Two things emerge, quickly and unmistakably, from Brin-Jonathan Butler's writing at The Classical: the guy loves boxing, and is hopelessly besotted with Cuba, not necessarily in that order. Often, his pieces have been as much about the latter as the former, but in the case of Guillermo Rigondeaux, the two-time Olympic gold medalist Cuban super-bantamweight who is currently the WBA's belt-holder in his division, Rigondeaux's sport and homeland are near-inextricable from each other. When Rigondeaux defected in 2009, it made an impact far beyond his weight class, exposing and reflecting and otherwise highlighting a host of conflicts and contradictions in Cuba's sporting culture.
It was, in short, a great subject for a movie. And Brin-Jonathan has indeed been working on Split Decision, a documentery about Rigondeaux, for over a year, shooting interviews with everyone from Freddie Roach to Rigondeaux himself, on three continents. His Indiegogo campaign, which is currently winding down, was designed in hopes that he could raise enough money to complete his editing and begin the arduous, expensive process of getting the film out there. I talked to him via email about why he chose this fighter and this country, what kind of movie he's trying to make, and how one goes about getting people to watch a movie about a super-bantamweight fighter, anyway. To contribute to his campaign, click here.
You've been chasing this story around the globe for some time now. What is it about Rigondeaux and his story that grabbed you like this? Is it something in him, or in the situation and how it has played out, or some combination of the two?
In 1520 the first slaves were brought to Cuba. By 2009, when Rigondeaux stepped into a smuggler's boat, another human being was bought and sold off that island. What captured my imagination was the failures in both the Cuban and American systems that not just permitted but encouraged this modern slave trade. So here was Rigondeaux with a choice between fighting for Fidel Castro in Cuba or Don King here in America. Hook, line, and sinker–I was a goner.
As for the dynamics of the story beyond Rigondeaux, let me put it this way: one of the most fascinating details about Vincent van Gogh, that I think goes a long way with capturing the world's imagination, is the fact he couldn't sell what turned out to be some of the world's most valuable treasures. It's not all that hard to see why human beings are so receptive to identifying with his narrative. We all want to feel like we have loot to offer the world with what our lives mean. But Vincent and that brother of his were desperately trying to sell those paintings. Where Cuban athletes are concerned, 99% have turned down millions of dollars to leave. While that's a lot harder for us to understand, I was interested in giving it my best shot and seeing where it took me.
The Olympics are this quadrennial reminder that Cuba's boxing scene is for real, but for a great many Cuban fighters, that's about the only showcase they have. What do you think it was that made Rigondeaux so determined to leave, to fight professionally and on television? Was it as simple as wanting money and fame that he couldn't have in Cuba, or is there more at work than that?
Rigondeaux's story was a major turning point not just in Cuban sport, but in Cuban society on the whole. It was all over state television for months. Basically a referendum. Castro personally branded Rigondeaux a traitor and a Judas to the Cuban people, yet many Cubans I met felt enormous sympathy towards Rigondeaux's reasons for leaving. Of course they'd only tell me that in a whisper. So what you had with Rigondeaux was a canary in the coal mine for the entire system itself.
And here's where it gets interesting in terms of what it says about the US once he washed ashore: he choose to leave his wife and two kids behind despite an offer to get them out. Why was that? According to him, because he felt the Cuban system would look after them far better than America's system if boxing didn't turn out. But, bottom line, he wanted the opportunity America offered that Cuba didn't.
In your writing for us, it's clear that you're equally as enamored with Cuba as you are of boxing, or Cuban boxers, or most anything else. How does the culture of that country shape its sporting culture? What role does it play in forging Cuban fighters, and what role do you think it played in making Rigondeaux who he is?
Cuba is like 1984 if Charles Dickens wrote it. Politics and sport in Cuba is the ultimate high-wire act for any athlete. By Castro's design, there are no superstars in Cuba beyond the system itself. Cuban fighters were never just beating Americans in the ring, they were taking on America itself. I met piles of Cubans who said it was more fun pummeling Americans than anything they might have been paid to leave. There were dugouts in Cuba where you'd hear ballplayers laughing about how Canseco would have batted .230 in Havana while he was winning an MVP in the big leagues. Besides, when Cuban athletes turned down all that money to leave they were trying to say they were struggling for something more valuable than just money.
What's the endgame on the film? Like, what are your hopes for it, provided you can get the editing done and such? Where does one take a documentary about a super-bantamweight who's still obscure to most people outside of boxing circles?
If Castro died today he'd be the headline on the front page of every newspaper in the world. There are two big questions to answer: how in the world did he stand up to the power of the US for so long and what comes next? Sports are nice and easy to understand, which is why Castro was so intelligent in adopting them so heavily into his plans for the revolution. It's impossible to illuminate anything about sports in Cuba without throwing light on their culture. With boxing you're going right to the source: what are they fighting for? It's a little tricky asking that question without it holding up a mirror on yourself.
Part of the fun of making this film was the fact that an obscure little 122 pound boxer, with a funny name, from a scary crocodile-shaped island, happened to explore a lot of questions I understand a lot less now than when I started out as he attempted to navigate the 90 miles between his country and ours.