Many great amateur boxers have made waves over the years with their triumphant tales of escaping communist Cuba.
Yuriorkis Gamboa, Erislandy Lara, and Guillermo Rigondeaux were the latest batch of highly-touted amateur boxers to defect from their motherland in hopes of realizing the riches a pro career brings in the United States.
But one fighter flipped the script.
Tureano Johnson, the 2008 Olympian from the Bahamas, actually moved to Cuba. He made the country his home for over eight years. While Johnson didn’t garner the medal he was seeking, he did gain valuable experience and now has a burgeoning pro career. He continues his ascent up the middleweight ranks on Friday at the Morongo Casino in Cabazon, Calif., when he takes on Willie Fortune in his American television debut on ShoBox: The New Generation.
“History and the record books show that Cuba is very phenomenal in the amateur boxing ranks. I wanted to be part of that, I wanted to be one of the best boxers in the world,” said Johnson, 29. “There is no better way than to train with the best and live with the best.
“You need to make certain sacrifices to make it to the top. I think it will take me to a long and very successful career in boxing. I would do it again.”
Leaving the confines of a tropical island for a communist country is an eye-opening experience. The Bahamas government funded Johnson’s trip to Cuba in hopes that he would become the nation’s first Olympic boxing medalist. He didn’t qualify for the 2004 Olympics, but stayed in Cuba and continued to train alongside Lara and Rigondeaux for the 2008 Olympics. He qualified for the Beijing games, representing his country, but fell short and didn’t medal.
He was greatly disappointed, to the point he considered quitting boxing, but realized he learned much in Cuba that would serve him well in the professional ranks.
“They train every day, all day. They train for a living,” said Johnson (13-0, 10 knockouts). “They go to sports around school. Everything is around sports. Everything is training and training and training.”
If his fistic journey wasn’t proof enough that Johnson is a throwback fighter, then consider the stretch he had in his two most recent bouts. On Sept. 28, Johnson scored a first round TKO of Jonali Reyes and then repeated the feat in the third round just four days later with a stoppage of Jose Morla.
“My promoter and manager wanted me to get some more action,” said Johnson. “We took some risk and it’s very rare that you see something like that. But with over 285 amateur fights, I feel like you’re ready to go out there and fight pretty much anybody out there.
The term “prospect” is thrown around a lot these days, but Gary Shaw Productions swears they have a legitimate one in Johnson. Why?
“His aggressive style. His take-no prisoners attitude,” said John Beninati, matchmaker for the Totowa, N.J.-based promotional firm. “He’s straight forward. He’s a decorated amateur, was an Olympian. He’s got the whole package.”
So if all goes according to plan, will Johnson get a title shot in 2013? “100 percent, yes,” according to Beninati.
The matchmaker has steadily built up his fighter, keeping him active against low-level competition. In fact, he’s only been matched with two opponents with a winning record. Johnson fought nine times in 2012 and hopes to fight seven times in 2013. But in Fortune (15-0, 7 knockouts), he’s finally facing a fellow prospect, someone who isn’t there to fall.
“There’s not much we know about Willie Fortune, but I know he has two arms, two legs and a head. And I know I’m going to run him out of the ring,” boasted Johnson. “If someone has two horns and a tail, I’m still going to beat them.
“I’m a big, hard fighter who comes to fight, who comes to give the fans exactly what they want and more. I can take a good blow and I can give an even harder blow. I’m able to switch up at times and I’m able to fight inside and outside. Overall I’m an exciting fighter, if not the most exciting fighter you’ve ever seen. You may not be happy to se the destruction I do in the ring, but its what I do for a living.”
The colorful middleweight now resides in Madison, Ga., but trains in Washington D.C. with Tyrone Jones, best known for guiding former titleholders DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley and Keith Holmes. Johnson hopes to give the Bahamas the return on their investment they were seeking when they financed his trip more than 10 years ago.
“I know the Bahamas is just a little small speck on the globe, but we have a lot of talented athletes in the Bahamas and I’m going to prove that, that we can be a shockwave in this world,” said Johnson. “I believe I was given a raw deal in the Olympics, but that’s not going to happen anymore, I’m not leaving anything to the judges. Only three of my opponents have gotten out of the way of a knockout. I can’t have that anymore, I’m not leaving anything in the hands of the judges ever again.”
If Johnson can deliver on his promise to be an all-action fighter, then the boxing world will be grateful for his arrival, win, lose or draw.
Photo / Craig Bennett-SHOWTIME
Mike Coppinger is a contributor to USA TODAY’s boxing coverage. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCoppinger