Publish date:

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


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 titleholder 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
Guantanamo, 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

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 Guantanamo.
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 Guantanamo," 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."

Casamayor settled in Miami, turned pro and joined Team Freedom, a
squad mostly made up of former Cuban amateurs in exile. "Joel was
a diamond," says manager Luis de Cubas. "He just needed someone
to polish him." In 1999 de Cubas sent him to Joe Goossen, the Van
Nuys, Calif., trainer who had helped steer the Ruelas brothers,
Gabriel and Rafael, to world titles.

Mindful that Casamayor might be set in his ways as a three-round
fighter, Goossen designed a daily regimen of bag work and 30 to
40 rounds of sparring. "Joel gets a psychotic possession in the
gym," he says. "No matter what I throw out, he devours it."

Casamayor is far from sated. As his biggest bouts draw near, the
artistic Cepillo is eager to lay something out on the canvas.


"He doesn't waste movement," Atlas says. "He's a very contained
little fighter."