From Cuba to world champion: Arduous defection continues to drive Erislandy Lara

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Erislandy Lara was among 35 passengers on a speedboat navigating the tumultuous, bone-chilling Yucatán Channel, a 135-mile strait between Cuba and Mexico that tossed the vessel like a tiny toy in a hot tub.

Erislandy Lara celebrated his Cuban heritage on his shorts for his fight against Chris Gray in Las Vegas on May 2, 2009.

It was early 2008, and Lara was among a group of Cubans attempting to defect from their home country to Mexico.

“It was raining. The water was freezing, coming all over the sides and jumping all over the boat,” Lara says. “It was a terrible time not knowing if you’re going to make it or not, live or die. That’s what made it such a difficult journey. There was 14 hours of that.”

The harrowing voyage came after Lara already had walked 15 miserable miles to get to the Cuban beach where the speedboat was waiting.

“That was like walking through the Florida Everglades,” says Lara, who left behind his mother, his sister and two sons. “You were walking through really muddy surfaces among snakes and other wild animals."

Lara 32, first tried to defect in July 2007 along with two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux while in Brazil for the Pan American Games, but they were caught and returned to Cuba, where there were banned from boxing.

With his second attempt at leaving a success, Lara reached Cancun and eventually was transported to Hamburg, Germany, where the 2005 amateur world champion signed with promoter Ahmet Öner, who had helped arrange Lara’s passage.

All those tribulations have helped keep things in perspective for Erislandy Lara, who will face Delvin Rodriguez in a 154-pound title bout Friday night at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion that will air on Spike TV at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

“From my journey to America, life can be tough,” Lara says. “But looking at the conditions that I lived under for the first 25 years of my life, when you’ve taken the hard road that I have, little things like losing a fight by a wrong decision from a judge are much easier to get through.”

Lara (20-2-2, 12 KOs) will be making the second defense of the world title he earned by beating Austin Trout in December 2013. After losing a nontitle 155-pound catchweight fight against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in July 2014, Lara won a unanimous decision over Ishe Smith in December to remain a 154-pound champion.

Lara, nicknamed “The American Dream,” remains as hungry for Friday’s fight against Rodriguez (28-7-4, 16 KOs) as he was when he made his pro debut in Ankara, Turkey, in July 2008, when he won a four-round decision over Ivan Maslov.

“I want to win, and to win impressively,” Lara says. “You always want to look good, and I’m going to go out there and do my job.”

The southpaw fought in the United States for the first time in January 2009, when he scored a first-round knockout of Rodrigo Aguiar in Primm, Nevada.

“When I first got here, it was very tough thinking about the family I left behind. I’m always thinking about them,” Lara said. “They're on my mind throughout training and during fights. Thank God for technology, because I get to speak to them constantly.”

Lara now has a new life in Houston, where he lives with his wife, Yudi, and their three children. His other two kids, sons Erislandy and Roberlandy, remain in Cuba with Lara’s mother, Maricel.

“Leaving my mother and kids was a decision I processed and pondered over and over and over. I’ve tried to apply for a visa for mother to come to the United States, but she was denied," Lara says. "I’ve got part of my family here, but one day, I hope to eventually have my children living here together all under one roof. That’s my dream.”

For more coverage of Lara vs Rodriguez, follow our fight page.

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