The Exile of Yuriorkis Gamboa

Looking back, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Cuban lightweight Yuriorkis Gamboa appeared to be quite possibly the hottest prospect in the sport. And by “prospect” I don’t mean someone who was expected to become a mere trinket holder, a status he’s achieved in both the featherweight and lightweight divisions. Instead I’m referring to the fact that many of us truly believed he would become a genuine star: a champion with charisma, fast hands and a wicked punch, who put butts in seats because he knocked out opponents, but also because of an aura of volatility which made him must-watch TV.

An impressive amateur and a 2004 Olympian, the “Ciclon de Guantamo” defected from his native Cuba after having sold his gold medal to feed his family, and began fighting as a professional in Germany in 2007. A couple of years later he was on ESPN and later HBO. In 2009 he acquired his first title belt with a four round stoppage of Whyber Garcia and went on to defend it twice before earning a second strap when he decidedly outpointed Mexican strongman Orlando Salido.

Gamboa defeats the always tough Salido.

At this time, the excitement for a showdown between Gamboa and another hot featherweight prospect, Puerto Rican Juanma Lopez, began building. There’s little doubt a Gamboa vs. Lopez fight would’ve been a boon to the sport, as the young fighters were on a tear, earning win after win against outclassed opposition. But both were promoted by Bob Arum and while the match appeared to be a “no-brainer” to boxing fans, it never happened. In his infinite wisdom, Uncle Bob decided it was better to procrastinate ad infinitum and let Gamboa and Lopez lay waste to as many inferior opponents as the public would endure. This was the origin of Arum’s now infamous “let it marinate” method of matchmaking.

As it turned out, there is such a thing as over-marinating. Before Lopez and Gamboa ever got a chance to get it on, Lopez faced his reckoning at the hands of a rejuvenated Salido—the same one Gamboa had already defeated—losing to the Mexican veteran both his portion of the featherweight title and his undefeated status. But the defeat also meant the biggest money fight available to Gamboa had gone up in smoke.

So instead of a huge showdown with Lopez, Gamboa defended his belts against another rugged Mexican in Daniel Ponce de Leon. While on paper Gamboa vs. Ponce de Leon looked promising, the bout turned out to be a one-sided and anticlimactic technical decision for “El Ciclon.” And it was impossible to know at the time, but this is when things started going downhill for the talented islander.

Gamboa 22
Gamboa handles Ponce de Leon with ease.

Looking at an unappetizing field of challengers at 126-pounds, Gamboa pondered a move up to lightweight to challenge Brandon Rios. In fact, Gamboa did more than just ponder this move: he actually signed a contract to get in the ring against the maniacal “Bam-Bam.” However, things took an unexpected turn when Gamboa failed to show up for a press conference announcing the fight. Confusion took hold: where the hell was Gamboa, and how come he didn’t show up to promote his own fight?

Soon after we learned that someone had been whispering in the Cuban’s ear for some time now, and this person had convinced Gamboa that Arum’s Top Rank wasn’t doing a good job of looking after his interests. This kind of thing happens all the time in boxing; Gamboa probably heard he was getting short-changed and being used to prop up other investments of Arum’s. Whatever this third party said to the Cuban, it worked. Gamboa decided not only to bail on his fight with Rios, but to walk out of Top Rank and sign with rapper-turned-boxing promoter 50 Cent.

More than a year passed between Gamboa’s last ring appearance under the Top Rank banner and his first fight under contract to 50 Cent: a convincing but decidedly unexciting decision over Michael Farenas. It’s true his first win as the rapper’s protégé didn’t give people a lot to talk about, but within only a few weeks of that encounter, Yuriorki’s name was being thrown around in media outlets like confetti at a ticker tape parade.

Gamboa, Arum and Rios in happier days.

In January of 2013, The Miami New Times revealed that Gamboa had made frequent visits to an anti-aging clinic which allegedly also peddled performance enhancing drugs on the side. And Gamboa’s name was in good company in the avalanche of articles that followed the revelation: Alex Rodriguez and Gio Gonzalez also showed up on the clinic’s records, along with mentions of “anabolic steroids” and “human growth hormone.”

Of course, boxing being boxing, no major investigation—much less punishment—was ordered following the disclosure of Gamboa’s dealings with the clinic. Though it’s perhaps unfair to expect any official sanction: after all, professional prizefighting is so disorganized that no single authority or ruling body could really claim jurisdiction over the matter. It would all have to wait until Gamboa signed for another fight, at which time the promoters, athletic commissions and sanctioning bodies involved would decide on a course of action regarding PED monitoring. (The rule of thumb being, of course, that whatever method is cheapest and least intrusive usually is the preferred one, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Fast forward 18 months and Gamboa, at long last, finds himself in the kind of significant match that could finally provide him with his much eluded signature win as this past June he challenged undefeated Terrence Crawford for the WBO lightweight championship. A tough contest to call going in, the match pitted Crawford’s pedigree and ring intelligence against Gamboa’s explosiveness, the big question being whether Gamboa could step up his game against the most talented fighter he had ever faced. In the end, despite the Cuban coming out with guns blazing and bringing the fight to the champion, it wasn’t even close: Crawford made clear he was the superior fighter, dropping the “Ciclon” four times en route to a ninth round TKO.

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One of many knockdowns courtesy of Crawford.

To say Gamboa’s defeat to Crawford was a disappointment is a huge understatement, and what stings his fans more than the defeat itself, is the fact it happened by Crawford outclassing the aggressive, balls-to-the-wall version of Gamboa, which is the best version of Gamboa we’re ever going to see.

Gamboa’s talent as a boxer is what gave him the chance to leave Cuba, to get on the professional-boxing track, to earn decent paychecks and the attention of the public. And with good reason: Gamboa possessed the physical attributes to become an excellent boxer, perhaps even a great one, and his background in the Cuban school gave him the skill and smarts to go with it. On the marketing side, despite suffering from a severe case of smile-deficiency syndrome (much like Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux, which really makes you wonder what’s up with the Cubans?), the Tyson-esque veil of intimidation that envelopes him at all times made him enigmatic and appealing in equal measures. It’s frustrating that we’ll never know what would’ve happened if the Cuban had come through and delivered on his obvious promise.

Perhaps in some alternate universe Gamboa did realize his full potential, but in this one, what’s done is done. Neither Gamboa nor anyone else can gain anything in lamenting the past, and so it’s best to move forward. After all that waiting for the unrealized fight with Juanma Lopez, and bailing on a signed fight contract, and switching promoters, and waiting some more for opponents, and getting arrested for domestic violence charges, and being linked to a PEDs-dealing clinic, and being thoroughly beaten by a superior and more focused talent, Gamboa now had a major question to address: what next?

Can 50 Cent help Gamboa make the most of his talent?
Can 50 Cent help Gamboa make the most of his talent?

The answer was as obvious to him and to 50 Cent as it is to bank-robbers on the run: head south and jump the border. That is why “El Ciclon de Guantamo” will be fighting this Saturday night in Cancun, Mexico. His opponent is Joel Montes de Oca, and you don’t lose any brownie points if the name doesn’t ring any bells. In fact, Gamboa vs. Montes de Oca is not even the headlining bout of the evening, and it’s hard to say if that is a fair repercussion of his loss to Crawford, or a direct consequence of aligning himself with an inexperienced promoter lacking the proper connections, or if it’s just bad karma for all those appointments he attended at the anti-aging clinic. The simple fact of the matter is this: after losing to the best lightweight in the world, Gamboa will be fighting a guy whose name is not even worth repeating, in a bullring in Mexico.

Gamboa came a long way since he started hitting the grimy gyms in Cuba, no one’s denying that. He made a career that most fighters can only dream of having and that’s provided some electric performances. But Yuriorki’s first exile happened when he bravely and rightly decided to risk everything as he left Cuba in search of the opportunity to hone his craft and ply his trade. His second exile—the one which sees him take a fight in Mexico instead of in Las Vegas or New York City—was also, at least partially, of his own making. But it’s a senseless exile, one to the detriment of his career and unbecoming of his abilities. It is also one that we can only hope will open his eyes not only to what could’ve been, but also to what may still be. Only time will tell if Gamboa will heed the call of his wasted potential, which this Saturday will be echoing all over the corridors and stands of that dusty, old bullring in Cancun.

–Rafael García

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