Jorge Luis Valdez Rodriguez is a boxing coach straight from the movies: he's a tough-look-
ing straight-talker who's built like a powder keg.
But the former national light welterweight champion of boxing-crazed Cuba is modest
and measured. It's only after coaxing and cold beers at a local Russian restaurant
that Valdez, 47, flashes a flinty smile and talk quickly turns from borscht to boxing.
"In boxing the most important thing is willpower," Valdez told the Post
of his 16-member boxing squad. "Cambodians are small, but strong. They have
aggressiveness and some of the boys have shown good technical skills - you can see
they have a natural ability for boxing."
A trainer for 23 years, Valdez learned the skills of the "sweet science"
in the impoverished Cuban province of Pinar Del Rio.
In Cuba, the Caribbean island nation off the coast of Florida, boxing champs are
idolized as cultural heroes. Valdez, and Waldo Reyes Sardinas, acting head of mission
at the Cuban Embassy in Phnom Penh since last month's departure of Ambassador Nirsia
Castro Guevara, proudly discuss the exploits of three-time Olympic heavyweight champion
Teofilo Steveson and Valdez' own mentor, Enrique Garmury.
Although professional sports were banned by Fidel Castro in 1962, Cuba's amateur
boxing team has dominated international competition for decades. Led by folk heroes
such as Kid Chocolate and Kid Gavilan, Cuba's great boxers have always held a mystique
for boxing aficionados.
Cold War legacy
Valdez is the fifth Cuban to be named to train Cambodia's Western-style - also called
Olympic-style - boxing team, a string that stretches back to the 1980s. According
to Sardinas, the bilateral agreement to promote sports development is a legacy of
the Cold War era when diplomatic relations between Cuba and Cambodia became cozy.
Sardinas says Cuba has had an embassy in Phnom Penh since the 1960s and in the post-conflict
period sent doctors, teachers and agriculture specialists to Cambodia. Phnom Penh
ultimately opened an embassy in Cuba, and diplomatic ties have remained as tight
as a Cohiba cigar ever since.
"We are always looking for new fields of cooperation," Sardinas said. "We
award sports scholarships every year. We prepare the winners to be trainers. The
Cambodian government buys the tickets and Cuba pays the rest."
Yen Oddom, director of the Sports Department of the Ministry of Education, Youth
and Sports, said the selection of Cuban coaches is as much a matter of boxing expertise
as leftover diplomacy.
Proof in the pugilism
"The reason why the Olympic Committee chooses Cuban coaches to train our boxers
is because everyone is aware that Cuba is strong in boxing," Oddom said on July
25. "To upgrade our sports we always try to find the best coaches in the world.
Cuban coaches are very good at teaching boxing."
It seems the proof is in the pugilism. The Valdez-led Cambodian team earned two bronze
medals, in the 69 kg and 75 kg divisions, at the 2006 SEA Games in Manila. More recently,
at a regional competition held in Hanoi, Cambodia won seven medals - gold, silver
and five bronze.
"Boxing depends on training, talent and support. But most important is the individual,"
"I enjoy teaching the technical side of boxing. It is a very important skill
to have. It gives you a weapon, but I teach the boys to never use it outside the
ring. People who really love boxing would never use their skills for anything but
competition and self-defense."
Boxing, Valdez explains as he raises his fists, has a universal language and communication
is not a problem. Still, he understands that Western boxing can be a hard sell for
athletes brought up with Asian kickboxing.
"The climate is like Cuba, but the traditions are different," said Valdez.
"In Cambodia , young men naturally go toward kickboxing. I have one fighter
who, every time he grasps his sparring partner, automatically knees him in the ribs.
I always have to stop the fight."