Tasks in AIBA boxing don’t come much tougher than taking on the Cubans but that’s the examination the British Lionhearts face in the WSB finals in Tashkent.
This is the third final the Domadores have reached in as many seasons and they’re overwhelming favourites to regain the crown they won against Azerbaijan two years ago but lost to the Astana Arlans last June. As for the Lionhearts, nobody expected them to get this far but it’s been a sensational few months for GB boxing and success has bred success.
The two teams’ training sessions collided on Thursday. The Lionhearts were there in force, all 11 team members present, whilst for Cuba just Julio La Cruz, Arlen Lopez, Yasnier Toledo and Robeisy Ramirez, the only member of their team not to have qualified for Rio yet, chose to shake off the effects of a mammoth journey from their homeland.
It was interesting to watch the two groups circle; Lawrence Okolie immediately wanted to get on the pads to give them a taste of his power and checked I’d be ready with the right words to describe a stoppage win over opponent Erislandy Savon come fight night. And the Hackney heavyweight was on fine form at the weigh-in the next morning, answering questions from the floor on the team’s behalf. His message was simple: We are not here to make up the numbers, we are here to win.
The Cubans didn’t breathe a word, they rarely do, but as a boxing nation carry an aura that seems to transcend talking. They expect to win and are expected to win. Nobody, it seems, expects a GB victory so the pressure is off which can make a difference. For example, if anyone was going to be showing signs of nerves you’d expect it to be Dalton Smith, the young light-welter making his debut against multiple world and Olympic medallist Toledo, but when I spoke to him I didn’t find that to be the case at all, he was relishing the challenge. Frazer Clarke and Luke McCormack meanwhile, who take on Lenier Pero at super heavy and Lazaro Alvarez at lightweight respectively, did their bit for international relations giving interviews to Uzbek TV.
So it’s a relaxed camp led by coach Gary Hale but there’s no underestimating the scale of the task. Cuba have won 47 of their 50 WSB bouts this season, whitewashing Mexico and Uzbekistan 10-0 in the knockout stages. Seven of the t10 Domadores medalled at last year’s World Championships with Johanys Argilagos, Alvarez, Lopez and La Cruz all winning gold and in Ramirez and Roniel Iglesias boast reigning Olympic champions. The Lionhearts must make a good start. The early bouts between Galal Yafai and Argilagos at light fly, Peter McGrail and Ramirez at bantam and Troy Williamson and Lopez at middleweight will be crucial.
But the distance the Domadores have travelled could play a part. I was ringside in Astana last year and I felt it did then. My co-commentator Nate Campbell, the former lightweight king, has made almost the exact same trek from Florida and described it as “brutal”. Some of the Cuban team seemed to feel the effects 12 months ago; the Astana Arlans won the opening bout and never looked back.
A Lionhearts win would be a huge achievement and a massive upset but as Okolie said; they’re not here to make up the numbers.