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Brush with Greatness
Franz Lidz
September 10, 2001
Cuban refugee Joel Casamayor eyes a shot at becoming the bantamweight to beat
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September 10, 2001

Brush With Greatness

Cuban refugee Joel Casamayor eyes a shot at becoming the bantamweight to beat

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They call Joel Casamayor "Cepillo," which means brush in Spanish. This name derives not from Casamayor's bristly hair but from the way the southpaw's swift uppercuts buff his opponents' faces. "My punches scrape the nose, the lips, the bones of their eyes," says the WBA super featherweight champ. "It's said I only lightly brush my opponents, but many fall and do not get up."

A former star of Cuba's powerhouse amateur boxing team who defected to the U.S. before the 1996 Olympics, Cepillo has brushed off all 25 of his professional opponents, 15 by knockout. He won the WBA crown with a fifth-round TKO of Jongkwon Baek of South Korea in May 2000 and has made four defenses. At age 30 he is eyeing big-money bouts against the two other undefeated 130-pound champions, WBC title-holder Floyd Mayweather and WBO king Acelino Freitas. A showdown with the hard-punching Freitas was set for Aug. 25, but Freitas backed out. The two are scheduled to appear on the same card in Miami on Sept. 29, against opponents certain to be less than threatening, before entering the ring together sometime in December.

Freitas, who has knocked out all 29 fighters he has faced, may well be the career-defining opponent Casamayor is seeking. "Joel is too slick, and his attack is too unpredictable," says veteran trainer Lou Duva. "Freitas will be lucky to land a solid shot."

Casamayor has a hard, angular face and an enigmatic set to his mouth. His well-calibrated brushwork paints a picture of fistic precision. "He doesn't waste movement," says trainer and ESPN2 commentator Teddy Atlas. "He's a very contained little fighter."

You see that precision in the economical way Casamayor writes his name. He won a prize for penmanship in his Havana high school. "I was average in the ring," he says, "but nobody had better script."

His handwriting was honed while he was choking in the poverty of Guant�namo, where his father, Reymundo, was a hog farmer. Joel honed his boxing skills in a gym where Reymundo had sent him at age six, as an alternative to street fighting. Regional age-group champ at 12, Joel was invited to Havana at 15 to join the national team.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Casamayor was part of a Cuban contingent that won seven gold and two silver medals in 12 weight divisions, the most dominant boxing performance by any country in a nonboycott year. Three of the seven gold medalists were rewarded with cars; Casamayor, the bantamweight champ, got a bicycle, which he swapped for a pig to provide meat for his family.

Despite winning 380 of 410 amateur bouts, Casamayor was often slighted by Cuban sports officials in other ways. He was pressured to join the Communist Party and to declare his fealty to the revolution and Fidel Castro. When he refused, the government threatened to take away his small house in Guant�namo. Team officials made him prepare for the '96 Olympics at 119 pounds, a weight he nearly had to starve himself to make. "They wouldn't even let me have water," he says. "To them I was a piece of meat."

While training for the '96 Games at the Cuban compound in Guadalajara, Mexico, Casamayor heard that team officials might not permit him to compete in Atlanta, fearing he would defect. A few days after teammate Ramon Garbey had slipped away from the group and into hiding, Casamayor walked out of camp saying he was going to buy a loaf of bread, and he kept on walking.

In June he and Garbey crossed over into the U.S. near Tijuana and were granted political asylum. "The hard part was leaving behind my girlfriend and five-year-old daughter in Guant�namo," says Casamayor, who has married another woman and has an infant son. He talks to his daughter by phone every week but says, "I'm resigned to the fact that I may never see her again."

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