Andy Cruz (left) and Kevin Brown, during the 2016 Giraldo Córdova Cardín Tournament. Photo: Yaimí Ravelo

It is no secret to anyone that the best Cuban fighter of the moment is 64 kilogram competitor Andy Cruz Gómez of Matanzas. This charismatic fighter has earned, through pure effort, his rank within the Cuban team, a group that includes men with recognized track records over the past decade.

Although he has not yet reached the pinnacle of his career, this 23-year-old from the town of Alacranes, Unión de Reyes municipality, is undefeated since December 2015, when he lost to Kevin Brown in the semi-finals of the 54th Playa Girón tournament, held in Camagüey.

Andy, who has become a recognized boxer at any event he attends, takes the time to talk with fans of any age, even regarding issues beyond the ring, as he also likes to hear and offer views on other sports such as football and baseball. The Hamburg 2017 World Champion spoke with us about this extraordinary moment of his career.

How did you end up boxing?

When I was a kid, I didn’t start with boxing, I began practicing karate. That was because I was somewhat unruly at school, and I really liked the martial arts movies starring Bruce Lee. That’s why I signed up for that sport, where I was for almost a year.

My approach toward boxing was a bit of a coincidence; as on various occasions when I sat watching television at home, I saw Mario Kindelán fight and was surprised by his way of boxing.

It caught my attention, I liked his combat style. Also, at that time I had several friends in the neighborhood who encouraged me to sign up for boxing.

I accepted and we opted for that sport, I was about 10 years old. I spoke with the karate coach and told him I was going to swap for boxing and… look how things turn out, the change did me good. In my group I was one of the smallest, but I wasn’t afraid of fighting bigger kids, I really didn’t fear my opponent’s blow.

The coaches realized I had the conditions to excel in this discipline, so they started working with me systematically, seeking a result. Two months after I started practicing boxing in my hometown, I participated in a provincial tournament in the city of Matanzas. That was my first competition, I finished with a silver medal and thanks to my boxing qualities I enrolled at the Provincial Academy.

What was the transition like in your early years?

When I entered the Academy, I was determined to excel, so I seriously devoted myself to training. I followed the instructions that all the coaches gave me, like Libán Blanco. I had a lot to learn and I was motivated.

I went to the 2012 Youth World Boxing Championships in Armenia, and there I lost out on the bronze medal to a rival from China. As that was my first international competition, I wasn’t disappointed with the result. I saw it as an event to gain experience; that defeat would not mark my sporting career.

Did you imagine you would get to where you are today?

I would be lying if I said I didn’t expect to achieve great results in boxing. From the very first moment, I was determined to stand out, but that required, and requires, a lot of work in training, with personal sacrifices. You have to have a strong will, not just to get here, but to be able to keep up, because in Cuba there are rivals the likes of Jorge Moirán and Kevin Brown.

The objectives were always set out in my mind – to be a world champion, an Olympic titleholder, and an established figure. The first goal has already been met, the third is underway, which is the most difficult, and based on how I manage my career, the dream of winning gold in Tokyo 2020 will be realized.

How do you remember your stage in the 56kg weight division?

I became known in that division both in Cuba and abroad, I happily remember it. I became the leading figure at a stage when I didn’t expect it, but I prepared myself to assume the responsibility if the main man in that weight class couldn’t make the grade. That’s why I trained so hard. I knew that the number one was Robeisy Ramírez, so I was very motivated to compete. The quality in the 56kg division couldn’t decline.

How did you feel when you gave up on the 56kg, with your place secured at the 2016 Río Olympic Games?

It was a very tough moment. I had the direct ticket to Río 2016. The dream was within reach, but I could no longer compete in the 56 kilograms, it was very hard for me to slim down for each competition. It already wasn’t my division and there were ten months to go before the Games.

Each competition was harder still, due to the weight issue, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stubbornly stay in the 56 kilograms division just to go to an Olympic Games, that was madness and threatened my health. That’s why I decided to leave the 56kg and move to the 64kg. With resignation, but I had to take that step for my own good.

In the Light welterweights, I started from the bottom. In that category at the end of 2015, there were four men of great quality: Yasniel Toledo, Luis Oliva, Brown and Moirán. I trusted in my possibilities, I needed time to adapt to the new weight, because it’s a way of fighting a little different from the 56kg.

At Playa Girón 2015, I obtained the bronze medal. I was satisfied, since I hadn’t expected to win a medal at that moment. But I had to keep improving, my footwork was slow, I even came short by a couple of kilograms on the scales. It was a question of time and the training would determine if I could do it or not. I worked to gain strength with my punch and increase muscle mass. The work my coach Emiliano Chirino did with me was extraordinary; I owe the excellent condition I’m in to him.

How do you rate Kevin Brown and Jorge Moirán?

They are now my greatest rivals in Cuba. They are very good, with different characteristics, which forces me to prepare individually for each of them. They never give anything away, they come out to win, and that allows me to maintain a high level in every fight. Moirán is harder to beat because he has better footwork, and I can’t let my defense down against him, as he packs a good punch.

Since you lost in the Girón tournament of 2015, you have seen a winning streak and remain undefeated. Do you feel pressured by this?

This is something that has come naturally. I’m aware that when important results are achieved, the fans demand more and more from you. Now, as I’m unbeaten for almost three years, the challenge is greater. Success after this streak is based on training regularly for each tournament, it doesn’t matter if I’m faced with quality opponents or not. I go out to pressure each opponent, I can’t give away any space, nor allow them to take the initiative. It’s not an issue of being pressured, that doesn’t affect me. When I enter the ring, I have the necessary physical preparation and 100% concentration faced with my opponent.

Who is your most challenging international opponent?

Uzbek Ikboljon Kholdarov, world silver medalist in 2017. However, I have beaten him the three times our paths have crossed, because I adapt to his fighting style and work on the weaknesses that he has revealed in each of our encounters. I apply different styles of boxing against each opponent, you have to keep trying, but always attacking, I’m never on the defensive.

How do you handle your popularity?

It’s true that when you get famous many people approach you, they want a photo, an autograph or to engage in a pleasant conversation. There are people who admire you, and others who want to take advantage of you. We athletes have to live with all these realities.

In my case, what I do is listen to all the advice that people give me, then I internalize those who aim to help me in my boxing and in my personal life. My family also supports me so that the fame doesn’t hamper my work in this sport. My mother is of fundamental support, she is always telling me things, she points out the good and the bad. She does everything a good mother has to with her child, supporting him at every moment.

Your coaches?

There are several, and each one has offered their experience so that today Andy Cruz can triumph in a sport that needs great dedication. I don’t want to leave anybody out, it would be unfair. To all those who had, and have me under their command, from Gustavo Delgado in the Combinado Deportivo de Alacranes to Emiliano Chirino in the national team, I have to thank them for their advice, their warnings and their teachings.