The undefeated light heavyweight prospects hopes a successful boxing career will reunite him with the family he left back in Cuba.
Perched at the edge of a chair, David Morrell Jr. looked anxiously outside his window. Dawn was on the horizon. The boat was waiting.
Time to go.
Now, it was a matter of finding the gumption to go, to stand and do the inevitable. To leave everything he loved and knew behind him. To take the chance of never again seeing everything he loved and knew. The measured, dragging steps across the small, sparse living room floor were the most painful of his life.
He knew he had to go. She knew it, too.
Morrell looked down into the teary eyes and trembling hands of his mother, Betty Gutierrez. Morrell gave her a firm, last hug, and then a quick kiss on the cheek.
If he stayed another second, the courage he mustered to leave would turn to putty. His dream would be lost.
Three years ago, at five in the morning, Morrell walked into a nautical twilight wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers and a light windbreaker. He left Santa Clara, Cuba, like countless others defecting from Cuba before him, climbed aboard a high-powered speedboat and made his way to Mexico, where he spent about 18 months to establish legal residency. He didn’t have to die his hair, or hide under blankets, or pencil in a devilish goatee like his Cuban compatriot Robeisy Ramírez did when he defected in 2018.
The 6-foot-1, 22-year-old southpaw’s only possessions were a 135-2 amateur record and an international pedigree of pro promise. It was enough to grab the attention of Cuban expatriate Luis DeCubas Sr. and Leon Margules, the heads of Warriors Boxing.
Today, Morrell is 2-0 with two stoppages. He’s a rangy, talented super middleweight who DeCubas is pining to get a title shot for within the next year. In the meantime, Morrell has undergone a few cultural transitions, not so much with the United States, where he frequently visited with the Cuban national team for tournaments, but where he currently lives: Frigid Minneapolis, Minnesota, a stark contrast from balmy Santa Clara.
“The worst thing for me was leaving my family, my mom, she was everything and did everything for me,” Morrell said through translator Alex Bornote, who co-manages Morrell with Armando Garcia. “I was very babied by her. Once I left her, I had to grow up real fast. It was not easy leaving her and my family. I never even got a chance to say goodbye to my little brother, Rafael.
“But my mom knew I was going. It got really emotional. I had to cut it short and leave. Otherwise, I would not have been able to leave. They didn’t tell Rafael until I left. My biggest fear was what kind of actions the Cuban sports community and the government would take against my mother and brother after I left. My brother suffered. They wouldn’t let him progress in boxing, because of what I did.”
Despite a mere two fights, DeCubas and Warriors Boxing are so confident in Morrell that they had a fight set up against unbeaten Lennox Allen (22-0-1, 14 KOs) in a WBA interim super middleweight title match on April 11 at The Armory in Minneapolis. It was supposed to be a PBC on FOX co-feature under the Jamal “Shango” James-Thomas Dulorme welterweight battle. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped that out.
When Morrell was shopping for a promotional outfit, DeCubas’ name was often broached, based on his connection to Cuban boxers. In 1996, DeCubas formed Team Freedom, a collective of 11 Cuban pros who were based in Miami that included Joel Casamayor, Ramon Garbey and Juan Carlos Gomez. Later, DeCubas introduced fellow Cuban amateur standouts Odlanier Solis, Yan Barthelemy, Yuriorkis Gamboa, Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara to pro boxing.
“ What mostly shocked me about America is that it allows you to be all that you can be. ” Undefeated Light Heavyweight Prospect - David Morrell Jr.
In those times, under previous presidential regimes, getting a Cuban fighter into the U.S. was far different than today.
“Back in the day, Cuban fighters used to come right to the border and they would let them in. This obviously is a different world right now,” DeCubas said. “We got David a B-1 visa. We wanted to make sure we were patient and make sure all of the paperwork was done properly. David has a lot of power with both hands and when this kid came to our attention, we thought immediately he’s our guy.
“David has Sonny Liston-type hands. He has fast hands, even though he’s a thumper-type of guy. The kid is special, but he’s raw. He can punch, he can take a punch. Once we got David out of Mexico, our main priority was to get him out of Miami. He’s disciplined and a lot of times with Cuban fighters in Miami, it’s hard to train. They have more success away from Miami.”
Cuba is a baseball and boxing country. It’s the way out for many young men trying to scratch their way from the island under late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s decaying communist regime.
Many of these Cuban fighters come from nothing. When Casamayor won Olympic gold in 1992, Castro awarded Casamayor with a bicycle. Casamayor quickly traded it for a pig, so he could feed his family.
Some Cuban defectors can’t handle American culture, or more so, the abundance of freedom that comes with it. In Cuba, children come off milk rations at the age of five, and if you’re talented enough to catch the eye of a government sports official, you’re placed in an indoctrination camp where all you do and live for is boxing.
Miami, especially the Miami night life, swallows up Cuban defectors. Garbey went from a promising pro to earning the unsavory nickname Ramon “Garbage” Garbey, because he ate himself out of shape and title contention.
DeCubas made sure that mistake wouldn’t be repeated. He got Morrell, who suffered one of his two amateur losses against Cuban countryman Julio Cesar La Cruz, the 2016 Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist when Morrell was 17, as far away from Miami as he could, shipping him to scenic Minneapolis, where nightlife temptations are not quite the same.
Upon arriving in America, Morrell’s ambition didn’t change. His family is his priority. His goal is to make enough money boxing so he could legally be reunited with them in the U.S.
“I am very fortunate here in Minnesota, because I have people here who take care of me and I have a sense of family,” said Morrell, who works with the father-son tandem of Sankara and Adonis Frazier, Jamal James’ trainers. “That I was able to travel internationally opened my eyes to what life was like outside of Cuba. When I came with the Cuban team in 2016, I went to Pennsylvania and saw the abundance of everything and how you’re able to go to the store and buy anything you want.
“I found that out once you step foot outside of Cuba. What mostly shocked me about America is that it allows you to be all that you can be. In Cuba, I would not have ever been given that chance. I came here with a lot of hunger. People in this country don’t realize what they have. They were born into this system.
“I was born into nothing.”