Joel Casamayor holds a unique place in boxing. He's been in exile twice for his love of it.
The former Olympic gold medalist from Cuba first went into exile in 1996 on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, where he was expected to win gold for Fidel Castro for the second time. On the eve of those Games, Casamayor and his teammate, Ramon Garbey, slipped away, first into Mexico and later appearing under heavy security in Atlanta to formally announce they were coming to America to turn professional.
They were prize fighters long before that day in Atlanta, but in Fidel Castro's Cuba the prizes are small, as a disappointed Casamayor learned after he returned home from Barcelona in 1992 with a gold medal. Castro handed him the equivalent of $300 and a bicycle, which he later had to trade for a pig to feed his growing family. It was the bicycle that convinced him it was time to go but implementing his escape required time and opportunity.
"You have a decision you've got to make within seconds," Casamayor recalled of his first exile. "It's not something you can wait a week or two weeks; you go or you stay. [If] you get sent back your life is over. That first night I was scared. I left my brothers, my sisters, my mother, my daughter. There was no turning back."
It has been 11 years since Casamayor made the decision to leave his life to pursue his dream. During those years he has accomplished many things: He won world championships at 130 and 135 pounds, fathered nine children and made more money than he would have ever known had he remained in Cuba. He has lived the American Dream; yet he has never stopped dreaming a Cuban dream, too.
"I have lots of dreams of my family," the uncrowned lightweight champion of the world said this week in New York. "Two months ago I had a great dream of being back with my family. There was a party. We were dancing and laughing. I will be there in one year. I have a good feeling about that. I will go home and see my family.
"I don't think they'd let me in today. If you think they might, ask Fidel. I'm not sure 100 percent; when I'm not sure I don't do [things]."
Being unsure has been a daily part of the 36-year-old Casamayor's life since the moment he decided to defect. Despite all his success in the ring, that remains true today for on Saturday night he will fight Jose Armando Santa Cruz in Madison Square Garden underneath the Miguel Cotto-Shane Mosley main event, defending two forms of the lightweight title, the Ring magazine belt and an "interim" WBC version, while knowing he never lost the real title he won from Diego Corrales.
Nearly 13 months ago, Casamayor defeated an overweight, overconfident and deeply troubled Corrales, who would die months later in a motorcycle accident caused in part by his drunken state at the time. Although that victory came by split decision, few in boxing questioned the validity of it and Casamayor was quickly awarded the Ring belt (which has become the symbol of the linear champion in an era where it's difficult to keep track of these championships for long) as well as the WBC title.
But before he had a chance to get back into the ring, the WBC had snatched its belt back, stripping him of the title simply for talking to then-WBO champion Acelino Freitas about a possible rematch. Apparently, free speech exists neither in Cuba nor in the WBC because though the fight never came off, Casamayor's belt did and he has been exiled from his true home, the boxing ring, ever since.
"These belts are my kids," Casamayor (34-3-1, 21 KO) said as he sat in a booth at B.B. King's Restaurant on 42nd St. with reminders of what he himself had once been all around him. The belts were there. His new promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, was there. And over in the corner stood Garbey, a sad, portly reminder that things don't always work out as the dreamer plans.
Garbey was one of the hottest prospects on the Cuban team in 1996, a violent puncher with a nasty streak. But his punch didn't carry as much weight against professionals and freedom's soft edges blunted his violent side.
Garbay stands today as a lonely reminder of what can happen to the Cuban exile for whom boxing provides no real escape.
Casamayor glances at him and then returns his gaze to his fistic offspring, the belts he never lost but which are gone for now.
"They've never been taken from me in the ring," Casamayor said. "I never fell down. I've had four bad decisions but I feel I've had a Hall of Fame career. I did what I came here to do. I've been robbed of these titles."
Across the room his trainer, Joe Goossen, who has been reunited with Casamayor after a brief breakup, smiles when asked about the WBC's decision. It's a sad smile for a story he's heard too many times before.
"Isn't that unusual?" Goossen said. "Who isn't getting the short end of the stick in boxing? But Joel and I have had a lot of success together. After this fight he could go right back to fighting [WBA, WBO and IBF champion Juan] Diaz or [Manny] Pacquiao or anybody."
Perhaps, but first Casamayor must defend the RING belt and a WBC "interim" title bestowed on him, even though David Diaz now wears the champion's crown, a crown he won by defeating a tall, rangy opponent named Jose Armando Santa Cruz (25-2, 14 KO). Santa Cruz appeared on his way to winning the title stripped from Casamayor last year when Diaz suddenly hit him with a haymaker out of nowhere and knocked him out in the 10th round, a victory whose discussion makes Casamayor snort disagreeably.
"To be honest, it pisses me off but it also makes me laugh when they talk about others as the champion," Casamayor said. "Look at their records. Look at the people they fought. I'm the true lightweight champion. When you beat the best you are the best. I beat the late, great Diego Corrales a year ago and I haven't been rewarded for it. Until someone beats me, I'm the man.
"To be honest, when you fight against me you got to prepare for me. I don't have to prepare for you, you know what I'm saying? At 135 there's only one King Kong -- Joel Casamayor. It aggravates you when people are holding back your dream."
He sits back, a fighter between rounds, a silently glaring pugilistic potentate in exile. Then he leans forward and smiles. It's the smile of an assassin.
Ron Borges, who has won numerous Boxing Writers Association of America awards, covers boxing for HBO.com and for Boxing Monthly.