The constant butterfly: Yoelvis Gomez and his legacy of bread, gold and violence
““You can’t get away from yourself
by moving from one place to another”
Before their lives are over, monarch butterflies will begin a journey that will only be completed by their offspring, who will travel to the exact same location where their grandparents were born without the benefit of previous knowledge or experience to guide them. And then after that, their descendants will return to the exact original birthplace of the earlier patriarch without knowing how they got there.
An unexplainable natural phenomenon, indeed, but hardly a unique occurrence.
Things like this happen all the time.
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“I want them to feel it,” said Yoelvis Gomez, during a phone interview. “I want to hurt people, badly. Send them to the hospital, and then apologize to them and wish them well, to see them go back to their families in good health. But I go in with the mentality of an assassin. If I go with that mentality, it’s because the other fighter will come with that same mentality, to kill me. If it comes down to your mom or my mom crying, it will have to be yours.”
Ever since leaving his native Cuba back in 2019 when he was just 21 years old, and even before that, Gomez has made more than a few moms cry. Especially his own, when he told her that he was leaving the embattled island-nation to pursue a professional boxing career that stands now at a perfect 5-0, all by way of quite brutal stoppages. The gamble has paid off so far, and Gomez is now on the fast lane to a stellar career in the paid ranks, with his next stop being his impending showdown against Mexico’s Jorge Cota on Saturday, May 21 at the Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, in the undercard of the David Benavidez-David Lemieux super middleweight belt tussle.
It is hard to find fighters earning a co-main event contract so quickly, even with such enormous power and talent. But the now 24-year-old Gomez was so demolishing in his stoppage of the typically durable Clay Collard in one round in a nationally televised bout on Christmas Day 2021 that he captured the attention of both PBC and Showtime executives, and also the services of renowned trainer and compatriot Ismael Salas, who will be in his corner on Saturday in his toughest pro bout to date.
Did that stoppage carry enough power to break the mold of the technical, defensive, boring Cuban fighter that so many of his peers seemed to have installed in people’s minds?
“I had my punching power already from Cuba,” said Gomez. “Collard was coming off wins over thee unbeaten prospects. He was well known in boxing. People said ‘he’s an easy victim’ and it wasn’t so. He was doing things that other people couldn’t do. And being an MMA fighter he defeated three unbeaten fighters. He had been stopped only once on a liver shot. And I always train hard for that punch, so I said ‘OK, as soon as I get him hurt I will try to finish him,’ to see if what people say is true. And when I saw him hurt I said ‘It’s now or never’.”
Punching power, as many old time boxing characters would say, can only be a natural asset, just as a fighter’s chin. It’s not something that can be acquired overnight. And Gomez has plenty of DNA behind his murderous fists to at least partially validate that notion.
“My father taught me a lot, especially my punching power,” said Gomez, about his legendary dad, Jose Gomez Mustelier. “He didn’t really teach me that, I was born with it. I just had to polish it. If you have it, you just have to work on it and improve it more and more. What he taught me was the style of his days, like the old boxing style from the ‘70s and ‘80s, that’s what he taught me to do. He told me to watch guys like Mike Tyson, (Erislandy) Lara, (Yuriorkis) Gamboa. Tyson was his favorite fighter, for his punching power and his aggression. The best defense is a good attack.”
Jose knew a thing or two about punching power. A former gold medalist in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games and an amateur world champion two years prior, Jose was known in Cuba for his numbing punching power and is still remembered as one of the island’s fiercest punchers. “A rough fighter, with a punch comparable to that of (three-time gold medalist Teofilo) Stevenson,” reminisced veteran sports scribe Lazaro Malvarez Cárdenas. “He was a puncher unlike anyone else. He had really heavy hands.”
“My first steps were due to my father, who is an Olympic and world champion,” said Yoelvis. “He had all the titles given by AIBA. I didn’t want to be a boxer, I wanted to be a baseball or soccer player. And he told me ‘the only sport in which I can help you is in boxing, that’s where I know more people and I can get you all the equipment.’ My first gift as a child was a set of gloves and headgear.”
As respected as Jose was in Cuba, it was just a matter of time before politics got in the way, and some of the doors that his name could open to his son would be shut later in life, but that didn’t prevent Yoelvis to represent Cuba as an amateur in tournaments in Russia, Ukraine and other countries, with good results.
“My first achievement was at 11 years old, in a provincial tournament, where I remember they gave me a cup. And I was very happy to get that cup and a gold medal. I was always motivated because every time I did something right my dad would motivate me with something, he would encourage me to continue boxing, teach me how to combine study and boxing, and so on.
“When you are a kid and your parents support you, you don’t feel it so much, you know? You are not conscious of what is happening around you. But if I was in Cuba now, I could tell you a lot of things about it. Like sports and politics, they are linked too much, and this shouldn’t be so. And there are a lot of athletes in Cuba who are great at what they do but they can’t do anything due to this regime. I don’t agree with it.”
This and other disagreements led to Yoelvis leaving Cuba at a relatively early age. His departure may have been caused by the same reasons that inspired every one of his colleagues to leave in their time, but his style had already departed the mold of the Cuban school of boxing that most people knew around the world, and it was time to make a statement in an environment where his knockout power could make a difference.
“When I left for Nicaragua I would spar and I scored a few knockouts,” said Yoelvis, who made a quick stop in that Central American country before making his way north. “Then in Mexico I learned the ins and outs of professional boxing. I gained experience, so to speak. I learned the tricks. I learned punches that you don’t use in amateur boxing. I did learn a lot, and now here with Ismael Salas I am fine-tuning all of that. He tells me ‘you’re not a kid, you are an old fighter already,’ because I have gone through with a lot, I have sparred with more experienced fighters like Carlos Adames o Patrick Teixeira, former world champions. In that gym I am surrounded by experienced fighters, like Erislandy Lara, Robeisy Ramirez, Joe Joyce and a lot of stars.”
Standing out in a room full of some of the best Cuban transplants in today’s scene must be difficult, but Yoelvis is preceded by a name that carries a lot of weight, and what his name won’t do his punches surely will.
“In my last fight they asked me the same,” said Yoelvis about the recurring question about Cuban boxers failing to adapt to the ‘entertainment’ demands of professional boxing. “I scored a demolishing knockout, and they asked me ‘why do you have that style, since Cubans don’t have that style?’ and I said ‘no, in Cuba there are different styles of boxing, and each one of us pick a style.’ There are some who have that style, you know, moving around, playing great defense,but there are boxers who have the technique and the punching power as well. That’s what I am saying, communism in Cuba does not allow Cubans to advance. There are many boxers who have qualities and talent, they have everything to make it bit. But it is hard for them to leave.”
Leaving in his early twenties without too many amateur credentials under his belt to soften his landing in the competitive world of professional boxing was a risk he had to take, but he felt he did it just at the right time.
“My exit was when the right moment came looking for me,” said Yoelvis. “They asked me ‘do you want to be a professional boxer?’ and I didn’t think twice before saying yes. And then I called my mom and my dad and told them, ‘I believe I will be a professional boxer in a few months’ and they said ‘no, no way!’ My dad said ‘are you crazy?’ They both cried. They told me ‘you are going to leave us, you are going to flee the country’ and I said ‘yes, but it will be for the better, for all of us’. Then a few days went by, and my dad would wake me up every morning crying, and he would ask ‘is it true that you will leave me?’ and I would say ‘yes, dad. This is boxing, and you know you have problems here in Cuba and they don’t take it up with you, they punish me because I am the one who is boxing now and they won’t let me move ahead. I have to make my own way.’
“He finally understood that, and he supports me now. Even today, he cries for me, in the distance.”
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Yoelvis lives in Las Vegas now. He has a daughter. His transition to professional boxing is complete, and the sky is the limit for a fighter with his pedigree and his power. But the legacy that his name carries still influences his style, and he still finds inspiration in his dad’s work.
“His defense wasn’t as good as other fighters, but if he landed on you he’d knock you out, or at least burn you,” said Yoelvis, who never saw his father fight live. “His style was going out for the kill. He used to say ‘I didn’t like being up there in the ring too much.’ And I think about him when I have a fight, I always watch one of his fights, the final fight in Moscow ’80 against the Russian (Viktor Savchenko), I always watch it to psyche myself up.”
Punching power, as many old time boxing characters would say, can only be inherited. Yoelvis can trace his own power to his dad, but that’s where the trace dead-ends.
According to Yoelvis, Jose was originally a baseball player, and then a boxing trainer saw that he had a strong arm and a killer swing and took him under his wing. The true nature of his murderous wallop is lost somewhere in his DNA.
Unless, of course, we take his name and place of origin into account.
Jose Gomez Mustelier was born in Las Tunas, once a boxing hotbed in the southern half of the island. Mentioning boxing and Las Tunas in the same breath immediately evokes the figure of Kid Tunero, one of Cuba’s earliest boxing heroes who would later travel the world impressing everyone from managers to fellow fighters to writers like Ernest Hemingway, whom he befriended. The author of “The Old Man and the Sea” once said that Tunero “is the most complete athlete Cuba has produced. If there are still knights on earth, Tunero is one of them. He is as pure and simple as bread – or as gold.”
Kid Tunero was born Evelio Mustelier.
Although no other links can be found between the two men, and even though their birth dates make it hard to determine their possible relationship, it is hard to believe that their bloodlines would not have been entangled somehow, in a town currently inhabited by little over 150.000 people. Tunero’s legendary power took him in a completely different flight around the world, and some of the same circumstances that forced Yoelvis out of his motherland led Tunero to become a globetrotter for years before settling in Spain, where he would (among other things) become the trainer of one of the country’s first boxing champions José Legrá (a Cuban transplant).
The relationship between Jose and Evelio and beyond, if any, may be lost forever under the violence disguised as revenge towards those perceived as traitors by the Cuban regime.
“I spoke to Yoelvis’ coach in Cuba, my friends in Miami, Costa Rica, Azerbaijan, and they all say the same: all the old Cuban fighters who became professionals are not known in Cuba, because the government bans all the information available on them,” said Manel Berdonce, a Spanish trainer who knew Tunero and has worked with several Cuban transplants in Spain. “When I took Legrá to Havana once, they didn’t even know who he was.”
The flight of the monarch butterfly leads her away from her homeland as well. Their sons return to acknowledge the heritage of violence of the land that expelled them and turned them into orphans in pursuit of bread – even after occasionally returning home with the gold.
And then they leave, never to return again.
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“I am going step by step, but aiming big,” said Yoelvis, about his current search for the daily bread and the elusive gold in which he is now embarked. “And to the public, I always say that I want to give them a show. Some people tell me ‘your fights end very quickly,’ and I reply ‘well, if I have the chance to end my fights as soon as possible, then I will do it, and what you like is the knockout anyway.”
His time will come, and right soon. Just don’t tell Yoelvis Gomez he’s being rushed to a title shot. He is flying on the wings of his predecessors, and the road ahead has already been laid out for him many years before he left his chrysalis.