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Ismael Salas: ‘I was the one who made Savon’

Ismael Salas
Steve Marcus/Getty Images
Trainer Ismael Salas is guiding Yordenis Ugas into his short-notice clash with Manny Pacquiao. He spoke to Declan Warrington

CUBA’S Ismael Salas was the trainer credited with the development of the great Felix Savon. He will guide Yordenis Ugas into Saturday’s clash with Manny Pacquiao. The nomadic figure established himself with the finest amateurs in his home country before defecting and excelling with professionals in both Thailand, Japan and the west. Having once proven himself despite the Cuban government’s attempts to undermine him from afar and before then in the great Cuban amateur setup against the wishes of his parents, there is every reason for the one-time trainer of the effortlessly-classy Savon, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jorge Linares to believe he will succeed.

The son of a middle-class Cuban-American engineer and Cuban mother, he was one of six siblings born and bred in the southern city of Guantanamo, and his talents gradually took him from there to Havana, then on to Asia and Australia, before he came to the US. “What happened in Cuba at that time was so beautiful,” Salas told Boxing News of his first steps into a career he has so individually pursued. “It’s normal to come back home with bruises, like a medal of war. We’ve been growing that mentality – ‘If you go to the streets, don’t come back crying’. It’s why Cuba has so many fighters. [My parents] were very tough and very strict. My father, at 7pm, everyone had to sit at the dinner table; not 7.05pm. It’s a discipline I bring with me.

“I grew up in the neighbourhood; Cuban society then was playing a lot in the street, fighting in the street, surviving daily. The only boxing gym there was two blocks from my house. One day at eight or nine years old, I started to watch the fights there; every Tuesday and Saturday they had cards. I started to love it – I didn’t know why, the adrenaline was pumping – and I said to myself ‘This is my choice’.

“Boxing, in that time, was only for the lower classes. My parents wanted me to be an engineer like my brother, father, grandfather; they were hoping one day I can be a worker at the American base, but I took a different way.

“My mother could not understand I loved boxing. Still I kept fighting, and hiding [it]; my mother started to beat me. But one time she said ‘If that’s what you like to do, there’s one condition – if you stay in school I’ll allow you to do what you love’.

“I graduated from school [in Santiago de Cuba] at 20, and my coach there saw my potential as a trainer. I’d been lucky to train [as a fighter] around the best trainers in southern Cuba, where the real quality is. Jose Maria Chivas, a legendary trainer in Cuba, is the one who really saw my potential.

“I went to university and did my masters degree [in sport and science], but at the same time was asked to work with the team in Guantanamo, working already with Olympic gold medallists. I started to train them. I worked with Felix Savon, Joel Casamayor, and so many more. Everything got serious from then.

“I was [soon] giving boxing seminars all around the world. The Cuban government used this as a kind of propaganda in the 1980s. After the 1984 Olympics in LA, because Cuba did not go – they killed many dreams, it was the cold war and it was bad for Cuban fighters – Cuba tried to sell their system, by sending us.

“I started going to Mexico, to Venezuela, and then in 1986 to North Korea. We spent 18 months in North Korea working with the national team [in Pyongchang] – it was very difficult. The system; what I learnt in that time, the Cubans complain, but I realised we were living free. North Korea was crazy, and I suppose it’s not changed. I could not refuse; no way. But it was a challenge for me; I’ve loved challenge, all my life.”

Following Salas’ return to Cuba, he was re-deployed to Pakistan, where from 1989 he spent three years in Islamabad and Karachi preparing the national team for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, after which he unexpectedly and finally began to work with professionals and truly became his own man. “Working with Pakistan I went to Thailand many times, and I met my [former] wife there, in Bangkok, after the Olympics,” said Salas, who is fluent in English, Spanish, Thai and Japanese. “After that, the Thai government requested my services, but the Cuban government said ‘No’.

“I defected to Thailand, from Barcelona to Bangkok. I was offered a job in a boxing gym; I’d been very honest about defecting, and told them I’d never seen a professional fighter in my life. They gave me a house and I started to work like crazy.

“I suffered a lot. I’d been without a passport, and was in Thailand illegally. When my fighters had to fight in Japan or the US, I could never go. The Thai government [after being recruited to work with the Thai national team] asked Cuba for help with different sports, not boxing. They said, ‘If you have Salas, we will not help you’, so I lost my job. I had three kids in Thailand [Salas also has four children living in the US and another in Cuba], and had no job.

“My case went to the UN human rights [council] and they pushed the Cuban government to give me a passport, because at that time I was not Cuban, not American, not Thai, nothing.”

Opportunities gradually arose in first Japan, where while living in both Tokyo and Osaka Salas met his present wife Kocomi, and then later in Sydney and Perth with Danny Green before – almost inevitably – he gradually worked his way further west and began to train some of his compatriots. “In 2008 I went to Hamburg in Germany, when I was asked to work with [Yuriorkis] Gamboa, [Odlanier] Solis and [Yan] Barthelemy, and split my time between Australia, Bangkok, and Hamburg,” the trainer explained. “Then in 2009 I went to Miami, and worked with Gamboa, [Erislandy] Lara and Solis, after with Rigondeaux, and then split time between Miami and Germany.

Ismael Salas
Yordenis Ugas training with Ismael Salas. Photo: PBC

“After this, I decided to stay in the US and not move anymore. I was very successful in Asia but if someone wants to succeed as a boxer or trainer you have to get recognition in the US. I’d analyse many coaches – Freddie Roach, Robert Garcia, Virgil Hunter, Manny Steward, Buddy McGirt, ‘I can kick their ass’. It’s a mentality, no? I’m very competitive.

“Then [the late] Rafael Garcia, a friend of mine for many, many years, it was his advice. ‘Salas, come to Vegas; I can introduce you to many people’. At that time it was no good for me economically, but I went to Vegas, and then many fighters started to come. I live from boxing, it’s the only thing I do.”

Of the finest he has worked with, he recalls: “When [Rigondeaux] hit me with the first punch, ‘Oh, amazing’. When we’d start camp, he doesn’t like to spar. ‘Are you fucking crazy? You go for a title without sparring? You have to spar’. He’d do his sparring, and in the fight, from rounds one-to-five he didn’t want to do anything. He likes to play a game; he’s a great, great fighter, but [could have been a lot more].

“I hated the guys around Gamboa – hated it, the egos. I like to always be in the back seat. Gamboa was an amazing fighter. Amazing. Unfortunately, great fighter, great, great fighter – and we had such a good connection – but I cannot control your personal life. They make their own decisions.

“Savon is no human. He’s like a machine – it’s like Joe Joyce, he’s so powerful, so big, and so many things at the same time. If Cuba had gone to the ’88 Olympics, he’d have got a fourth [gold medal]. The first punch he threw in his life was with me. I was the one who made Savon.”

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