Andy Cruz held his new title belt while cuddling his friends and greeting his followers on Instagram Live. As he and his team gathered for a photo, head coach Derek Ennis draped his right arm over one of Cruz’s shoulders. Everyone stared at the camera. Cruz’s interest was elsewhere.
He was focused on the phone in Ennis’ left hand. He was showing a live broadcast of a bout featuring lightweight Frank Martin, a potential future opponent.
For Cruz, who won Olympic gold and three world titles as an amateur, it was another welcome moment in boxing.
Fourteen months after separating from his country’s boxing federation, Cruz, widely regarded as the best Cuban amateur boxer of his generation, triumphed Saturday night at the Masonic Temple in Detroit in an extraordinary debut to professionalism and fame.
Where most debutants have had four- or six-round matches, Cruz went 10. While professional debuts are usually a mismatch, Cruz faced former world champion Juan Carlos Burgos for a minor title.
And in the lightweight division, which is brimming with great fighting potential, the focus shifts quickly from the boxer’s latest victory to the next challenge.
“I’m finally back doing what I love most – boxing,” Cruz said in Spanish. “I’m on the road. Great things await me in the future.”
In amateur boxing, winning is a strict measure of landing punches, and Cruz has perfected the hit and no-hit technique that defines Cuba’s program. Besides his Olympic and world titles, he has twice won the Pan American Games.
But ahead of Saturday’s game, Burgos promised to give Cruz a sore start in the pro ranks, where he rewards umpires with aggressiveness, striking power and technical skill.
“If Andy Cruz wants to show that what they say about him is true, then he needs to go out and fight,” Burgos said Thursday. “The pressure is all on him.”
The boxers spent the opening round taking each other’s measures, Burgos trying to use his size advantage and Cruz working on distance and tempo.
Cruz quickly found both, popping Burgos with two strikes and a hard right in the third round. Just before the bell, Cruz leaned back to avoid a left hook, then hit Burgos with a jab with a right. In the fourth round, Cruz began to go downhill, and by the fifth, Cruz, a nimble boxer, was chasing Burgos. The right hand on the jaw knocked a misty cloud of sweat from Burgos’ head.
“I often thought I was about to knock him down, but he was always on the mend,” Cruz said. “I learned a lot, and I still have a lot to learn.”
Ennis, the Philadelphia native who took over as Cruz’s coach in May, was impressed, but not surprised, by the quick transition. He has been tutoring Cruz on the subtle, but important, differences between the two versions of the sport, teaching him to hit hard on offense and stand on the defense.
“He’s only been with me for two months, and he’s taken over the defense and everything,” Ennis said. “And do it under the spotlight.”
Cruz was originally scheduled to turn professional in May 2022 in Mexico, under a partnership between the Cuban Boxing Federation and a promoter based in Aguascalientes. However, the Cuban officials called off the game and left him behind while the rest of the team traveled to Mexico. At the time, officials blamed poor practice habits; Cruz suspects that the decision was intended to prevent him from defecting.
In June 2022, Cruz was arrested during a failed attempt to leave Cuba by boat and then banned from boxing gyms in the country. By November he had obtained a passport, left the country legally, and moved to the Dominican Republic, where he began the six-month process to obtain a US visa and a professional contract.
“He had a hell of a run last year,” said Jesse Rodriguez, one of Cruz’s coaches. “But nothing bothers him.”
His three-year contract with Matchroom Boxing, with seven-figure guarantees, according to the promoter, was announced in May and has since taken him to two American cities rich in boxing history.
Cruz trained in Philadelphia, where boxing greats like Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins made their name in the sport. The city is now home to such contemporary stars as welterweight Jaron Ennis, Cruz’s teammate and son Derek Ennis, and 122-pound champion Stephen Fulton, who will take on Japan’s Naoya Inoue on July 25.
Cruz’s debut came in Detroit, home of Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and at the Kronk Gym, whose most famous world champion, Thomas Hearns, watched Saturday’s ringside matches.
Empty seats dotted the upper floors of the Masonic Temple, but the rest of the venue housed spectators with a deep knowledge of boxing and a keen interest in the local fighters.
Some showed up to support Jermaine Franklin, a heavyweight contender from Saginaw, Michigan, about 100 miles north of Detroit. Others featured Ja’Rico O’Quinn, a 122-pound lead from Detroit. Rounding out many of the leaders is Detroit-based Alicia Baumgardner who defeated Cristina Lenardato to retain her undisputed championship at 130 pounds.
The Cruz squad took a few front row seats in the lower bowl. The group included his fiancée, Melissa Broughton. heavyweight contender Leyner Biro; and a rapper known as El Micha who accompanied Cruz to the ring.
In the middle of the game, a Cruz fan raised the Cuban flag and held it aloft.
Cruz appreciated the cheers, even if he couldn’t hear them.
“I don’t focus too much on the crowd. I listen in my corner,” he said.
Beyond Cruz, the lightweight division is talented and in transition.
Undisputed champion Devin Haney is considering moving up to the 140-pound junior welterweight division. He also faces a gun possession charge in California. His father and coach, Bill Haney, ESPN said He was “confident that things will work out”.
Gervonta Davis, the famous power puncher from Baltimore, Jail time has recently ended After a guilty plea in the hit-and-run case, training is scheduled to resume.
Hypothetically, Cruz could eventually be matched with either of them, as well as former 130-pound champion Shakur Stephenson, or with odds like Martin or Kishun Davis, whom Cruz defeated in the final at the Tokyo Olympics.
Before those decisions are addressed, Cruz plans to spend a week enjoying Saturday’s win.
As an amateur, significant winnings brought trophies and medals. Cruz’s first professional win earned him a red leather and gold plate title belt.
He said, “I never held one in my hand.” “Now I can feel the difference.”