Olympic Games

The boxing match that has pitted the two Cubas against each other

Reyes Pla, who competes as a Spaniard after having spent time in refugee camps, lost to Cuban legend La Cruz

4 min
Cruz and Reyes Pla face off in Olympic boxing quarterfinals

BarcelonaWhen you don't win by KO, boxing enters grey territory. Where a non-expert eye sees the victory of the one who has moved his arms more, the judges can see the victory of the one who has moved less. Often, even boxing experts can't agree on who won in close fights. And Emmanuel Reyes Pla felt the judges had robbed him of his Olympic medal. The Cuban fighter with a Spanish passport, outraged after losing on points in the heavyweight quarter-final, did not hold back: "They have taken it to a political level, it's not fair. I was better. Only God can judge me".

Not really judge - but boxing judges do give and take trumps. And, considering he wasn't the best puncher, they raised the arm of fellow countryman Julio Cesar La Cruz to give him the win. In Olympic boxing, just making it to the semifinals gets you a bronze medal, so with a medal on the line, two Cubans were facing off just as the island's communist regime is being debated again. La Cruz is the local hero. The boxer who has not gone to another country to go pro and has stayed in Cuba, where boxing is amateur, to win Olympic medals and string together four wins in light heavyweight at the World Championships. In 2016 he won gold in Rio de Janeiro in a category where he had no rival. In fact, Reyes Pla, when he trained with him, tried to gain weight to change category and see if the technicians of the Cuban Boxing Federation bet on him, since he understood that in the same weight class as Cruz he was not going to shine. To find him in an Olympic ring, then, was to be able to close the circle. It was ironic. Reyes Pla had left Cuba in part to get away from Cruz. And now that he had a chance to win medals, La Sombra (the Shadow), as he is known, appeared in front of him again, because in 2020 he had moved up from light heavyweight to heavyweight.

But while Reyes Pla hit with passion, Cruz was more calculated, with his uncanny style of seemingly not defending his face, off guard, moving hypnotically. The first round was won by Cruz. The second, by Reyes Pla. And the third, where everything was decided, was tense, among the shouts of other boxers present in the stands. "Cuba, Cuba!" could be heard shouting against a man who without Cruz might have been competing under the Cuban flag. Who knows.

Reyes Pla's journey has ended here. In front of a familiar wall. Cruz, always him. And La Sombra is already in the semifinals after clipping the wings of the Prophet, as Reyes Pla calls himself. One of the many Cuban boxers who compete under a different flag, since they have gone abroad to seek their luck. Each one, with a different story. Some, fleeing poverty. Others, seeking the riches of contracts in the United States. Reyes Pla was one of Spain's hopes for a medal after knocking out Vassili Levit, a boxer from Kazakhstan, a country where, as in Cuba, boxing is one of the most popular sports. Levit ended up on the canvas, while Reyes Pla looked to the sky, looking for divine complicity, affirming that his destiny was written in blood. "I have come to tear heads off. I've come to win the gold and I'll go over anyone's head. They said a typhoon was coming to Japan? It's here, it's me. I just want the gold. I respect my rivals, but I'm the one to beat", he said before the match against Cruz, with whom he had shared hours and hours of training. "I don't care that he's from Cuba. If he stands before me, he will fall. I've come to tear heads off". His tongue, however, proved to be quicker than his body. And Cruz was the one who ended up talking at the top of his voice. "We will win, we will win" shouted the boxer born in the beautiful Camagüey, in the centre of the island, where his image presides over the entrance to pharmacies, schools and shops. Next to the photos of the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro. Now that the Cuban regime has experienced demonstrations at home, Cruz's triumph was a political triumph. And Reyes Pla saw the elongated hand of the Havana government reaching all the way to the judges in the fight. "They've politicised it", he complained, who in recent days has criticised the Cuban government and defended its opponents.

Reyes Pla had learned to fight in the streets, of course. In Old Havana, where young people grow up among stories of the fists of legends like the great Teofilo Stevenson, Olympic heavyweight champion in 1972, 1976 and 1980, while he turned down offers to go get rich in Las Vegas. In Cuba, one of the pleasures is to talk about boxing. The literature created around boxing is so rich that it feels like poetry. Until you watch the fight and realise the brutality of a sport that has always been a fast track out of poverty. Fist to fist. In the end, Reyes Pla decided to leave the island in 2019, taking advantage of the fact that he had relatives in La Coruña (Spain) and that, being a sportsman, he could fly to Belarus, fleeing from the Cuban authorities, pretending he was going to a tournament. The journey was as long as it was hard, as he ended up locked up in a flat in Moscow for four months trying to find a way to enter the European Union. His journey took him to a refugee centre in Austria, where, surrounded by people fleeing the war in Syria, he practised boxing as best he could. Then he ended up in another refugee center on the border between Germany and France, where he had to clench his fists to avoid getting into even more trouble with the unfriendly treatment of the French police. And finally he arrived in La Coruña, where he lives with his grandmother, his father and his uncle, running a bar called El Cubanito. The trainers of the Spanish Boxing Federation could not believe that a boxer they knew from international tournaments called them on the phone. "I'm in Spain, I want to compete with you", he said. And when you're aiming for medals, you know, you pass other immigrants. In a few months, he was already in Madrid training with the Olympic team. Regaining the weight he had lost in the refugee camps and talking to himself, to believe he was predestined for the gold medal and more confident than anyone else.

The medal, however, did not come. Neither did the triumph over Cruz. La Sombra continues forward and now aspires to be the seventh boxer capable of winning two Olympic golds in two different categories.