LAS VEGAS -- He still remembers the boat, that 30-foot speeder that careened off punishing waves in the Atlantic Ocean, waves that dumped gallons of icy water onto the deck, soaking the 25 or so passengers stuffed like sardines on it. He can still hear the screams of the women and children ringing in his ears. For Erislandy Lara, it was the price you pay for defection.
In 2008, Lara was desperate. The Cuban boxer had attempted to defect a year earlier, in Brazil. He spent a month holed up in a hotel with fellow fighter Guillermo Rigondeaux before giving up and returning to Cuba. This time was different. This time he was going to get out, or die trying.
For Lara, Cuba had become unbearable. He grew up in Guantanamo, sharing a makeshift two-room home with his mother, Marisol, and sister, Janet. Food was scarce, sometimes just sugar and water, and what little the family did have Lara made sure went to his mother and sister first. Boxing wasn’t so much a passion as an excuse to get out of school. He rose quickly in the Cuban boxing system and traveled the world competing -- and often winning -- international tournaments.
“I started to slowly think, ‘This sport is for me,’” Lara told SI.com. “My time is coming.”
Here’s the thing about boxing in Cuba: Awards don’t yield rewards, at least not financial ones. Lara’s status as one of the national team’s elite afforded him a nicer room and some stylish training gear. But there was no stipend for fighters and certainly no purses to be won. Cuban fighters were amateurs for life, bound by birthright to win medals for the country.
To discourage defection, officials terrorized young prospects with tales of greedy professional promoters -- Don King’s name would come up a lot, Lara says -- who would rob them of their winnings. They would show videos of U.S. fights and bemoan the brutality of fighting without headgear.
“They said it was too dangerous,” Lara said. “Amateur boxing was classier.”
Lara saw something else. The streets of Havana were littered with the broken bodies of former Cuban greats. Fighters Lara grew up following, gold medalists, world champions, walked around drunk and penniless, brains bruised from a lifetime of battering in the ring.
“It was such a shame,” Lara said. “These were men that did so much.”
The thought of becoming them terrified Lara. He loved his family, which in 2007 included two young children. He couldn’t let that be his future. And after his failed defection in Brazil, Lara was banned from boxing. He walked those streets, saw those broken men, saw his life and theirs begin to phase together.
So in 2008, he resolved to make one last attempt. He walked 15 miles to a beachfront where the boat was waiting for him. The price for defection was $15,000, but once at sea the men in charge recognized him and raised the price to $200,000, to be paid by Lara’s sponsor.
Pay it, they told Lara, or we will throw you overboard.
“It was like an American seeing Floyd Mayweather said Luis DeCubas Jr., Lara’s co-manager. “They wanted what they wanted, and they were going to get it.”
Lara agreed. The boat was at sea for 14 hours, stealthily traversing the 125-miles to Cancun, Mexico. The transport fee - - negotiated down to $40,000 by Lara’s first promoter, Ahmet Ohner -- was paid in cash and Lara was off to board a plane to Hamburg, Germany, off to begin a new life. That life has led him to Las Vegas, where Lara will face Mexican star Saul Alvarez on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in a showdown between the world’s top junior middleweights (9 p.m., Showtime PPV).
“To be here, it’s incredible,” Lara said. “This is the reason I came to this country, to fight in these types of fights, and to fight at this level.”
The smile split his face from ear to ear, a toothy grin Lara flashes often these days. For most fighters, public workouts are a chore. But on Thursday, standing in the middle of a makeshift ring on the MGM Grand casino floor, Lara wore the look of a man who didn’t want to be anywhere else. He shadowboxed for a few minutes, posed for pictures with anyone who asked and signed autographs for many of the hundreds of fans standing ringside.
For Lara, the hype surrounding a fight with Alvarez -- a fight that will earn him a career-best $1 million -- is a welcome experience. The road here hasn’t been easy. He turned pro in 2008 and marched through his first 15 opponents. In 2011, Lara, in his biggest fight to date, lost a disputed decision to Paul Williams, a decision that was so bad the New Jersey State Athletic Commission suspended all three judges.
Lara rebounded with three wins -- with a draw against Vanes Martirosyan sandwiched in the middle -- including a knockout of heavy handed Alfredo Angulo. Last December, Lara picked apart former 154-pound champion Austin Trout in a lopsided decision win.
No one has ever questioned Lara’s talent. But his technical style -- which has contributed to just 12 knockouts -- isn’t exactly fan friendly. So while the hard hitting Alvarez became a star, Lara toiled in his shadow. While Trout, Angulo and James Kirkland were in the mix for mega fights, Lara waited his turn.
“He asked for every fight that he’s been in because nobody wants to fight him,” said Lara’s trainer, Ronnie Shields. “He only wants to fight the best fighters.”
Against Alvarez (43-1-1), he will finally get the chance. When Alvarez stopped Angulo last March, Lara (19-1-2) crashed the press conference and demanded the fight. And against the advice of his promoter, Alvarez, who has developed a reputation for being willing to take on all comers, eventually accepted.
While Alvarez picked Lara over a handful of safer opponents, Lara says he doesn’t owe Alvarez a thing.
“Absolutely not,” Lara said. “I don’t owe him anything other than left hands. I forced this fight. It wasn’t because he wanted to take this fight. We’ve been after this fight for two years and I’ve been putting pressure on him through social media [and] interviews and jumping on stage. That’s what pressured him to take this fight. I know he didn’t want this fight, and on [Saturday] you’re going to see the reason why he didn’t want this fight.”
These days, Lara’s life is fairly settled. He lives in Texas with his wife, Yudi, and their two children, with another on the way. He has aligned himself with boxing power broker Al Haymon, is making good money and is in a position, with a win, to thrust his name into the mix of opponents for Floyd Mayweather in 2015.
“The kid trains as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Shields said. “And this is every day.”
Lara’s days in Cuba are gone, but not forgotten. His mother and two sons are still there; he hasn’t seen them in six or years. They talk a few times a month but his defection has made it impossible to go and see them. He longs for the day they will be reunited, though he openly admits he has no idea when that will be.
For now though the focus is Alvarez, on winning the fight he has long felt he deserved and becoming the star he has long desired to be.