Few countries take the sport of boxing as seriously as Cuba.
In the 2008 Beijing Games and Athens in 2004, Cuba won eight medals in 11 categories, more than any other nation. If the U.S. decides to drop all sanctions against Cuba, it's a certainty that Cuban boxers will waste no time in entering professional circuits where they are expected to be major contenders in every weight class.
Whistler's Geoff Bate recently joined a group of boxers from the Griffins Boxing Club in North Vancouver who traveled to Cuba to train with their coaches and spar with some of the top amateur boxers in the world.
"They're really good," said Bate. "They come out with different stances. They have some different footwork and they really know how to keep moving. They also have a different technique on the jab, they like to keep their knuckles facing you and twist their whole fist when they punch. But their footwork is phenomenal. I was watching them spar against a few other guys who came along on the trip and I watched their feet the whole time."
During his trip Bate trained at a regional outdoor gym for the first few days - by law every neighbourhood in Cuba has to have a gym - then moved on to the national Olympic training facility where he had an opportunity to spar with members of the national team, including a former world champion, and be coached by previous champions and Olympic medalists. They like Canadians, Bate says, and showed them a few tricks during training. Not everything of course - all boxers have their secrets - but Bate learned a few things that he will try to incorporate into his own style.
One thing that Bate discovered early is that most Cuban boxers are left-handed, usually selected at a young age. Despite the fact that only one in 10 people are left-handed, Bate says a high percentage of southpaws are represented on the podium in amateur boxing.
"I've never fought a southpaw, but I've sparred against a few and my coach is left-handed so I was pretty used to it," he said.
Another thing they discovered is that women are currently not allowed to box in Cuba, despite the fact that women's boxing will be in the Olympics in 2012. The Griffins brought three women from their club to train.
"We didn't know that it was illegal for girls to box in Cuba," said Bate. "We sorted that out, and they managed to train with us so everybody was happy."
Bate also worked on conditioning, jogging and doing wind sprints on the beach each morning before heading to the gym to work out and spar with the other boxers. "It was like a working holiday," he said.
Bate hopes to put everything he learned to use later this month when he and Andrew Wark, who also trains with local coach Sasha Gier, enter the provincial level Silver Gloves tournament. For that event both boxers hope to be accepted in the open category, which has a five-fight requirement to enter. Wark has boxed twice and Bate three times. Both are so far undefeated.
They will require at least 10 fights to enter a golden gloves tournament, the highest level of amateur tournament sanctioned by Boxing B.C., but both boxers are looking in that direction.
"I don't think we need to jump on anything too quickly," said Bate. "Just keep adding to our records and hopefully get in there."
As well as going to Cuba, Bate and Wark have also made their first trip to Pemberton to train at the new boxing club there. The ring was not complete as press time, but the gym has already signed up a few dozen boxers to train in the facility.
For more information or registration contact Kevin Murray at 604-902-5104.