In the United States, professional boxing is an incredibly high grossing sport—just this year, the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight alone generated around $400 million in pay-per-view revenue. The economy surrounding professional boxing in Cuba however, doesn't operate so lucratively. In 1962, Fidel Castro outlawed any sort of for-profit sports in Cuba, leaving professional athletes with the choice of either staying in Cuba or defecting to another country. This was the position triple world champion boxer and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mario Kindelan Mesa found himself in, at the height of his career.
Mesa’s story is the subject of LA-based production company Society's latest four-minute video portrait, La Lucha (The Struggle). Justin Henning, the film’s director/DP, shoots La Lucha like a feature film—the cinematography is stunning and the way he captures Mesa and Cuba is authentic and heartfelt. We follow Mesa in his natural environment, taking a late night jog through the city, or playing dominoes with locals on a street corner.
But the movie isn't just about Mesa’s political dilemmas as a professional athlete, it's about his undying loyalty to his country and the culture that moves it. In the film, Mesa claims he was the best lightweight boxer in the world, and that big brand athletic industries offered him, “millions and mansions,” to defect. He turned them down. In Mesa’s eyes, defecting would be a betrayal, not only to his country, but to “the revolution, and his “commander,” Fidel Castro. Mesa recalls people coming up to him with blank checks, asking him to write whatever number down it would take to get him to leave Cuba. He responded saying “I have 11 million Cubans waiting for me, that are worth more than all the money in the world.”
Mesa speaks about the days when he was at the height of his athletic career, when he would preach about the promise of revolution, and the benefits it would bring his country. Now retired, Mesa struggles to make ends meet, teaching boxing to young boys at a local gym. “But now,” he says, “I’d rather give up my Olympic title, just to get a TV or a fridge. Something!”
Despite his current financial struggles, Mesa says he does not oppose anything that Castro stands for, and likens his allegiance to the prime minister to the faith a Christian has for Jesus Christ. He says,“I will never abandon my country because I was born, raised, and shaped by Fidel.” The film ends with Mesa selling his two Olympic gold medals for $400, enough to support his family for the next two months. Watch La Lucha below:
For more work by the production company Society, head over to their website.