Havana • Cuba is breaking a five-decade ban on professional boxing and joining an international semipro league. Fighters will compete for sponsored teams, box without protective headgear and earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month.
The country has a long and storied boxing tradition and is usually a force at international amateur tournaments. This move represents a big step for the island's Communist authorities, who long ago decided pro sports were not in keeping with Marxist social ideals.
The new format, the World Series of Boxing, consists of 12 squads from across the globe that square off in a series of five fights using a point system similar to the pros.
The World Series of Boxing is organized by the international boxing association known as AIBA. The competition begins in November.
"We are extremely pleased to welcome Cuba to World Series of Boxing," AIBA President C.K. Wu said in a statement. "With a total of 116 World medals and 67 Olympic ones, Cuban boxers have always lived at the pinnacle of our sport. ... We are convinced that this new franchise will bring WSB to an even higher level."
In addition to the salaries, boxers in the series can make $500 to $2,000 bonuses, although it's not immediately clear how, or how much, the Cubans will be paid.
They still stand to receive a big raise from their current salaries, which are close to the $20 a month that most Cuban workers earn. The best boxers, those who win medals at major tournaments, are granted lifetime stipends of up to $300 a month.
Wu visited the island in January for talks with local sports officials about adding Cuba to the series. The nation's fighters have expressed great excitement about the prospect. Boxers in the World Series will compete for 30 automatic bids to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"It is our duty to help our athletes develop their careers as far as possible," Cuban Boxing Federation President Alberto Puig de la Barca was quoted as saying by AIBA. "Our best boxers will compete in WSB over seven months against the world's cream of the crop. This will offer them the chance to get a taste of the styles of other world-class athletes and thus be better prepared to face them in the Olympic Games, Pan American, Central American and world championships."
"We are pleased to join," he added.
Fidel Castro banned professional sports in 1961, two years after the Cuban Revolution.
"Sport is not just another instrument of the market ... nor of profit for promoters, agents and all manner of parasites that feed off the athlete's hard work," Castro said in 2005.
He left office in 2006 because of a near-fatal intestinal ailment, and brother Raul has been in charge since. The younger Castro has since instituted a number of social and economic reforms that have brought significant change to the country's socialist model.