Ariel Gandulla wasn't able to say goodbye to his family. He wasn't sure he'd ever see his mother or his father or his sister again. The emotional strain was immense. His heart told him to stay, but his mind told him he had to go.
He left Cienfuegos, Cuba, by raft in the dark of that 1994 night, leaving behind his family and the only life he'd ever known in the hope of finding freedom.
He was granted political asylum in the United States and, for most of the past 13 years, has not regretted the decision. He's become one of the world's elite mixed martial arts fighters, and on Dec. 12 he'll meet Doug Marshall for the WEC light heavyweight championship at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas on a card televised by Versus.
Nights like Dec. 12 are when Gandulla cherishes his decision to leave behind Fidel Castro's oppressive communist regime.
Every Father's Day, however, his heart aches and he longs for his hometown.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Gandulla phoned Cuba to wish his father, Roberto Gandulla, a happy Father's Day. What he heard was devastating: His father had died.
"They miss me and I miss them, a lot," Gandulla said. "I wish we were all together. I wish it didn't have to be like this. But my father, that's the hardest. I think about him a lot, but it's the worst on Father's Day."
Gandulla, a Greco-Roman wrestler who has been training with the Florida-based American Top Team, fled for what he says were political reasons. He couldn't say goodbye to his family because he was concerned that Castro might have had them killed had they known of his plans.
It was a harrowing journey. On the sixth day of the voyage, he suffered appendicitis. His life was saved when his raft was spotted by a Coast Guard cutter.
The thickly muscled Gandulla was in the Cuban military, where he was allowed to train in both judo and Greco Roman wrestling. He said he was treated better than most of his countrymen because he was an athlete, but he still longed for freedom.
"You can't speak freely," Gandulla (4-0 with 1 no-contest) said. "You can't go just anywhere you want. You need the government's approval for everything. Your life belongs to them.
"Now, I can go for my dream. That is why I am here."
Daniel Valverde, a grappling coach for American Top Team in Miami, suspects Gandulla is going to fulfill his dream when he meets Marshall.
Gandulla is running roughshod over competition in the gym, he said, and has improved dramatically in his jiu-jitsu.
"He's becoming very well-rounded," Valverde said. "He works very hard. He has a great work ethic and a great desire to improve. He's made tremendous progress. It's been amazing."
The 34-year-old Gandulla is at his best when working on the ground, but WEC matchmaker Scott Adams said that Gandulla is becoming so confident in his standup that he is willing to stand and trade.
While that could be a mistake against the heavy-handed Marshall – who has only gone past the first round in one of his eight fights – Adams said he wouldn't be surprised if Gandulla tried to turn it into a shootout.
"He's a wrestler, but he's not looking to shoot all the time," Adams said. "He's shown a great willingness to strike. People are shooting on him, which tells you something about his striking. Doug Marshall is one of those guys who a lot of guys are intimidated by and don't really want to exchange with, but Gandulla isn't one of them. With his background, that's just not a part of it."
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