Fighting out of the box

Caribbean boxers aim to fight their way into acclaim at the Olympics. Laura Dowrich-Phillips looks at their struggle for recognition

Aaron Hassette of Trinidad and Tobago, left and Ricardo Suite of Jamaica at the CABA Boxing Championships in 2006. Photograph courtesy US Virgin Islands Boxing FederationAaron Hassette, red, in action against Ricardo Suite of Jamaica at CABA Championships in 2006. Photograph courtesy US Virgin Islands Boxing FederationAaron Hassette, red, in action against Ricardo Suite of Jamaica at CABA Championships in 2006. Photograph courtesy US Virgin Islands Boxing FederationElizabeth Burke, a member of the Trinidad and Tobago female boxing team. Photograph by Mariamma KambonTrinidadian fighter Enoch Romeo, right, at the Pan Am qualifiers in 2007 in Trinidad. Photograph courtesy Trinidad And Tobago Amateur Boxing AssociationUS boxer Dakota Stone, left, fights Trinidadian boxer Giselle Salandy at the Jean Pierre Complex, Trinidad. Photograph by Anthony HarrisWendy Allen, captain of the Trinidad and Tobago female boxers. Photograph by Anthony Harris

As a child, Aaron Hassette hustled on the streets to make ends meet. He and his older brother lived with their unemployed, illiterate grandmother in Beverly Hills, one of the depressed urban communities that fringe Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital. Running away from home became a habit, and he would go missing for weeks, living on the streets looking for ways to earn money and help feed his family.

Fed up with his delinquency, his grandmother took him to the police. He was taken before the courts and committed to the St Michael’s Home for Boys at the age of 10. The institution works to reform delinquent youth, and there Hassette was introduced to the sport of boxing.

Today, he is a 22-year-old Ordinary Seaman with the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, a national boxing champion, the captain of the national team, and on a sports scholarship at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT).

His is the type of success story that officials of the Trinidad and Tobago Amateur Boxing Association (TTABA) hoped would drum up support from the corporate world for the Olympic Games boxing qualifiers that will be staged from March 10–18.

This is an historic event for the region, which only hosted its first international qualifiers of any type last year, when the Pan Am Games qualifiers were held in Trinidad and Tobago.

An Olympic qualifier will also be staged in the country, and though it’s the first of two such qualifiers for the Americas, it is considered the more important. Guatemala will host the second round in April.

“Forty-two countries are expected to come: that is over 300 people, including Dr (Ching-Kuo) Wu, president of the world governing body, the International Boxing Association (AIBC),” said Cecil Forde, president of the Amateur Boxing Association.

“The first one is where everyone will come, and they will come with full teams, which is about 11 people per team.”

Landing the qualifier was a great coup for the Caribbean. Up until last year, qualifiers for major tournaments were always held in Latin America.

But not only was travel costly, thus limiting the number of countries and fighters that could actually represent the region, but, Forde explained, the language barrier was also a problem.

“The information is disseminated in Spanish, and that affects the boxers. One boxer missed his fight because they changed the schedule and he couldn’t understand Spanish.”

Of the 42 countries that belong to the Americas bureau of the AIBC, the English-speaking Caribbean makes up 21. Yet, said Forde, the region has never had an opportunity to hold any of the qualifiers.

In November 2006, at a meeting in Santo Domingo, the Caribbean contingent banded together and asked to host a qualifier. They were given the Pan Am qualifiers, which were hosted in Trinidad. Boxers also took part from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Aruba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia. “The Caribbean qualified 15 boxers, [up] from an average of five…It did a lot for us,” Forde said.

Among the immediate benefits Forde listed, unity among the regional participants was primary.

“There is more togetherness, a lot more correspondence between the islands. CABA (Caribbean Amateur Boxing Association) is holding more meetings, there is more exchange between us. You are now hearing from 21 countries, not just one, and the world governing body is taking stock of that.”

Additionally, he said, the Caribbean’s stock is rising in the world of amateur boxing. More countries want to compete in and against the Caribbean. More, too, are entertaining the possibility of playing host to a major boxing event.

“Trinidad hosting this qualifier is a tremendous effort and I must tip my hat,” said Julian “The Hawk” Jackson, a three-time world champion from the US Virgin Islands, interviewed at the Pan Am qualifiers. Jackson is one of the region’s most famous boxers. He was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in Los Angeles in October 2006 and the African-American Hall of Fame in 2001.

From July 10–19, the Virgin Islands will host CABA’s 2008 Caribbean Boxing Championships, which attracts about 300 regional boxers, on average, each year.

The qualifiers are also significant to the Caribbean because this may be the region’s first real shot at winning an Olympic medal. Trinidadian boxer Kurt Sinnette competed but didn’t win a medal at the Atlanta Games in 1996, and in 2000, Bajan boxer Shawn Cox fought at the Sydney Olympics but walked away empty-handed.

Of the original 60 qualifying spots up for grabs, 14 US boxers qualified at the World Boxing Championship in Chicago last year. Twenty-three more places will be decided in the first phase in Trinidad and Tobago.

The upcoming event has, of course, shone a spotlight on the challenges facing amateur boxing, namely funding and popular perceptions.

In a region where football and cricket are the premier sports, it is difficult to persuade sponsors to back a sport that many think is about people beating each other to a pulp.

Many people, said Forde, do not know the difference between amateur boxing, which promotes safety, and professional boxing, which glorifies knockouts.

Gary Bowen, coach of the Barbados team, said in his country many people are afraid to let their children get into boxing for fear they end up like Muhammad Ali.
But, said Reynold Cox, former boxer and vice president of the TTABA, “Look at football, hockey, the NFL…all these sports have a higher injury level than amateur boxing.

“In amateur boxing a doctor checks on you before a fight, sits by the ringside and checks you after.”

The biggest selling point for boxing officials is that in a region where crime is a growing concern, boxing helps to reform delinquent youth like Hassette.

“Boxing involves a whole lifestyle change. Once you are in boxing you have to be fit, you can’t drink or smoke and you have to be up early to train,” explained Cox.

“It does a lot for young men,” said Job Joseph, coach of the Dominican team. “It makes them better persons, gives them self-confidence, self-control, and discipline.”

It is also hoped that with more qualifiers held in the region, the standard of Caribbean boxing will rise. As it is, the Caribbean lags behind the Latin American countries, and especially Cuba, in talent and facilities. Forde said to help raise their game, many islands employ Cuban coaches and also send their boxers to camps there.

In addition, boxing has been introduced in schools in countries that include Barbados, Trinidad and Guyana. In addition to the school system in Trinidad, there are also 41 boxing gyms around the country. The plan is to have schoolchildren feed into the community programme and then into the national teams, which will be categorised into a female team, a senior team, cadets, and a national junior team, explained Forde.

With support from the Sports Company of Trinidad and Tobago, scholarships have been offered to elite boxers to attend UTT, an incentive that will eventually be expanded to the rest of the Caribbean.

Grrl power

Before amateur boxing developed in the Caribbean, the emphasis was on professional boxing, and the Caribbean made its mark with pugilists such as Claude Noel, Leslie “Tiger” Stewart, Yolande Pompey, Johnny de Peaza and Ulric Johnson, to name a few.

Lately, though, it’s the women who have been making the Caribbean proud.

Nineteen-year-old Trinidadian Giselle Salandy is one of the top-ranked female boxers in the world, with five titles from the World Boxing Council, World Boxing Associations, Women’s International Boxing Association (WIBA), World Boxing Empire (WBE) and the Women’s International Boxing Federation (WIBF).

Ria Ramnarine, Trinidad’s first professional female boxer, retired as the WIBA Mini Flyweight World Champion in 2006, but is planning a comeback.

In amateur boxing, Trinidad and Tobago continues to lead the way with its female programme. There are currently 25 female boxers in the country, eight of them on the national team, and four of them enrolled in UTT. The women competed at the Pan American Female Championships in Ecuador last year for the first time and walked away with three medals.

Thanks to the success of women like Salandy, female boxing is picking up all over the region, said Joyce Bowen, president of Barbados’s National Amateur Boxing Association and the Women’s Commission of the International Boxing Association. She is the first Caribbean woman to hold the latter post.

Bowen described the regional developments in female boxing as fantastic. To further these efforts, she is leading the charge to have the Women’s World Boxing Championships held in Barbados in 2010. The Pan Am Female Championships take place in Trinidad this October.

In 2012, female boxers will be allowed to compete at the Olympics, for the first time in history.