LAS VEGAS – Erislandy Lara has a curious nickname. The Cuban-born boxer refers to himself as "The American Dream," but he wanted no part of the United States when he first began to seriously ponder defecting.
Lara knew full well the difficulties he'd face escaping Cuba and had no illusions that it would be easy or safe.
He tried for the first time in 2007 along with two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, but was captured in Brazil and returned to Cuba.
In 2008, he opted to try it again.
"Cuba," Lara says emotionlessly, "is a socialist country. There was nothing for me there, no future."
To become the boxer he believed he could become, he had to leave the island that has spawned so many greats.
After their failed first attempt, Lara wanted to try again, but Rigondeaux wasn't as sure. He chose not to go, but there was something inside of Lara telling him to go.
He'd leave behind his mother, his sister and two sons, not sure if he'd ever see them again and not entirely sure what would become of them in Cuba.
But if he were ever going to take advantage of the skill he had, he had to get to a place where he could make some money from it.
He was going, and would keep going until he was either imprisoned in Cuba or he found his way to freedom.
So in 2008, Lara made a second attempt to leave Cuba. He had to walk 25 kilometers, about 15 miles, to get to the beach where he'd get on a 30-foot speedboat with 25 other people for a harrowing 125-mile journey through the night to Cancun, Mexico.
Lara sits ramrod straight as he recounts the story in Spanish to his co-manager, Luis DeCubas Jr. There is no hint of emotion in either his voice or his eyes.
The agreed upon price to get him to Mexico and freedom was $15,000. But when he was on the boat, the men running the defection attempt realized that he was a celebrity, a star boxer, and so they blackmailed him. Celebrities are charged more than average people, and so the cost of freedom for Lara had just gone way up.
He'd be thrown overboard and would drown at sea unless his sponsors paid $200,000 to the smugglers who'd arranged the defection.
He didn't have the money – he didn't have any money, or anything of any value – but he was desperate to be free. He said yes.
When he got to Mexico, he was going to be taken from Cancun to Mexico City, where he'd be flown to Germany. Promoter Ahmet Ohner of Arena Box, who has never set foot in Cuba, had arranged Lara's passage. Ohner has many contacts in Cuba to help him jettison boxers who want to defect.
Lara had family in Germany who encouraged him to join them. Plus, he'd heard bad things about American boxing promoters.
"The Communists over there in Cuba would always talk about [boxers] getting robbed if you went to America," Lara said. "They'd say, 'You're going to get robbed by Don King. You'll take punches for no money, so don't do it.'"
It all made sense to Lara, who would cast his lot with Ohner. The story of Lara's passage from Cuba to Cancun to Mexico City to Hamburg sounds like it came from the pages of a John le Carre spy novel.
In Cancun, Ohner's employee arranged to meet one of the men who helped smuggle Lara out of Cuba. They'd agreed on a fee of $40,000 after lengthy negotiations, more than the original $15,000 fee but far better than the $200,000 Lara was told he'd need on the boat.
Ohner's employee arranged to meet a man known in Spanish as "El Enano," or "The Dwarf," in the lobby of a Hyatt hotel in Cancun. The $40,000 was handed over in a briefcase and Lara was quickly transported to Mexico City, where a plane awaited to take him to Hamburg.
"I know I could have died, because this was very dangerous, but there was no other way, nothing else I could do," Lara said. "If I ever wanted to be able to help my family, I had to do this. I had no choice." After beginning his career in Germany, he came to the United States and, after a slow start, found his stride. He won the WBA super welterweight title and has earned a shot at Canelo Alvarez, one of the sport's biggest stars, in the main event of a pay-per-view card at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that will be distributed by Showtime.
Lara is far from a star, despite his 19-1-2 record and world title. "Nobody knows him," sneers Alvarez, who is one of the sport's five or 10 biggest stars.
This is the fight of Lara's life, the bout he literally risked everything to get. This is the one that will enable him to do the kinds of things for his family that he has long dreamed of.
It's been tough along the way. He fought to a split draw in his first major fight, when he met Carlos Molina in 2011 in Las Vegas. Two judges called the bout even and a third scored it for Molina.
But Lara's fortunes turned in his next bout, a stunningly bad call in a loss to Paul Williams in New Jersey. One judge scored the bout with Williams a draw, but the other two scored it for Williams in a bout virtually everyone else felt Lara won going away.
New Jersey suspended the judges following that bout for their incompetence, and Lara said the fight was the most important of his career to this stage.
"Paul Williams was one of the greatest fighters in the world at that point and some were saying he was unbeatable," Lara said. "But despite the judges' scoring, everyone saw what happened. That fight took me to the next level."
And so he winds up in a big fight with Alvarez, who at 23 has already racked up a 43-1-1 record.
Lara, though, is hardly impressed. Alvarez, he said, is a media creation.
"I know he's overrated," Lara said. "His skills are overrated. He's where he is because of his fame. He has an ability to sell tickets, but when you're facing me, you have to be able to box, and he can't do that.
"He's overrated and I'm [underrated]. I have great boxing ability, but I can also punch. People don't talk about my punching because they see my boxing, but I have great power. I have the things that Canelo doesn't have."
His abilities will be proven in the ring. Lara, though, unquestionably has heart, courage and the fearlessness that a man needs to succeed at the highest level.
The 125-mile boat ride he took on choppy seas in the middle of the night is proof enough of that.
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