Even though boxing was originally introduced in Cuba as a tourist attraction, it gradually became deeply rooted in the nation’s culture. Many great boxers have borne the flag of Cuba on the international stage, but who are the absolute best Cuban boxers?
Today, we celebrate the legends who have carved their names into the island’s boxing legacy, showcasing ten of the greatest Cuban boxers the boxing world has ever seen.
Top 10 Cuban Boxers in History
Considering Cuba’s illustrious boxing history, it wasn’t an easy task to compile a list of the best Cuban boxers of all time, but after much scrutiny, here are our top 10:
10. Guillermo Rigondeaux
Guillermo Rigondeaux’s presence here might raise eyebrows due to his limited professional career that features only 26 bouts. Rigo’s true legacy lies not in the professional ring, however, but in the amateur arena, where he reigned supreme at 54 kilograms. He has two Olympic gold medals to his name, the first of which came at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. El Chacal defended his medal four years later in Athens, where he got the better of Worapoj Petchkoom to claim his second Bantamweight Olympic gold.
Seven consecutive Cuban national bantamweight titles (2000-2006) and a staggering 475-fight amateur record with only 12 losses (the last in 2003) paint a picture of utter dominance. He also claimed the Bantamweight world title twice.
9. Teófilo Stevenson
Even though Teófilo Stevenson chose to stay out of the professional boxing ring and ply his trade as an engineer, his monumental achievements as an amateur boxer demand a mention when discussing the best Cuban boxers. Stevenson’s fabled punching prowess, often likened to Muhammad Ali’s, fueled the anticipation of a clash between these two giants that, unfortunately, never materialized.
Stevenson’s unparalleled dominance in amateur heavyweight boxing extended from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, ultimately resulting in Olympic gold victories in 1972, 1976, and 1980. His debut for the Cuban team in 1971 set the stage for a remarkable journey, with Stevenson claiming his first-ever Olympic medal within a year.
In this era, amateur boxing reached a pinnacle of competitiveness, marked by the significant presence of outstanding Soviet Bloc fighters from Eastern Europe and Central Asia who prioritized national glory over the financial incentives of professional boxing.
After impressive performances in Munich, victory in the first World Boxing Championship held in Havana in 1974, and a comfortable triumph in the 1975 Mexico Pan-American Games, Stevenson was touted as the favorite to retain his Olympic crown in Montreal in 1976. He lived up to the sky-high expectations and successfully defended his title before claiming a third-successive Olympic gold medal in Moscow four years later.
In 180 fights, he suffered defeat only 10 times, and Igor Visotski is the only boxer to have beaten him twice.
8. Félix Savón
Félix Savón stands tall as the best Cuban boxer with the most extensive title haul in history. His credentials boast three Olympic golds, six world championships, and triumphs in three Pan-American and three Central American Games. While not hailed for his technical acumen, Savón exhibited a profound understanding of the sport. He seamlessly integrated jabs, right punches, and stomach hooks to thwart any defensive strategies devised by his opponents.
Throughout his career, while he resisted the allure of turning professional, he maintained a remarkable record of 362–21, with most of his losses vindicated. The only boxers who secured knockout victories over Savón without facing retribution were Usman Arsaliyev and Li Dal-Chen, both of whom he faced only once.
His Olympic odyssey began in Barcelona in 1992, where he ascended the podium for the first time, claiming Olympic gold in the 91-kilogram category. He cemented his legacy in Atlanta four years later, achieving his second Olympic crown. The true test of Savón’s mettle came in Sydney in 2000. At 32 years old, with the prime days of his career behind him, he overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges to join the exclusive ranks of Olympic boxers who have secured the gold medal three times.
7. Joel Casamayor
Joel Casamayor is another controversial pick in this list of the greatest Cuban boxer. His defection to the USA right before the 1996 Olympics cast a long shadow over his career despite achieving considerable boxing glory under the Cuban flag. Before jumping ship, Casamayor had won an Olympic Gold medal in the bantamweight class and grabbed a World Championship silver medal in the same weight class.
El Cepillo is not the only, nor the first, fighter to escape the Cuban regime in pursuit of a professional career. The indelible impression he has left on the current generation of top-tier Cuban boxers, however, cannot be denied.
6. José Legrá
José Legrá is another boxing legend hailing from Cuba, but he enjoyed most of his success after leaving the country. Blessed with lightning-fast reflexes, The Pocket Cassius Clay had a short lived boxing career in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s revolution forced him into early exile. He moved to Spain and started to compete regularly in the European scene. Victories against esteemed opponents such as Ernesto Miranda, Clemente Sanchez, and Howard Winstone are the highlights of his career.
At retirement, Legrá had two featherweight world championship belts in his cabinet. He decided to hang up his gloves after participating in 148 bouts, emerging victorious in 133 of them.
5. Sugar Ramos
Ultiminio Ramos Zaqueira, better known as Sugar Ramos, sought refuge in Mexico following the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution. The fierce featherweight, known for his formidable punches, rose to the status of a national hero in his adopted country. Ramos became best known for a title fight victory that sadly led to the death of his opponent, Davey Moore, prompting vigorous calls for the sport’s abolition.
After a four-month hiatus following Moore’s tragic passing, Ramos returned to the boxing ring and continued his winning streak. His split-decision victory over Floyd Robertson in May 1964 sparked controversy as a government agency, aligning with fans, vacated the result in favor of Robertson. Despite this, Ring magazine, a leading American boxing authority, officially registered the fight as a win for Ramos.
The featherweight crown slipped from “Sugar” Ramos’ grasp in September 1964, with Vicente Saldivar claiming the spoils. Undeterred, Ramos set his sights on a larger crown – the lightweight title held by Carlos Ortiz. The Matanzas-born could not dethrone Ortiz but received widespread acclaim for his resilience against the Puerto Rican legend.
4. Luis Manuel Rodríguez
Known by the moniker “El Feo,” which translates to “The Ugly,” Luis Manuel Rodríguez was one of the most influential Cuban boxers to grace the sport. The Camagüey man was a premier welterweight fighter who ended his career with 107 wins under his belts in 121 attempts. He was also the first to win welterweight championship bouts for both WBA and WBC titles.
His reign as the welterweight king of the world was cut short by Emile Griffith. Even though Griffith bested Rodríguez in three out of four clashes, the Cuban earned Griffith’s respect as a bona fide rival.
Under the mentorship of the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee, the very same coach who shaped the skills of the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, Rodríguez developed his prowess while training alongside significant figures such as Florentino Fernández, Pinklon Thomas, Ralph Dupas, and Willie Pastrano.
Twenty-five years after retiring from the ring, Rodríguez was honored with induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. Ring magazine later acknowledged his legacy by ranking him as the third-greatest of all time among Cuban boxers in 2009.
3. José Nápoles
José Ángel Nápoles is hailed as one of the most technically proficient Cuban boxers in history. Nicknamed “Mantequilla” or “Butter” in English, Nápoles was of Mexican heritage but grew up in Cuba. He started his career in 1958 and was defeated only once in the first 18 years of his career, meaning he won 24 out of the first 25 bouts he fought.
Nápoles shone his brightest throughout the 1960s, with his significant breakthrough coming in 1969. In April, he seized the welterweight title by stopping Curtis Cokes. Just two months later, he repeated the success in a rematch against Cokes. Two months later, he repeated the feat in a rematch against Cokes. Ending the year on a high note, he defeated former champion Emile Griffith and was named Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year for 1969.
However, in December 1970, Nápoles suffered a setback in Syracuse, New York. He surrendered the belt with a four-round stoppage inflicted by Billy Backus. It was his first failed title defense in four attempts. Undaunted, he regained the belt six months later in a rematch, securing victory through an eighth-round stoppage.
In his career as a professional boxer, “Mantequilla” secured 77 wins, 54 of which were knockouts, and lost only seven bouts. The Boxing Writers Association of America duly acknowledged his excellence in the ring when he was inducted into the International Hall of Fame in 1990.
2. Kid Chocolate
Eligio Sardinas, better known by the ring name “Kid Chocolate,” reigned supreme as a super featherweight champion from 1927 to 1938. His fiery career launched on March 3rd, 1928, with a fourth-round knockout of Jose Sotolongo. Chocolate cemented his place in history as Cuba’s first boxing world champion by claiming the junior lightweight title in 1931. It should be noted, however, that half-weight classes were not recognised as official competition categories back then.
Nonetheless, Kid Chocolate went down in history as one of the most iconic Cuban boxers ever. He used to study fighting sequences in films to improve his boxing prowess. Before formally starting his amateur career, he exchanged punches with some of the top boxers of that time, like Benny Leonard and Jack Johnson. His early career was a whirlwind of dominance, racking up a perfect 56-0-1 record before Jack “Kid” Berg finally put a stop to his unbeaten streak in August 1930.
In his heyday, Kid Chocolate rubbed shoulders with boxing’s finest. The likes of Fidel LaBarba, Tony Canzoneri, and Lew Feldman– all top-class bruisers and early legends of the ring – were his regular adversaries.
No boxer’s ring name has been nicked more frequently than that of the original Kid Chocolate. His legacy endures, with the former WBO middleweight champion, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin, presently adopting the same moniker.
1. Kid Gavilán – The Best Cuban Boxer in History
Kid Gavilán, renowned as The Cuban Hawk rose to prominence as a leading welterweight star in the late 1940s and early 1950s, an era filled with exceptional talents in that weight class. Born Gerardo González, Kid Gavilán traded leather with the elite in both welterweight and middleweight divisions from 1943 to 1958.
Gavilán faced two decision defeats at the hands of Sugar Ray Robinson. However, when Robinson decided to step up to the middleweight division in 1951, Gavilán seized the vacant welterweight title by prevailing over John Bratton. He went on to protect his title successfully by seeing off heavy hitters like Carmen Basilio and Carl “Bobo” Olsen.
Cuban boxers are renowned for their technical finesse, and Kid Gavilán was no exception. He was renowned for weaving in his signature “Bolo Punch” to devastating effect. It could be described as a lightning-fast uppercut thrown with the momentum of a swinging machete, which gave the opposition little to no time to react.
Despite the quality of the competition, he soared through the ranks and racked up an impressive record of 108 wins, 30 losses, and 5 draws. 28 of those wins ended in lights-out for his opponents. Gavilán wasn’t just a champion; he was a showman, leaving a trail of vanquished foes and mesmerized audiences in his wake and is in our opinion, the best Cuban boxer to have ever picked up gloves.