HAVANA (AP) — Protective headgear has been the rule of the ring for more than 50 years in Cuba, which banned professional boxing shortly after the 1959 revolution.
Back then, pro boxing was deemed corrupting and exploitative, and the big purses not in line with socialist egalitarian ideals. Now the island is on verge of relaxing the monopoly of amateur boxing by joining a semi-pro league in which athletes are paid by sponsors and fight pro-style bouts, but still retain the Olympic eligibility that's all-important to Cuban sports authorities. Boxers also would fight without the headgear they have grown accustomed to.
While officials caution that no decision has been made yet, it could offer island boxers a chance to earn more money, gain more exposure in high-profile competitions and help staunch the flow of defections that has robbed Olympic delegations of some of Cuba's brightest talent and resulted in disappointing medal counts in recent years.
"It motivates me. It's something new. It's a challenge," world amateur featherweight champion Lazaro Alvarez told The Associated Press at a local tournament in an Old Havana gym. "I would really love to take part to be able to show the world what I am, what Cuban boxing is really all about."
The World Series of Boxing was launched in 2010 by the International Boxing Association and consists of a dozen teams in two divisions.
During four months of league play that begins each fall, semi-pro franchises such as the Algeria Desert Hawks and the USA Knockouts face off in home and away matches, with a post-season playoff in the spring. Some teams are backed by national boxing federations, while others receive at least partial private sponsorship: the Dolce & Gabbana Italia Thunder team, for instance.
Fighters earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month plus bonuses ranging from $500 to $2,000. Bouts are five rounds, unlike three in amateur, with a point system similar to the pros.
That would mean a big raise for Cuban fighters, the most successful of whom collect lifetime stipends of $100-$300 a month after winning Olympic or world medals. Others presumably earn an amount closer to the national average salary of around $20 per month.
In January, World Boxing Association president C.K. Wu visited Cuba for talks with local authorities and announced that they were seriously considering their own franchise.
"We have all the elements so that those who must make a decision have the pros and cons," said Alberto Puig, president of the Cuban Boxing Federation.
Juan Hernandez, a 44-year-old four-time world amateur welterweight champion who now works as a trainer, was optimistic that the island will join the league and breathe life into the sport.
"Cuba seems to be close to taking part in the World Series," Hernandez said. "I would have liked to participate in a tournament like that, of course. It's a great challenge and opportunity for the boxers of today."
If Cubans live for baseball above all other sports, boxing probably ranks second. The first bout took place in 1912 and the annals of Cuban greats include the likes of Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan, both winners of professional titles, plus other colorful names like "Lightning" Saguero, "Butter" Jose Legra, the Las Tunas Kid and "Puppy" Garcia.
But in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution, all professional sports were banned and the very concept has been anathema to the island government's Marxist ideals ever since.
"In our eyes, sport is not just another instrument of the market ... nor of profit for promoters, agents and all manner of parasites that feed off the athlete's hard work," Fidel Castro said as recently as 2005.
Cuba nonetheless devotes a considerable amount of its scant resources to developing amateur talent and has punched above its weight at international competitions, scoring relatively high in the medal tables for a nation of around 11 million people.
Former pugilists Felix Savon and the late Teofilo Stevenson are among the three boxers in history to win gold medals at three Olympic Games, and Cuba took seven gold medals out of 11 possible at Barcelona in 1992.
Yet low wages, decaying facilities and the lack of opportunities for athletes to test themselves against the best fighters on the professional circuit have all contributed to a long, slow decline and costly defections.
After Olympic champions Odlanier Solis, Yurioski Gamboa and Yann Barthelemy walked away from training in Venezuela in 2006, the Cuban boxing delegation was left short-gloved two years later in Beijing and went home without a single gold for the first time in 36 years.
The debacle set off a flood of national soul-searching, with Castro himself calling for a frank and honest reappraisal of "every human and material resource we dedicate to the sport. We should be profound in our analyses (and) apply new ideas, concepts and knowledge."
In 2011, the country lowered the age of competition from 11 to 9 years old, beginning with a pilot program in Havana, in line with many other countries' boxing programs, and going semi-pro could be the next step toward regaining Olympic glory.
In 2015, World Series league fighters will be battling for 30 automatic tickets for the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro the following year. AIBA will also hold an individual competition with 70 automatic bids.
Cuban defectors have already shown they can be successful at any level. Guillermo Rigondeaux, who fled in 2009 after a failed defection attempt two years earlier, holds the pro title in the super bantamweight class, and Gamboa was world featherweight champion in 2010.
Island boxers interviewed by the AP were hesitant to talk about money, but their eyes lit up when asked about the league and what Cuba will bring to the competition. They spoke of having to learn to be more defensive as the lack of headgear would leave them more exposed to knockout, but expressed confidence that they're up to the task.
"I think that without boxers from Cuba it wouldn't be a great championship due to our country's skill at this sport," said Julio Cesar La Cruz, world titleholder in the light heavyweight class. "It would be part of my arsenal. It would be good to test myself there with the same goal (as always), which is to be an Olympic champion in Rio."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Havana contributed to this report.