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Yuriorkis Gamboa left Cuba but can't escape thoughts of home

Cuban boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa trains at the Kingsway

Cuban boxer Yuriorkis Gamboa trains at the Kingsway Gym in Manhattan on Tuesday, October 6. Gamboa fights Panama's Whyber Garcia at Madison Square Garden's theater Saturday, October 10. Photo by David Schuster

The headlines have been saying there is change in Cuba. Citizens can now own cell phones, stay in tourist hotels and buy DVD players. It all makes for good copy. It reads like hope is flourishing on the small island nation.
 
But please forgive Yuriorkis Gamboa if he does not believe what he reads. He spent the first 26 years of his life in Cuba, enduring the type of grinding poverty that can wear down even the strongest of men. From Gamboa's perspective, a Cuban exile now living in Miami, not enough has changed since February of 2008 when Fidel Castro stepped down and handed the country over to his brother, Raul.
 
"There have been a few minor, small changes," said Gamboa. "Not enough to be revolutionizing the island, which is what we need. It's changing, but at it's own pace, not at the pace the people on the island expect it to."
 
Gamboa won a gold medal for Cuba at the 2004 Olympics. He sold it on Havana's black market so he could throw a proper birthday party for his three-year-old daughter. Hope for Gamboa has never been tied to the promise of propoganda, but rather a good left hook. He knew his future -- and that of his daughter --resided beyond the shores of Cuba. Thus, in December of 2007, Gamboa, and boxing teammates Yan Barthelemy and Odlanier Solis, walked away from a Pan Am Games training camp in Venezuela into a new life.
 
The path to freedom led him to Colombia, Miami, Germany and finally back to Miami. Along the way he signed a lucrative promotional deal with Ahmet Oner, of Arena Box Promotions in Hamburg, Germany. On Saturday, it leads to Madison Square Garden.
 
Gamboa defends his WBA featherweight title against Panama's Whyber Garcia (22-6, 15 KOs) in the co-feature at the Garden's WaMu Theater. In the main event, Juan Manuel Lopez (26-0, 24 KOs) defends his WBO junior featherweight belt against Rogers Mtagwa (26-12-2, 18 KOs).
 
Gamboa has displayed a dizzying array of skills while accelerating through the ranks of pro boxing. He's won all 15 of his pro fights, including 13 by knockout, and has already appeared on Showtime, HBO and ESPN. Saturday's fight, co-promoted by Arena Box and Top Rank, will be available on pay-pew-view.
 
"I dont think he's exceeded expectations because he always had that level of talent," said Tony Gonzalez, Gamboa's manager. "At the same time, there is so much more we know he can give, it's scary."

Gamboa was raised in Guantánamo, the same Eastern province in which outstanding fighters Felix Savon and Joel Casamayor were cultivated. His blend of speed and power has earned him the nickname El Ciclon de Guantánamo -- The Cyclone of Guantánamo.
 
While Gamboa's boxing talent has every major network interested in his services, the fighter has never given up on the network of family and friends left behind in Cuba. Since leaving, Gamboa's daughter, brother and father have joined him in Miami. But Gamboa, like many Cubans in the United States, can't shake the memories of home.
 
"It's impossible for me not to think about Cuba," he said. "It's where I was born, where I was raised,where I was made. By the same token I don't want to go back to Cuba under the conditions I left them. I want to see a better Cuba."
 
Is Cuba better today than when Gamboa left? Perhaps. But it's a hard sell to those in the exile community. Aside from his German-based team, Gamboa has surrounded himself with Cubans, including Gonzalez and his trainer Ismael Salas, a former coach of the national team who defected while training boxers in Pakistan.
 
"Remember, I am Cuban-American not by choice," said Gonzalez. "I was born here because my father had to leave the island because of the Castro regime. Being raised in exile, I am a lot more  skeptical. We're always very skeptical and very cynical of what that regime does in Cuba. So I don't think there's really been change. If there's been change, it's been window dressing. It's not changed enough for the people on the island to be free."

Salas, who defected more than 20 years ago, was more succinct. "People say change, but I don't thnk they can change because it's the same people," the trainer said. "It's the people who created the system. The system will only change when these people are gone."

On Saturday night, in the grandest boxing venue of them all, a Cuban who considers himself free, will attempt to deliver a message of hope to his people. Not with political promises, but with his left hook.

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