PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba — Young Pittsburgh boxers strode into a big old gym filled with 500 cheering locals Wednesday afternoon, the visitors clad in the “Apollo Creeds,” red, white and blue shorts, straight out of “Rocky.”
The red, white and blue Cuban flag hung floor to ceiling to greet them, with a classroom-sized American flag beside it. The dominance of the native flag proved something of an open. Cubans won six of the nine bouts.
But these fights in Cuba’s Western-most province, where tobacco for the most coveted cigars in the world is grown, dried, fermented and shaped, were meant to be fun. They represented the second half of a tournament that began on the Roberto Clemente Bridge last July, which the Cubans won, 7-4.
“Building Bridges Through Boxing,” say the T-shirts worn by Pittsburgh coaches, and organizer Mike Diven told the Cubans in his opening remarks that Pittsburghers preferred bridges to walls.
Charlie Clouston, 17, a three-time golden glove champion who trains out of Ellwood City, came out first against local favorite Yan Carlos Iglesias. The Cuban 135-pounder worked the left jab early but Clouston kept coming through the three-round fight.
The crowd cheered when the young Cuban’s hand was lifted as the winner, and the Cubans took the second bout, too. But Sylvio Cercone, 16, of Brookline and Bishop Canevin High School, and Cameron Donnelly, 16, who trains at the Pittsburgh Boxing Club on Mount Washington and goes to Baldwin High School, won the next two bouts. This tournament was turning out as it was designed, a meeting of evenly matched young athletes.
In a locker room talk before the fight, Brandon Cercone, father and trainer of 132-pound Sylvio, said the coaches wouldn’t allow anyone to be hurt. These bouts were meant to be fun, not too serious, though no fighters would give anything less than their all.
With former world lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini part of a 60-person American delegation that included Pennsylvania state legislators and Penn State officials, this tournament was the centerpiece of a mission designed to increase trade and academic cooperation.
In an opening ceremony Monday afternoon in Havana, Antonio Becali, president of the Cuba’s Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation, said through a translator that he was pleased to see folks “from a very sportive province such as Pittsburgh.”
Cuba, with more than 11 million people, isn’t quite as populous as Pennsylvania, yet Cuba is second only to the U.S. in Olympic boxing medals. This nation’s fighters have reached the highest level in Pinar Del Rio, Becali said.
For boxers Cercone, Donnelly, Hugo Garcia, a Bishop Canevin alumnus, and Nehemiah Hollinger, a Brookline native who sustained a concussion two weeks ago and had to sit these fights out, this was their second trip to Cuba. They trained last year in Havana with a Cuban team that went on to Rio de Janeiro to win three golds and three bronze medals five weeks later.
When representative Anita Kulik, D-Kennedy, handed Becali a commemorative coin from the Pirates, he smiled and said, “Since I visited Pittsburgh, I am a lover of the Pirates.”
The Pennsylvania-Cuban athletic connections don’t end with boxing. The Penn State baseball team came to Cuba in November 2015 and lost three of four games, the start of a partnership the university hopes will lead to much more.
Penn State and the University of Havana of held a signing ceremony Wednesday morning with the promise of engaging in human faculty exchanges and sharing ideas in sports medicine and other areas.
Robert Creo of Duquesne University made a pitch to Mr. Becali for exchanges in sports law as well.
But the home-and-home boxing matches are the first such bilateral exchange Cuba has had with any U.S. entity.
Mancini, who worked the corner in the last two bouts, said he couldn’t be prouder of the Pittsburgh boxers. Cuba’s second- and third-team boxers could beat most countries in the world, he said.
“These kids have so much heart,” Mancini said. “The experience they gained won’t be forgotten in the ring or out.”
Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 22, 2017