A boxer named Felix poses at the Rafael Trejo boxing gym in the Old Havana neighborhood of Havana, Cuba.

The open air gym, nestled between housing complexes, is one of the oldest in Havana.

Much of the equipment at the gym is used past its normal life. Other equipment is purchased with the gym's funds, which rely on tourist contributions. Personal items, such as the boxers' shorts, gloves, shoes, and vitamin supplements, are often donated by foreign visitors.

Tourists often come to train with the local boxers at Trejo gym. On a rainy day, the locals and visitors spar under the ring’s cover.

After they are used for sparring, gloves are laid in the sun to dry.

Boxer Darian pushing through strength training at the gym.

April 3, 2015. A rum company chose four of the boxers to participate in a boxing-themed commercial and gave them costume robes to wear for the shoot. For their participation, the director offered unlimited rum and the equivalent of $15 USD to each boxer, with the possibility for more if they fought each other “harder and more realistically.”

Once a month, the boxers travel to a beach on the outskirts of Havana to train and unwind.

Boxer Maikel wraps his hands before sparring. 

Nardo Flores, a boxing coach for over 20 years, runs the boxers through some drills.

A tourist asks the boxers of Trejo gym to join him for a beer. 

Boxers relax after training.

Coach Flores maintains his address book, filled with the contact information of mostly international visitors. While local champions like Olympian Héctor Vinent have a daily presence there, the gym frequently attracts outside interest such as retired American boxer Floyd Mayweather, who visited the gym in 2015.

At the front of the gym, a display of some of Cuba's "Circulo de Veterano” – internationally recognized boxing veterans.
Retired boxer Héctor Vinent, two time Olympic Gold medalist and two time World Amateur Champion, now trains young teenage boxing prospects at the gym.

Coach Flores at the end of training.

A moment to rest.


(2013 - 2016)

En la luchita – literally translated as in the fight – is somewhat of an affectionate lament by some Cubans describing the challenge of living in Cuba. When I first heard it uttered by a Cuban boxer, he wasn’t referring to his time at the gym. The ring was a respite; la luchita was the struggle of everyday life.

Gimnasio Rafael Trejo is one of the oldest boxing gyms in Havana. Through an unassuming street entrance, the gym expands to a large open-air space nestled between housing complexes. There are enough rafters to seat spectators and sweat-drenched gloves drying out in the sun. The gym is named after Rafael Trejo González, a young university student who was killed in 1930 while leading marches against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, president of Cuba from 1925 to 1933. Modern political statements grace the poster board at the front of the gym. One is a multi-page flyer labeled La Subversión Política Contra Cuba (Political Subversion Against Cuba), with the faces of two well-known American politicians upon it. While politics are often taboo elsewhere, they are inescapable here. Frequently the boxers discuss how they plan to spend their monthly $25 allowance and, for contrast, ask the well-dressed tourists who frequent the gym what their salaries are back home. 

Boxing, a national pastime second only to baseball, faced ideological hurdles under the Revolution's Marxist ideals. In 1962, Fidel Castro banned professional sports, leading some boxers to defect. However, the majority stayed, fostering a dominant amateur program. The ban softened in 2013, allowing elite boxers to pursue semi-professional careers. Elite boxers can now join a semi-pro league and receive sponsorship money, while retaining the ability to participate in the Olympics.

Boxing talent is abundant in Cuba and at this gym. Héctor Vinent, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, trains young prospects in the afternoon, while veteran coach Nardo Flores trains adult boxers in the morning. Many of the boxers have sparred and trained alongside pros well known in the international community, such as Luis Ortiz, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux, and many others. 

As policy and leadership continues to change in both the United States and Cuba, the future of some of these boxers remains to be seen. The most skilled may continue a path towards career boxing, utilizing their networks of talented sparring partners and elite boxing education until they turn pro and leave. The others may continue to supplement their income by picking up side jobs in the tourist industry. According to Cuba’s National Statistical Office, there was a 74% increase in American travelers from 2009 to 2014. No statistics were available for 2015 or 2016, at the time this story was written. 

I have kept in touch with some boxers since the project ended. A few, featured in these photos, have found love or work opportunities abroad, leaving Cuba. Many remain, witnessing changes – more tourists, some improved infrastructure, and new small businesses. There is a shared hope that these shifts will translate into a better life, or at least, less luchita.

Copyright Laura Ming Wong © 2024