For boxing fans, Cuba holds an outsize mystique. Since Castro took power in 1959, the island has won more Olympic gold medals in boxing than any other country, but its fighters have for the most part resisted the temptation to defect to the United States, turning down multimilliondollar offers in apparent loyalty to the revolution. Mr. Butler found the paradox worth exploring, and his book argues that the sport is as entwined with Cuba’s narrative of defiance toward America as much as anything else.
His adventures over the years were plentiful. He interviewed Cuba’s most decorated boxers, finding them living in poverty: Several had sold their gold medals because they needed the money; another agreed to train him for $6 a day, and another decreed he chug a glass of vodka as a test of character. The book chronicles Mr. Butler’s fling with one of Castro’s granddaughters and the time he bet his life savings on a fight (he won). He also retraced Hemingway’s footsteps, talking his way into his literary idol’s home and traveling to a small fishing town to find the old man who inspired “The Old Man and the Sea,” who was then 102.
These days, you can find him in Central Park. Another tune started to play as his student agonized through pushups. “You’d see these boxers dominate at the Olympics, and then they’d just disappear,” he said. “They were fighting for something more important than money. I had to go find out why.”
In The New York Times, Alex Vadukul tells the story of Brin-Jonathan Butler, a successful boxing writer who’s extensively documented boxing in Cuba, only to become part of the story by teaching the sport in New York’s Central Park.