Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yuriorkis Gamboa is on the Fast Track

Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, which he calls, "My biggest feat in boxing so far."

Tonight at Buffalo Bill’s Star Arena in Primm, Nevada he’ll try to make good on another feat and win a world boxing title.

For Gamboa, his has been a professional boxing career that so far has sped by at warp speed. His first title shot will come against Venezuelan veteran Jose Rojas for the vacant interim WBA featherweight belt.

It will be Gamboa’s 15th fight after only two years as a pro. To date he has only fought 46 rounds in the paid ranks and already he has been officially down on the deck four times, only to storm back every time to secure the victory.

For those old enough to remember, Gamboa is downright Holyfield-esque in his march to a title shot.

Remember it was the "Real Deal" fresh off a bronze medal win at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who faced Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the WBA cruiserweight title in July 1986 after only 20 months, 11 fights and 44 rounds on his pro ledger. Holyfield’s braintrust put him on a fast track to the top because they had confidence in their young charge and now 23 years later, Gamboa’s backers feel much the same about their man’s abilities.

Gamboa is the overwhelming favorite to dispatch the WBA’s favorite Venezuelan son in Rojas (25-6-1, 17 knockouts) who is, incredibly, receiving his fifth shot at that organization’s 126-pound title belt.

While there are many in the industry that are criticizing and questioning the 37 year-old, veteran Rojas’ credentials for his high ranking and title opportunities, there are also quite a few that are raising the same questions and criticisms about Gamboa, who is currently the #1 contender according to the Venezuelan based sanctioning body.

In his most recent fight, Gamboa dispatched Roger Gonzalez, aka "Speedy" via 10th round stoppage.

However, Gamboa, 27, is one of the most confident and young fighters you will meet and like countryman Joel Casamayor, he is a man of few words who is blunt and to the point when he is asked what he thinks of those that question his readiness for a title opportunity.

"I say let the critics think and say whatever they want," answers Gamboa (14-0 with 12 knockouts). "The critics aren’t the ones up in the ring with me. Let them watch me when I destroy my opponents. Watch my opponents when I catch them and knock them out. I'm ready for them and the question is are they ready for me? The critics can think whatever they want."

And so far at least, besides the flash knockdowns, Gamboa hasn’t left a lot for the critics to debate. He has a fan-friendly and television friendly style and as a result HBO, Showtime and ESPN2 has televised most of his fights.

The native of Guantanamo, Cuba is a 5’5" tall, compact, fireplug who storms ahead with a devil-may-care attitude that is hell-bent on scoring a knockout. As a result, he often times leaves himself open for what is coming back at him and so he has tasted the canvas four times in those 14 fights.

But what Gamboa lacks in the finer elements of the sweet science he makes up for with his explosive punching power. He makes no apologies for his eagerness and says only; "My style is my style."

After the Athens Olympics in 2004, Gamboa stayed in contact with Miami attorney Antonio Gonzalez, who is now his manager. In December 2006, Gamboa made his move when he was in Venezuela training with the Cuban boxing team. He would desert the training camp and walk away from the only life he had ever known and he defected.

From left, Yan Barthelemy, Odlanier Solis and Gamboa who together defected from Cuba in December 2006.

Along with two other Cuban boxing gold medalists (heavyweight Odlanier Solis and light flyweight Yan Barthelemy) Gamboa crossed the border into Colombia and a few months later he made his way to his new home base of Miami, Florida and later signed a contract with German boxing promoter Ahmet Oner.

Since then, Gamboa hasn’t looked back.

"There were a lot of reasons why I decided I wanted to get away from Cuba," explains Gamboa. "One of the most important reasons I decided to leave was because in Cuba, they didn't treat us like the Olympic champions that we were. They didn’t give us anything, really, or at least they didn't give us the things that I though we deserved. I had it with Cuba."

His story is much like that of countryman Joel Casamayor, also an Olympic gold medal winner who didn’t receive much respect. Upon Casamayor’s arrival home after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Fidel Castro led Communist government presented Casamayor with a bicycle for his efforts. Casamayor sold the bicycle and bought a pig for his family to eat. Then he also defected for a better life as a professional fighter in the United States and would go on to win millions in purse money and two world boxing titles.

Although Gamboa identifies strongly with his home country of Cuba, he never had a doubt that he would one day escape the Communist grip of the island and make a life for himself as a professional fighter in the United States.

"My whole life I have been a boxer," he explains. "My father was a boxer and my father showed me all of the moves and the punches to throw when I was just a kid. It was a thing where my father and I formed closeness with one another. It helped our father-son relationship and I really enjoyed that. He showed me how to box. My childhood growing up in Cuba was not the same as the childhood that a kid here in the United States would have. I grew up very poor and my entire life was just boxing. My father instilled that boxing work ethic in me at an early age and it’s really the only thing I have ever done in my life. I had no other choices."

After training under the auspices of Osmiri Fernandez for his first 10 pro fights, Gamboa would be decked in the fourth round and stretched to the limit by Darling Jiminez. It was after this performance that his promoter, Ahmet Oner, would step in and replace Fernandez with Ismael Salas

"Osmiri Fernandez came to me after the Darling Jiminez fight and said, 'You see him, he did ten 10 rounds, he lasted the distance' said Oner. "But I felt that Osmiri didn't understand what I wanted from him and what I had in mind for Yuri. I felt we were going in the wrong direction and that we were not on the same page and I said to him, "It’s over."

Cuban Ismael Salas got the call and he now trains Gamboa. Coincidentally (or not) he’s the same man that trained Yuriorkis’ father in Guantanamo, Cuba many years ago, and he’s also a man with whom Gamboa has a special bond.

"It's good because we are close to one another and a lot of times we don't even have to speak when we are training together," says Gamboa of their relationship. "I can tell just by looking at him what he wants from me and what he wants me to do. You would think we have been working together for years, but that isn’t the case. It's just that he has known me since I was a kid and that is a big advantage for me. He was there since the very beginning from the first time I ever went into a gym to see my father. He was there the first day that I put on a pair of gloves and hit a heavy bag. He knows me very well so he knows my pedigree. I’m very happy to be working with him."

Ismael Salas (left) along with veteran cornerman Rafael Garcia and Gamboa after a recent victory.

Since teaming up with Salas in mid-2008, the pair have been on a potent four fight win streak that has seen Gamboa score four knockouts against fighters that had a collective record of 114 wins against only 13 losses.

In their first fight together he would score a highlight reel, first round knockout over the unknown Al Seeger. Next up was the undefeated Marcus Ramirez and while he was on the mat in the first round against Ramirez, Gamboa would scream back and stop him in the second round. In his next fight he would stop the always-capable Roger "Speedy" Gonzalez in the 10th round of their fight. Gamboa calls that fight perhaps his best performance.

"Before that fight, Ismael and I talked about how tough an opponent he was going to be," said Gamboa. "We knew that it was a fight that could go the distance and that I would have to prove that if I had to turn up the pressure and turn up the heat that I could turn it on if I had to. You know, at that time, all of the people out there, the television people and so forth, they were all looking at me and they were all wondering if I was going to be able to do great, great things. They were all wondering how good I can be. They were all wondering if I could take it when the pressure gets turned up and in that fight I proved that I could."

Gamboa, who has been introduced to all the trappings here in America that come along with being a professional fighter, admits it hasn’t always been easy to remain focused on boxing. Since his arrival on the pro scene he has been tempted by the finest food, the shiniest jewelry, the quickest motorcycles and the fastest cars, but he says he plans on making his mark tonight by winning the featherweight belt. His eventual plan is to move up through the weight divisions, winning titles as he goes.

What's a young and undefeated boxer without fast cars, motorcycles, title belts and palm trees?

"It doesn't matter who is in the way, just bring it on," he says. "I’m ready to fight whoever will accept the challenge. Right now my focus is on boxing. I want to win the championship and please the fans, especially my Cuban fans. I enjoy being up there in the ring. I like the excitement of it all and I like to hear the fans cheering. The biggest thing for me is that I like to bring joy to the faces of the fans."

One thing is for sure thus far; Yuriorkis Gamboa is speeding toward the top - and that’s probably why they call it the fast track.

April 2009

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