olympic gold and three world titles as an amateur, it was another welcome-to-pro-boxing moment.

Fourteen months after splitting with his country’s boxing federation, Cruz, widely regarded as the best Cuban amateur boxer of his generation, triumphed Saturday night at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in an unusual, high-profile professional debut.

Where most first-timers fight four- or six-round bouts, Cruz went 10. While professional debuts are usually mismatches, Cruz faced Juan Carlos Burgos, a former world champion, for a minor title.

And in the lightweight division, which brims with big-fight possibilities, the focus quickly shifts from a boxer’s latest win to his next challenge.

“I’m finally back doing what I love most — boxing,” Cruz said in Spanish. “I’m on the path. Great things are waiting for me in the future.”

In amateur boxing, winning is strictly a measure of punches landed, and Cruz mastered the hit-and-don’t-get-hit style that defines Cuba’s program. Along with his Olympic and world titles, he twice won the Pan American Games.

But before Saturday’s bout, Burgos had promised to give Cruz a bruising initiation into the professional ranks, where judges reward aggressiveness, punching power and technical skill.

“If Andy Cruz wants to show what they’ve been saying about him is true, he’s got to come out and fight,” Burgos said Thursday. “The pressure is all on him.”

The boxers spent the opening round taking the measure of each other, Burgos trying to use his size advantage and Cruz working to establish distance and rhythm.

Cruz quickly found both, popping Burgos with two jabs and a hard right in the third round. Just before the bell, Cruz leaned back to avoid a left hook, then whacked Burgos with a counter right. In the fourth round, Cruz started landing uppercuts, and by the fifth, Cruz, the slicker boxer, was stalking Burgos. A right hand to the jaw knocked a misty cloud of sweat from Burgos’ head.

“A lot of times I thought I was close to knocking him out, but he always recovered,” Cruz said. “I learned a lot, and I still have a lot to learn.”

Ennis, the Philadelphia native who took over as Cruz’s trainer in May, was impressed, but not surprised, at the quick transition. He has been schooling Cruz on the subtle, but important, differences between the two versions of the sport, drilling him on punching with power on offense and standing his ground on defense.

“He’s only been with me two months, and he’s picked up the defense and everything,” Ennis said. “And he did it under the lights.”

Cruz was originally scheduled to turn pro in May 2022 in Mexico, under a partnership between Cuba’s boxing federation and a promoter based in Aguascalientes. But Cuban officials canceled his bout and left him behind while the rest of the team traveled to Mexico. At the time, officials blamed poor practice habits; Cruz suspects the decision was aimed at preventing him from defecting.

In June 2022, Cruz was arrested during a failed attempt to leave Cuba by boat and then barred from the country’s boxing gyms. By November he had secured a passport, and then he left the country legally, relocating to the Dominican Republic, where he began the six-month process of obtaining a U.S. visa and a pro contract.

“He went through hell last year,” said Jesse Rodriguez, one of Cruz’s managers. “But nothing fazes him.”

His three-year deal with Matchroom Boxing, with seven figures in guarantees, according to the promoter, was announced in May and has since taken him to two American cities rich with boxing history.

Cruz trains in Philadelphia, where boxing greats such as Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins made their name in the sport. The city now has contemporary stars like the welterweight Jaron Ennis, Cruz’s stablemate and Derek Ennis’ son, and the 122-pound champion Stephen Fulton, who will face the Japanese standout Naoya Inoue on July 25.

And Cruz’s debut came in Detroit, home to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and to the Kronk Gym, whose most famous world champion, Thomas Hearns, watched Saturday’s bouts ringside.

Empty seats dotted the upper levels at the Masonic Temple, but the rest of the venue held spectators with deep boxing knowledge and a strong interest in local fighters.

Some turned out to support Jermaine Franklin, the heavyweight contender from Saginaw, Michigan, about 160km north of Detroit. Others showed up for Ja’Rico O’Quinn, a 55.3kg prospect from Detroit. And many came out for the headliner, Alycia Baumgardner, who is based in Detroit and who defeated Christina Linardatou to retain her undisputed championship at 58.967kg.

Cruz’s contingent occupied a few seats in the front row of the lower bowl. The group included his fiancée, Melissa Broughton; heavyweight contender Lenier Pero; and the rapper known as El Micha, who accompanied Cruz to the ring.

Midway through the bout, one Cruz supporter unfurled a Cuban flag and held it high.

Cruz appreciated the cheers, even if he could not hear them.

“I don’t focus much on the crowd. I listen to my corner,” he said.

Beyond Cruz, the lightweight division is both talented and in transition.

The undisputed champion, Devin Haney, is considering moving up to the 140-pound junior welterweight division. He is also facing a weapons possession charge in California. His father and trainer, Bill Haney, told ESPN he was “confident things are going to be worked out.”

Gervonta Davis, a popular power puncher from Baltimore, recently completed jail time after a guilty plea in a hit-and-run case and is set to resume training.

Hypothetically, Cruz could eventually match up with either of them, as well as with Shakur Stevenson, a former 130-pound champion, or with prospects like Martin or Keyshawn Davis, whom Cruz defeated in the final at the Tokyo Olympics.

Before tackling those decisions, Cruz plans to spend a week savoring Saturday’s victory.

As an amateur, big wins brought trophies and medals. Cruz’s first professional win earned him a title belt made of red leather and gold plates.

“I’ve never held one in my hand,” he said. “Now I can feel the difference.”

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