Erislandy Lara raised his hands high in victory, a euphoric moment for the Cuban exile who moments earlier enjoyed the defining performance of his career, a thorough domination of Paul Williams in Atlantic City, N.J.
The fight was televised on HBO and with such a showing before a national audience – over a prominent name in the sport, no less – Lara would move on to bigger and better things.
But then something curious happened, an occurrence observers of “the Sweet Science” are far too familiar with: the judges robbed Lara of victory.
The fight happening last July with plenty of time for a fall fight, but a big bout for Lara never materialized. He’s been on the shelf for more than nine months, but will compete for the first time since that faithful night, when he takes on Ronald Hearns (the son of the legendary Thomas Hearns) on ShoBox: The New Generation on Friday in Biloxi, Miss.
“It was terrible. I trained very hard to put on that type of performance and to have judges take the fight away was disappointing for a while,” Lara told RingTV.com through his manager and translator Luis DeCubas Jr. “But that’s the past, we move forward and Hearns is on my mind, and I will perform to the best of my abilities.”
“He’s a good fighter, comes from a fighting family. He has a long reach and (he’s) tall, also a good right hand. I’m prepared for the best Hearns (has) got to offer and if he’s not prepared, I’m gonna end it early.”
Perhaps most frustrating for Lara was not receiving the respect he feels he deserved from the Williams performance. He was the underdog heading into the fight, spoiling plans of a third bout between Williams and Sergio Martinez.
Lara (15-1-1, 10 knockouts) wants Martinez now and is confident he would dispose of THE RING middleweight champ.
“Look, if Williams would have beaten me the way I beat him he would have fought Martinez again,” said THE RING’s No. 4-rated junior middleweight. “So there’s no reason I shouldn’t be fighting Martinez. I came to the country to be free and get a fair shake in life like I didn’t have in Cuba and this is not what I expected in pro boxing. The best should fight the best and that rarely happens.”
He was hurt by the injustice, but trials and tribulations are nothing new for a 29-year-old man who once traveled in shark-infested waters to attain freedom. Lara attempted his first defection in 2007, joined by fellow Cuban Guillermo Rigondeaux, but was unsuccessful, after being attained by Brazilian authorities and subsequently deported back to Cuba.
Upon return to Cuba, he was banned from practicing the sport he loves, a devastating blow to the accomplished amateur fighter. In 2009, he succeeded in winning freedom, taking a speed boat to Mexico. Escaping oppression by Fidel Castro, Lara went to Hamburg, Germany before ultimately settling in Miami, Fla., where there is a sizeable Cuban community, leaving his family behind in Guantanamo.
“[It was a] very difficult time leaving my family, my mother and two kids,” said Lara of his arduous journey. “It’s sad not being able to go to my country but America, it’s the country which gave me my freedom and I’m very grateful.
“It was a long journey, 14 hours on a small boat to get to Mexico in shark-infested waters. It was freezing and dark, it wasn’t a fun trip and I wouldn’t wish it upon no one.”
Lara was a decorated amateur, the 2005 amateur world champion at welterweight. A product of the famed Cuban boxing program, he’s technically sound and possesses great defensive ability out of his southpaw stance.
“It’s the base for a young fighter coming up,” said Lara of his days in big gloves and head gear. “It’s definitely a big reason for my success and taught me to fight all styles. Also, it was a great experience flying all over the world and fighting in the hometowns of my opponents. It definitely made me the fighter I am today.”
After his bout with Hearns, which he is widely-expected to win, Lara wants to be matched-up against a top fighter, though there is one fighter in particular he holds great disdain for.
“Austin Trout, he’s a fraud,” said Lara of the undefeated boxer from New Mexico. “And now that he’s with [Al] Haymon you could go ahead and put him in protective custody with Williams and the rest of [Haymon’s fighters].
“Sergio Martinez or Paul ‘Get Punished’ Williams, [Saul] Alvarez, [James] Kirkland, Carlos [Molina] (whom he drew with last year), whoever it is I’m ready. It’s just they won’t fight me and it’s very disappointing that they are able to not fight the best fighters.”
DeCubas Jr. echoed Lara’s sentiments, calling for a fight with Martinez. He’s confident that following the Hearns fight the public will see Lara back in a meaningful contest.
“If it was up to me we’d fight Sergio Martinez because he’s the best middleweight in the world and the most difficult fight out there,” said DeCubas Jr. “I think Lara would surprise a lot of people and beat Martinez convincingly like he did against Williams. But after this fight we’ll sit down with Richard [Schaefer] and the rest of the Golden Boy staff and make sure Lara gets the fights he deserves.”
Nothing in life has been easy for Lara, having been robbed of freedom, doing what he loves and a clear victory on HBO, at one time or another, but he retains a rosy outlook all the while.
“I must stay positive, I know sooner or later they will have to fight me,” Lara declared. “I gotta keep on putting on great performances and the big fights will fall in place. Golden Boy is one the biggest promoters in boxing and there’s no doubt they will deliver a big fight this year.”
Photo / Emily Harney-Fightwireimages.com
Mike Coppinger is a regular contributor to USA TODAY’s boxing coverage and compiles the “Ringside Reports” for THE RING Magazine monthly. He is a member of the BWAA and the Yahoo! Sports Boxing Panel. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger. Write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org.