Adilbek Niyazmbetov must want a voodoo doll of Julio César La Cruz. Niyazmbetov is one of the greatest amateur boxers in the world. He earned silver medals at the World Championships in both 2011 and 2013, and silver again at the Rio Olympics. Each time, he was beaten to gold by La Cruz.
La Cruz is the finest fighter pound-for-pound fighter in the amateur game. At Rio, the he won each of his fights 3-0, and barely broke a sweat on his way to the final. His gold medal was the first won by a Cuban at light-heavyweight (201 lb / 91 kg), giving the island a complete set of golds from all 12 divisions to ever feature in the Olympics.
“I achieved my goal,” La Cruz told Reuters. “I have now won all the AIBA titles.” The Olympic gold joins three World Championships, one World Series of Boxing (WSB) championship and two Pan-American Games titles on his mantelpiece. He’s also a four-time national champion and a winner in every junior category.
“The judges decide and they had me as the winner unanimously. The fans can support whoever they want.
Nicknamed “The Doctor”, La Cruz operates with surgical precision. He has named Lorenzo Aragón, Mario Kindelán and Adolfo Horta the biggest influences on his style. His speed and reflexes make La Cruz the most elusive boxer in the sport
Cruz has a style that would give many coaches a heart attack, but his is a talent you can’t teach. His hands often hang by his knees, and he sways out of the way of the punches before whipping in rapid pot-shots. His smooth footwork and preference for the back foot isn’t always fan friendly, and some fans booed him during the final. But for aficionados of defensive maestros, his skill set is sublime.
“They can think what they want, I was just doing my job to win the fight,” he said. “In the end it’s the judges who decide and they had me as the winner unanimously. The fans can support whoever they want.”
It was the second time La Cruz had competed in the Olympics. In London, he was shocked in the quarter-finals by Yamaguchi Falcao of Brazil, one of the few occasions he’s been made to look human.
Away from boxing, La Cruz has a daughter and likes to study, read and watch TV. But in 2014, problems outside the ring almost cost him his career and his life. La Cruz was shot in his hometown of Camagüey in 2014. The bullet hit him just above his left hip and left him in hospital.
Within two months he was back in the ring, fighting in the WSB. The next year, the Cuban stylist was named the 2015 AIBA World Boxer of the Year.
La Cruz has a penchant for gold. His teeth match the colour of his medals. But the chances of him chasing further riches in professional boxing look. He considers Fidel Castro an idol and dedicated his Olympic medal to his compatriots and the retired Cuban leader.
The financial climate for Cuban boxers has changed dramatically in recent years. .The introduction of AIBA professional boxing and the WSB offer earnings that were previously unheard of, and La Cruz has even scored sponsorship deals. At 27, giving up his homeland may no longer be worth the risk.
While La Cruz looks untouchable at times, his low hands and reliance on reflexes leave him open to a big puncher. But precious few have pierced his defence. The last time someone laid a dent on him was during the WSB, when a vicious left hook from a young challenger sent the Cuban maestro to the canvas. The man to throw that punch? A young Brit named Joshua Buatsi…
Previous: Claressa Shields | Next: Joshua Buatsi