Alan Hubbard

Trawling through a myriad of TV channels, as you do when the only live action on the box is a fly crawling across the screen, recently I came across a fascinating travel documentary on Cuba presented by the actress Joanna Lumley - who turned out to be a most unlikely fight fan.

So much so that upon arriving in Havana she immediately made a bee-line for the national boxing headquarters in the city’s downtown area, where she watched absorbed as some of Cuba’s potential Olympic squad were preparing for the now-postponed Tokyo Games

The former Bond girl in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, still jaw-droppingly glamorous at 74, revealed: "I just adore boxing. I know it is not considered terribly good to love these pugilistic things but I just love it. It’s one of the earliest forms of fighting and I am fascinated by it."

Turning to the camera she revealed in an aside: "I first fell in love with boxing when I met Muhammad Ali," adding with an impish smile, "and actually I think I fell in love with him too."

She informed us that no other country has produced more successful amateur boxers than Cuba, and since 1972 Cuban fighters have won 37 Olympic and 72 World Championship gold medals, more than any other nation.

Had she met him I have no doubt that Joanna also would have fallen in love with Cuba’s national boxing legend Teófilo Stevenson, the power-punching heavyweight who is only one of three Olympic boxes to win gold medals, alongside Hungarian László Papp and fellow Cuban Félix Savón.

Teófilo Stevenson, left, was a three-time Olympic boxing champion ©Getty Images
Teófilo Stevenson, left, was a three-time Olympic boxing champion ©Getty Images

As handsome as Ali and two inches taller, Stevenson and his rocket - I dubbed him Fidel Castro’s right hand man at the time - might even have become a five-time Olympic champion had the Great Revolutionary not forbidden Cuba from participating in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympics which, like several other countries, they boycotted in the political crossfire between the United States and the Soviet Union.

So prodigious a puncher was the spindly-legged Stevenson that he was offered much more than a fistful of dollars to leave his native Cuba and join the sporting exiles in the US where a mega-rich clash with Ali would’ve been one of the of the biggest heavyweight fights of all time. But he famously declared: "No, I will not leave my country up for $1 million or for much more than that. What is $1 million against eight million Cubans who love me?” As Sports Illustrated headlined at the time: "He’d rather be red than rich."

I saw Stevenson blast his way to win all three of his Olympic titles, first at Munich 1972, then Montreal 1976 and Moscow in 1980. In Munich he memorably sploshed the US great white hope Duane Bobick, reaching the final when the Romanian he was due to meet climbed into the ring before the bout with his own right hand ostentatiously wrapped in a huge bandage, claiming injury. Some may have thought his discretion in bowing out on a walkover was the better part of valour.

Stevenson died of a heart attack at 60 shortly before the London 2012 Olympics but remains revered by Olympic boxing aficionados.

While she watched some of his successors, Lumley, perhaps known best for her comedy role in the double-BAFTA-winning TV sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, and who has starred on London’s West End and Broadway in New York, was astonished to learn that women’s boxing remains banned in Cuba - one of the few remaining countries in the world where it is. She has promised to take it up with Cuba’s new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, should she get the opportunity to meet him.

There are several female boxers in Cuba and curiously they are allowed to spar, even with men, but cannot to compete internationally. So the feisty Lumley made her way to a smaller, musty gymnasium elsewhere in the city where women boxers are punching not so much a glass ceiling as a glass wall.

She saw and spoke to another Cuban revolutionary, one Idamelys Moreno, a woman boxer who was thudding right hooks into a heavy punch bag. "They haven’t given us our chance," fumed Moreno, a muscular 27-year-old featherweight who showed her frustration in the gym where the Caribbean island’s boxing greats look down from posters on the walls. Among them, of course, Stevenson.

Idamelys Moreno training in the Cuban capital Havana ©Getty Images
Idamelys Moreno training in the Cuban capital Havana ©Getty Images

Like her hero, Moreno has a haymaker of a right hand which she has honed by sparring with men.

"She’s a boxer with a lot of enthusiasm and enormous physical capacities, but she is nowhere near her full potential yet," said her coach Emilio Correa, who won Olympic silver in 2008 and World Championship bronze in 2005.

Moreno pleads: "If they’d give us the opportunity, we can also build on the medal collection that the men have won."

Ever ambitious, Moreno has set her sights on "world and Olympic medals". She is not the only woman working the bags. Taking turns to spar with her are Yuria Pascual, a 26-year-old biologist, and Ana Gasquez, a French woman who says she was drawn to Cuba by the "mystique of its boxing tradition."

Since 2006, Cuba has been represented in the female programmes in other Olympic sports, including weightlifting, judo and wrestling - but not in that last bastion of Cuban machismo, the boxing ring.

It seems to be accepted in Cuba that boxing is a man’s sport, far too dangerous to accommodate women. Elsewhere, gender equality in sport has evolved and boxing joined the ranks of women’s Olympic events at London 2012.

Moreno dismisses the views of Cuban men that boxing is too dangerous for her, insisting body protection is more than adequate.

The official reluctance to recognise female boxing "will end up discouraging" young women who want to climb into the ring, says Moreno.

They have many role models worldwide, including Ireland’s undisputed lightweight world champion Katie Taylor, and the now-retired Nicola Adams whose path to professional success began with Olympic gold at London 2012.

Legendary trainer Alcides Sagarra believes Cuba should have a women's boxing team ©Getty Images
Legendary trainer Alcides Sagarra believes Cuba should have a women's boxing team ©Getty Images

Women seemed primed for a breakthrough in 2016, when Cuban Boxing Federation President Alberto Puig announced the possibility of opening competition to women. But nothing has changed. They continue to train, optimistic that the Cuban Sports Institute may eventually give a green light to women’s boxing ahead of the next Olympics in Tokyo, now due to be staged next year because of the coronavirus crisis.

For these young boxers, it’s impossible not to think of Namibia Flores, another Cuban held up as an example to women boxers who has reached the age of 40 - the ceiling for competition - without ever realising her dream of bringing a women’s gold medal to Cuba. "I don’t want the same thing happening us," vows Moreno.

Coach Correa says that if women’s boxing is eventually sanctioned by the Cuban authorities, the potential for the sport is "massive - because this is the island of boxing."

Alcides Sagarra, considered by many as the father of Cuban boxing, believes it is only a matter of time before women take their place among the sport’s icons.

"Cuban women cannot be denied their rights to participate in boxing competitions," said Sagarra, 82.

He has a keen eye for developing talent, having trained more than 80 Cuban Olympic and world champions, including the legendary Stevenson. "Their talent is still raw,£ he says, but predicts: "They will eventually have a good level."

And if that proves to be the case then no doubt the formidable Lumley will declare that it is "Absolutely Fabulous."