When victory is your duty

With the Olympic Games underway, it is a great time to focus our attention towards an Olympic powerhouse. And while the story alone is interesting, there are important lessons that can be realized by studying the success of one small island nation.

Cuba is without question the most dominant force in amateur boxing. This small island of 11 million people won its first Olympic boxing medal in 1968. In the time since, Cuba has captured 32 medals, including 26 gold. These astounding numbers are slightly deceiving however, considering that Cuba boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games. Their totals would have likely surpassed the 40 medal mark (through 2004) if they had competed in the 1980’s. In 1992, they came back and won 9 medals, including 7 gold.

So, how does this nation of 11 million people create so many champions? New York City alone has over 8 million people. Cuba isn’t competing with New York City however. Cuba has dominated the United States, along with the rest of the world. An entire world of boxers cannot compete with an island of 11 million people.

How can it be?

Many will read of Cuba’s success and assume that the nation has the most sophisticated training methods in the world. They must have dedicated PhD’s, sports scientists, nutritionists, certified trainers and specialists, etc. all working around the clock, right? After all, our industry promotes the message that one cannot excel in today’s sporting world without highly sophisticated methods.

Yet, to your surprise, Cuba’s methods would be considered rudimentary by many in our world. Their athletes are not successful because of a state of the art facility. Their coaches didn’t become successful by paying thousands of dollars on Internet certification programs. Their small island isn’t blessed with a superior genetic pool.

So, what is the secret?

There really is no secret. Cuban boxers begin training as youngsters. There is a boxing academy in each of Cuba’s 14 provinces. Children have access to the sport, and take pride in becoming champions. Within the video clips below, you’ll see how the Cubans advance through their system. One of the young fighters makes the following statement:

“To become someone, you have to make sacrifices. If you don’t, you can’t become what you want to become.”

These young fighters are raised with this mentality. They train hard and become active as youngsters. The combination of hard work, consistent work, pride, and experience is instrumental in their success. Boxing is one sport where experience is a must. No amount of bag work in the basement can substitute the need for real competitive experience. Cuban fighters commonly rack up well over 100 amateur bouts, often much more. This amount of experience is worth its weight in gold (literally).

Take some time to watch the following documentary. A related article can also be read at this link.

The Cuban story highlights many truths regarding athletic preparation. Successful coaches know their sport. Their knowledge wasn’t developed in a laboratory. It comes through years of involvement in the actual sport. Speaking from personal experience, many of my own mentors would be considered uneducated from a societal standpoint. Their knowledge of the sport however is as refined and advanced as the most educated professional. There is absolutely no substitute for experience.

There is also no substitute for hard work, just as there is no substitute for pride in your work. The fact that a nation of 11 million people can continually dominate the international boxing scene shows us that there is much more to athletic success than simply having superior genetics. Hard, consistent work with experienced coaches is the only real secret, and this is the message that we should all be preaching.

And no, this isn’t a knock against sports research and science. A week doesn’t pass without me actively studying new material. There are times however when we must fall back on the most simplistic definition of science. Merriam-Webster lists the following definition:

Science – the state of knowing

Cuba knows how to develop champions, which makes their methods as scientific as any. As a coach, it is useful to learn from those in the trenches, who continually produce champions. Spending time in an archaic gym that produces champions then becomes just one more step in the “scientific” process.


  1. thanks a lot Ross, I’ve been looking for this for ages! Any idea if it’s possible to go over and train in Cuba? My family and I went there for a beach vacation (and sightseeing) 3 years ago, shame I wasn’t into boxing back then, I’m sure it would be a great experience!

    thanks again

  2. Great blog entry and great read. When watching the opening ceremonies Friday night, it was mentioned how many of the poorer nations only have the land to train on with no modern technology of any sort, yet they’ve become Olympians. I’ve always loved the primitive way of training, hence why I love my “can do anywhere” one-arm push-ups instead of the “pec deck”. Good stuff.

  3. I was discussing this very thing with someone else just last week.

    Isn’t the fact that a Cuban boxer can’t turn pro a large factor in why they do so well?

    Not taking anything away from their effort but I would have thought the best boxers in most countries turn pro so they can earn a good living.
    But I know very little about boxing so this is just a theory.

  4. Cuba has done an impressive job in training boxers, but it’s more than a little misleading to compare their Olympic successes with those of other countries. Why? A simple reason: there are no pro boxers in Cuba! In free countries, the amateur ranks are primarily a stepping stone for talented boxers on their way to the pro ranks and money; in communist Cuba, that route is unavailable. So it’s hardly shocking that their permanent “amateurs” are disproportionately more successful than everyone else’s young, temporary amateurs.

  5. The success of the Cuban team has isn’t about age. Anyone involved in amateur boxing knows that the Cubans are good at all ages. Even the well known Cubans who became famous for repeat performances were also good as youngsters. Félix Savón is a classic example. He won Olympic gold in 1992, 1996, and 2000. In 2000, he was 33 years old (and is a VERY well known Cuban boxer).

    Many fail to realize however that Savón was already a world amateur champion at age 19. He won the world amateur championships back in 1986. The Cuban teens are already dominant. The list is long of young Cuban champions. The fact that they remain dominant has nothing to do with the success of their methods.

    The fact remains that a minuscule island continues to produce champions.


  6. Hi Ross,

    I didn’t say that Cuban boxers succeeded *only* because they don’t turn pro, but that their successes are exaggerated on that account. Savón, and before him Teófilo Stevenson are perfect examples. Both were excellent at a young age, but (1) they were special – they weren’t surpassed by other, younger Cubans for a long time, either, and (2) they didn’t have to face such professionals as Ali, or Frazier, or Foreman (these three for Stevenson); or Holyfield (when he became a heavyweight) or Lewis (for Savón). Maybe the Cubans would have won even against those boxers (who knows?), and they were great champions in any case, but there can’t be any question that their paths to gold were easier on this account.

  7. It’s also worth noting that amateur boxing involves more than the Olympics. The talent pool in the Cuban amateur championships is incredible. It would be incredible on its own, but is even more incredible when considering the size of the population responsible for this talent pool.

    As for age, let’s also not forget that the Cubans train for a specific sport (amateur boxing), which is actually much different from professional boxing. The Cubans are trained specifically for their event (ie. the scoring system). The amateur vs. pro argument doesn’t make sense, as Cubans are not trained for the professional sport, and those that do defect, do so by leaving behind their Cuban trainers. Yet with that said, many who do defect are very successful as pros. One current example is Yuriorkis Gamboa who recently turned pro after winning gold in the 2004 games. He is definitely one to watch. A more established example would be Joel Casamayor. He won gold in the junior worlds back in the late 1980’s (don’t recall the exact year), and also won a gold in the 92 Olympics.

    Furthermore, it’s VERY important to realize that Cuban boxers are dominant at all levels, including the junior level, and even before they turn to the open class (where the adults compete). Their kids are rich in talent. And once again, this rich talent pool (junior level) all comes from one small island. Let’s also not forget many well known US Olympians (ex. 1984 and 1988 Olympics) won their medals in a year that the Cubans did not compete. Their path was also much easier.

    Ultimately, we can continue to split hairs over what could have been or should have been, but we’ll never know how Cubans would fair if they were trained specifically for the professional game. And while the debate would be entertaining, it would also be unrelated to this blog entry (and the underlying message behind it). I don’t wish to lose the real message in a debate over junior champions from Cuba.


  8. Hi Ross,

    This is a very inspirational post. There are a number of factors that are involved in the creation of any champion in any sport. It seems to me that Cuba has been very adept at instilling “great heart” into its’ young fighters. This is the intangible that can often overcome all the scientific advances we tend to rely on.

  9. Hey Ross! It’s your boy Chuck.

    Wow man this was very inspirational Ross. I have nothing but the utmost respect for these youngsters. This is what it’s suppose to be about, as i stress to preach always. DEDICATION & HARDWORK!!! There’s no subsitute. Any one can get motivated from reading this Blog entry & watching these videos if they are true down to earth fighters. These kids are truly blessed. Thank You so much Ross for sharing this with us. You are the man.

  10. Hi Ross,
    really great Article! Love watching your videos and following your blog. Nice work.

    greetings from germany,

  11. I agree with the not so high tech cubans and their boxers…look no further than Manny Pacquiao and the accomplishments he’s done to this date. I know his whole background and the economics (or lack thereof) starting off. This guy is another example of hard work…without the “luxuries”. He’s earned it!

  12. Am I the only one who found this completely depressing?! I understand there is a lesson to be learned, fine. Hard work and dedication are all that’s required. How about the rest of it? ALL those kids work hard, but there can only be 12. So how many losers does that leave? Then, when they lose, what else do they have? Diddly Squat. Taken away from their homes, coaches not seeing their families, and if they don’t make it, they got shit. Sports “Acadamies” (Factories), exploiting kids so a Communist Nation can “prove” that their workers paradise is an Earthly nirvana. Sports, their singular obsession and only way out of squalor. Terrible.

  13. This lifestyle is very similar to the situation in Thailand regarding Muay Thai. Over there kids leave their homes and train from as early as 5 or 6 years old, often having their first fights around 12. Some accumulate over 300 fights in their career; and of course the training there can hardly be called sophisticated. Two 4-hour sessions a day, 6 days a week. They eat, sleep, and breathe their sport and they are the best in the world at it.

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