This year’s Cinco de Mayo fight was supposed to be Yuriorkis Gamboa’s second and perhaps the final chance to once again fight for a title. Despite a period of inactivity and lackluster performance in recent years, the Cuban boxer entered the ring heavily favored to win against Mexico’s Robinson Castellanos. His legendary athleticism and speed were expected to carry him through the night against a challenger with a mixed fight record who just came off a knockout loss two months earlier.
But the fight that was supposed to bring Gamboa an easy win did not end the way he had hoped to. Feeling dizzy and weak, Gamboa quit the fight at the end of the 7th round, a stunning decision that endangers his future in a sport that scorns quitters.
Gamboa came out aggressive in the first round, attacking Castellanos to the body. In the third round, however, the Cuban was caught by a jab, and was dropped to the mat by a right hook in the last 10 seconds of the round. In the fourth round, Castellanos threw a big overhand right, knocking down the Cuban champion for the second time. During the one-minute break, TV cameras captured Gamboa in his corner looking dejected, looking like he was keenly aware that the dream for a title fight was slipping away.
Gamboa had more activity in the sixth round, showing signs of the skills that had once made him one of the most bankable prizefighters. He demonstrated quick footwork and explosive power, but his tactic to lead with an overhand left hook backfired. He was again caught by Castellanos’ power shots in the seventh. In a strange turn of events, “El Ciclon de Guantanamo” (The Cyclone of Guantanamo), an Olympic gold medalist and a former WBA and IBF title holder, Gamboa told his team “ya no” (no more) at the end of the 7th round, handing Castellanos a TKO victory, and perhaps closing his doors to the sport for good.
Boxing celebrates athletes who fight on even in the face of an imminent, humiliating defeat, but is unforgiving of quitters. Roberto Duran’s refusal to continue fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in their second bout on November 25, 1980 is immortalized in boxing’s most famous Spanish words “no mas”, a phrase that made Duran a pariah in Panama for a few years. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. continues to be ridiculed for quitting after the 10th round in his match with Polish fighter Andrzej Fonfara in 2015.
Gamboa said he felt dizzy and felt he could not go on with the fight. For a boxer who has gone through so much adversity to pursue a long amateur and professional career, “ya no” came as a surprise and raised the question of whether Gamboa merely wanted to quit the fight, or was he saying goodbye to the sport as well?
Gamboa was born in Guantanamo two days before Christmas day in 1981. The son of an amateur boxer, Gamboa, like many of Cuba’s famed boxers, grew up in a poor family. In an interview in 2011, Gamboa said he learned to box by going to the gym with his father, Carlos, and hitting the sandbags that double as heavy bags in poorly equipped boxing gyms in Cuba. The young Gamboa trained in Cuba’s elite sports academy, La Finca, and went on to win a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Shortly after winning the Olympic gold, dissatisfaction set in. “We had won Olympic gold for our country but I didn’t even have enough money to buy a birthday present for my daughter. I asked myself: Why should I stay in a country where the ruling class doesn’t care about me even though I represent my country in the best possible way? It just didn’t seem to make any sense,” he said in an interview with 15 Rounds. Gamboa famously sold off his Olympic gold medal for $1,500 to pay for his daughter’s first birthday.
While training in Venezuela in 2007, Gamboa and two other members of the Cuban national boxing team saw an opportunity to escape. They made their way to Colombia and on to Germany where Gamboa made his pro debut in April 2007. In October 2007, he debuted in the United States, eventually winning the WBA title from 2009 to 2011 and the IBF belt from 2010 to 2011. The rest, as they say, is history.
But Gamboa’s post title history has been bumpy. Nothing in Cuba prepares its athletes for life outside the Cuban system, and the tragedy of Cuban athlete defections is that the active pursuit of the American dream ends up killing it.
Every immigrant has his own version of the American Dream. For an elite athlete who overcomes physical and emotional adversity to pursue it, the dream typically involves a multimillion-dollar contract, enough to bring his family over, and the ability to provide them with the comforts they never had. For Gamboa, it may even include buying back that precious gold medal he sold to an unknown buyer more than 10 years ago.
Because Gamboa was 25 when he defected, the need to capitalize on his prime boxing years was higher than contemporaries who had an early start in their professional careers. This appeared to have fueled the frustration over the length of time it takes to build up a fighter’s commercial success, and may have resulted in hasty decisions made to fast-track superstardom.
Early in his professional career in the US, Gamboa was signed up by Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions. But the relationship soured after Gamboa reportedly felt that he was not being given the fights that he deserved. The dispute came to a head when he was a no-show at a pre-fight press conference to promote his bout with Brandon Rios in April 2012. He was later on spotted at Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Las Vegas, and eventually signing up with TMT Promotions, a partnership between Mayweather and rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson.
A falling out with Mayweather led 50 Cent to set up SMS Promotions and taking Gamboa along. Gamboa became 50 Cent’s most prized fighter, but the partnership ended up in a legal battle after the boxer failed to get quality fights after a TKO loss to Terence Crawford in 2014. It was a loss that Gamboa’s career never recovered from. He fought just twice after his loss to Crawford in June 2014, and did not fight in 2016.
In March 2016, he announced he had signed with a Spanish promoter, BB Promotions, but did not fight under this company. In January 2017, Golden Boy Promotions signed him up and immediately matched him with Rene Alvarado on March 11, 2017. The match with Castellanos was his second under Golden Boy.
In addition to switching promoters, Gamboa was implicated in the Biogenesis performance enhancement drug scandal in Miami in 2012. The Miami New Times reported evidence of what appeared to be Gamboa’s regimen that included performance enhancement drugs to prepare for his fight with Brandon Rios. Gamboa was never legally charged. But around the same time, he also faced two domestic violence charges, one in 2011 and a second in 2013, charges that did not help his reputation.
From winning two world titles and fighting for six-figure purses, Gamboa was worth just $20,000 by the time he entered the ring last weekend.
Golden Boy has not commented on Gamboa’s decision to quit, but it remains to be seen if it can or will attempt to pull off under high profile fight for the Cuban boxer.
By quitting his fight, Gamboa has made himself an even more difficult sell. While he is still under contract with Golden Boy, Gamboa is neither in the same stature as Golden Boy’s most precious fighter, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, nor does he have Chavez Jr.’s advantage of having a boxing superstar for a father. At 35, Gamboa’s chances of another title is slimmer than ever.
In Gamboa’s loss, we saw a defeat that goes beyond boxing. We saw a boxer humbled by the passing of time and an immigrant weary of chasing his American Dream.