Rio de Janeiro: Just over two years ago Cuban light-heavyweight Julio Cesar La Cruz was shot in a botched robbery and his boxing career thrown into jeopardy.
On Thursday he added Rio Olympic gold to his three amateur world titles and paid tribute to the people of Cuba and his family for nursing him back to full health.
La Cruz, 27, who grabbed a slice of history in becoming the first Cuban to win Games gold at 81kg, said: “I was able to recover thanks to my family and especially to my mum. She’s the main person who has always supported me and the one who gave me hope.
“After that I was able to start again and carry on my career. This medal is repayment for all the sacrifices I made and the support I got from everyone.”
The Cuban, who bamboozled Kazakhstan’s Adilbek Niyazymbetov to earn a deserved unanimous points decision in their gold-medal showdown, was shot in his left hip in January 2014 during an attempted robbery. He keeps the bullet in a jar as a reminder.
This was a first boxing gold for Cuba in Rio — cementing the country’s place as the second-most successful in Games boxing history, after the United States, with the prospect of two more golds to come.
Niyazymbetov was outfoxed as La Cruz put on a masterclass of Cuban amateur boxing — all fast feet, body swerves and clever feints.
The 27-year-old Kazakh fell at the final hurdle for a second successive Games, after also claiming silver in London in 2012.
He was unable to hide his disappointment.
“I can’t say I’m really happy because I came to win gold. I have mixed feelings — sad and disappointed but happy at the same time,” he mumbled, his eyes red from tears.
“When you win the silver the second time it can be emotional. I have been training for four years and preparing myself for a gold medal, and I got a silver.”
La Cruz was an awkward customer to lay a punch on, Niyazymbetov admitted, and the Cuban’s face looked barely touched after the bout.
Feints and flicks
The stylish La Cruz had the crowd with him in the close-to-capacity 9,000-seat arena early on, but they were booing him by the end, feeling he did not attack enough.
The Kazakh was doing the pursuing with La Cruz — light on his feet and his long arms often dangling at his sides — content to dip in and out with the odd flick of a jab.
La Cruz was the smoother operator, Niyazymbetov the greater aggressor, but he was having trouble getting near the Cuban.
A few boos started to ring out when the crowd felt the duo needed to put on more of a show, especially the Cuban.
But that is not La Cruz’s style and jeers turned to a few cheers when Niyazymbetov missed with two big shots — the Cuban arching his neck back and his head away to avoid a flailing blue glove.
The Kazakh instead hit the ropes and La Cruz was cruising to victory — offering his face to be hit and then darting out of the way again, all the while lashing out a rapid-fire jab to keep his foe at bay.
Britain’s Joshua Buatsi and Mathieu Bauderlique of France take home bronze.