As the timer ticked to start Round 3, Andy Cruz stalked Rostyslav Sabadash behind a hard jab.
Sabadash, taller and bulkier, stepped back. Cruz, a Cuban boxer who had won the lightweight gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, hit him with two more long left hands.
Cruz is one of the most successful boxers to ever emerge from Cuba’s celebrated boxing show. Along with his Olympic gold, he has three amateur world titles and has won twice at the Pan American Games. But in mid-May, Cruz came to Northeast Philadelphia to learn to box like a pro: He’ll make his pro debut in Detroit on July 15, in a 10-round bout against a tough veteran named Juan Carlos Burgos.
Cruz fired off two more jabs and then a right cross. Cruz’s manager, Yolfri Sánchez, watched the sparring session from ringside. His head coach, Derek Ennis, nicknamed Bozy, sat on the apron. Sánchez hired Ennis to replace Cruz’s amateur habits with professional techniques: hitting with authority, staying within range, catching and countering blows.
Another right hand from Cruz started a heated exchange of blows. Ennis stopped the new gym star from him.
“That’s not what you want to do,” Ennis said. “Someone bigger than you, don’t just stand there and hit him. He’s smart.”
Cruz’s boxing IQ, along with his speed and timing, helped make him the boxer many observers consider the best Cuban of his generation. A fight with Cuba’s boxing federation led to his departure from the country last year, making Cruz boxing’s best free agent and most intriguing prospect.
In May, Cruz signed a three-year deal with Matchroom Boxing that will guarantee him a seven-figure payout, and Cruz’s backers believe he will dominate the talent-rich lightweight division by next summer. But professional success will depend on how well Cruz adapts, both to his new country and to a new version of a familiar sport.
“The training is fine, but I need to fight,” he said in Spanish after the training session. “I’m looking forward. I’m looking forward. I like to work under pressure. That’s when you bring out the best in me.”
Cruz speaks little English and Ennis speaks even less Spanish. Sánchez translates, as do his smartphones. But Cruz dominates boxing. The BoxRec boxing database attributes him 140 amateur wins. She immediately acted on Ennis’s advice.
Pivot. Right cross. Uppercut.
Both punches connected.
“That’s all!” Sanchez yelled in Spanish.
Cruz first gained attention in the United States in July 2021, dancing in the ring to celebrate her Olympic gold medal as silver medalist Keyshawn Davis of the United States stood in front of a television camera. Rapper Snoop Dogg and comedian Kevin Hart parodied the moment of laughter in a widely watched video clipbut boxing fans focused on the result.
Davis was a highly rated amateur and is currently a fast growing light prospectAnd Cruz was over it, and not for the first time. Cruz is 4-0 against Davis.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Eddie Hearn, president of Matchroom Sport. “I know it sounds cheesy, but it was like watching an artist draw a painting. He was mesmerized by the ease with which he beat the best amateurs in the world. I never really expected to sign him because you don’t really expect Cuban boxers to go pro.”
A javelin thrower, Yiselena Ballar Rojas, he left the national team last summer during a stopover in Miami en route to the World Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. And Yaimé Pérez, bronze medalist in discus at the Tokyo Olympics, left the team in Miami after the World Championships.
And boxer Yoenlis Hernández, the only Cuban to win gold at the amateur world championships in May, quit the team on his way home from that tournament, sneaking out during a stopover in Panama.
For his part, Cruz maintains that he would have stayed in Cuba if he had not been excluded from the professional team.
“I was very disappointed,” said Cruz, who turns 28 in August. “I wanted to leave, in any way that she could.”
Last June, as part of a risky plot to leave Cuba by boat, Cruz traveled from his home in Matanzas, 65 miles east of Havana, to Moa, a coastal city in the eastern province of Holguín. He fell asleep at the house of the man who arranged the trip and woke up to police officers handcuffing him. After four days in custody, Cruz was allowed to return to Matanzas, but he was permanently removed from Cuba’s national team and banned from the country’s boxing gyms.
For the next four months, training meant shadow boxing and an hour’s run every afternoon. Cross training meant playing impromptu soccer. Without his monthly national team stipend (10,000 Cuban pesos, or about $400), Cruz was left penniless.
With no income and professional boxing prospects seeming remote, Cruz said he had considered selling peanuts for a living. At least then he could monetize his boxing success: if you’re choosing between suppliers, why not buy from the Olympic champion?
“I was a little scared that my door to get out of the country had closed and it would cost me my career,” Cruz said. “Those six months in Cuba were hell, in the sense that I was not doing what I am most passionate about, what I like the most. That’s boxing.”
Speculation about Cruz’s future percolated throughout the summer and finally found its way to Sánchez, a baseball agent based in the Dominican Republic who specializes in Cuban prospects. Sánchez wanted the boxer to be able to leave Cuba legally and worked with Cruz to organize the necessary paperwork.
By last November, Cruz had a passport and a one-way plane ticket to Santo Domingo.
Cruz arrived on November 5, 2022, wearing a white Stephen Curry T-shirt and a wide smile. He weighed in at 152 pounds, 17 over the lightweight limit of 135 pounds, but had lost some muscle since he won the Olympics.
“It was smaller than I had imagined,” Sanchez said. “I thought it would be bigger.”
From there, Cruz’s lawyer in the United States worked on the visa that Cruz would need to live and train in the country, while Sánchez and Jesse Rodríguez, his manager based in the United States, negotiated with the promoters. By early May, Cruz had secured both his visa and the promotional deal with Matchroom Boxing.
Cruz headed to Philadelphia, where he works with Ennis along with the trainer’s son, welterweight contender Jaron Ennis, boxing most afternoons, working on strength and conditioning most nights. When he’s not training, Cruz often parks himself in front of the TV in the extended-stay hotel room he shares with Sanchez and plays MLB The Show 23.
Cruz sent a new iPhone to his mom on a trip Rodríguez took to Cuba. Cruz asked Rodríguez to bring his Olympic gold medal and a container of ground peanuts. He missed Cuban food, she said, but she missed his family even more. The memories would remind him of both.
“It’s the first time I’ve spent so much time so far away from them,” she said of her parents, her brother and her 1-year-old son. “They witnessed everything that happened to me. They knew I had no choice but to leave.”
Cruz spent the last four rounds of his training session tutoring a local hopeful named Ángel Pizarro. Cruz is leaner, stronger and weighs 10 pounds less than he did when he left Cuba. After landing a hard jab and a hard right hand, Pizarro smiled and nodded in acknowledgment of Cruz’s new muscle.
“He’s a bully!” Pizarro yelled at the crowd around the ring.
Ennis said his goal was not to transform Cruz into a Mike Tyson-style power puncher, but to add pro-style strength to the speed and cunning that made Cruz such an amateur.
“I don’t take anything away, I just add, refine and teach him my style,” Ennis said. “Catch right hand, left hook. Rolling under shots, he comes back with the counter. That’s what I have to do.
For his part, Hearn said Cruz was already equipped to take down the elite of the lightweight division, including Gervonta Davis, the ticket-selling knockout artist; Shakur Stevenson, 2016 Olympic runner-up; and Devin Haney, the undisputed champion. A future matchup with Keyshawn Davis is natural: the two have they shot each other on social media since last spring.
But first to arrive is Burgos, a hardened keeper whose 35-7-3 record includes decision losses to Haney and Keyshawn Davis.
Where most professional debuts are scheduled for four or six rounds, Cruz’s fight against Burgos is booked for ten. The length of the bout is evidence that Cruz is already considered a veteran by promoters and regulators.
And he notes that after several false starts, Cruz believes he can quickly rise to the top of professional boxing.
“I want to win all my fights, win all the belts,” Cruz said. “I want to do what I did in amateur boxing. I had a great race and I think I can repeat it.”