Damian Austin has the wary eyes of a cardsharp, the aplomb of a matador and the quirky, private smile of a con man. He has traces of Eddie Murphy, Eddie Fisher, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Fast Eddie Felton. One minute he's warbling Guantanamera with a pickup salsa band, the next he's hustling you for money to buy a Walkman for his poor Aunt Idalia in Havana.
Austin, 18, is the youngest of eight reigning world champions on a Cuban boxing team that humbled a squad of top U.S. amateurs last Saturday by winning 11 of 12 bouts. At the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, the 5'9", 132-pound Austin outboxed and outfoxed fellow lightweight Larry Nicholson, a 26-year-old chocoholic from Tyler, Texas, whose mom is named—honestly—Baby Ruth. Nicholson seemed to melt in Austin's hands (maybe that's why boxing's called the sweet science), twice slipping to the canvas, once sliding through the rope. Said U.S. coach Alfred Mitchell, "An 18-year-old Cuban boxer is not young, he's a hardened veteran."
Actually, Austin started boxing only four years ago. Growing up amid the sugarcane fields of Las Tunas, he had planned to be a ballplayer. "I could run and field," he says with a heavy, bathtub-drain laugh, "but I swung wildly and usually missed the ball." Even his teammates began to tease him. but, he says, "I fought them all." Off the field Austin's swings usually connected. One day a boxing coach spied Austin, took him to a gym and taught him to hit with power. At 17, Austin won the world junior 132-pound title. This year he supplanted 27-year-old Julio Gonzalez on Cuba's national team despite never having beaten him. "Damian was in better shape," explains Alcides Sagarra, the legendary Cuban coach whose fighters have amassed 19 Olympic gold medals since he took charge in 1964, including seven of 12 golds at the '92 Summer Games. Otherwise, he will only say dismissively, "Damian isn't far enough along to discuss. He still has to write his history."
The Biloxi chapter was essentially a reworking of the lightweight final at the world championships in Finland in May. "I didn't dictate the pace," said Nicholson of the earlier bout's 6-2 decision. Which was why, from the opening bell of the rematch, Nicholson moved to seize the advantage, continually lunging at Austin, who kept sidestepping Nicholson and shoving him out of reach. Circling the ring in his own snug groove, Austin would strike suddenly with jabs to the head, then whistle hooks through Nicholson's defenses. "The Cuban pushed Larry down, grabbed him, held him, locked him up," said Mitchell. "That was a wrasslin' match." When Austin's 3-2 victory was announced, the Biloxi crowd whooped with disapproval. "No," murmured Nicholson's former coach, Lucky Vascocu, in reaction to the crowd, "Austin won it outright, and, believe me, I didn't want him to." Acknowledging the boos, Austin offered a grin that was triumphant yet abashed—atilt with goofy pride. Nicholson looked modestly miffed. "The Cuban got away with stuff that's illegal in the amateurs," he said. "But it shows he's a true champion. He did what it took to win."
Cuba's young lightweight champion is a hustler who knows how to hit.