When I heard that the United States and Cuba were starting to work on their relationship, I immediately got excited. I have always thought that Cuba would make for some great feature stories. In fact, before the London Olympics, I applied for a visa to do a feature on two Cuban Olympic athletes — but was ultimately rejected by the Cuban government.

Cuba is notorious for the love and passion for sport, especially baseball and boxing. Considering the country’s storied baseball history, it would have made for a great feature. But I thought a story on the boxing gyms and academies in and around Havana would be a little more unique of an approach.

I pitched the story to our Director of Photography and received permission to pursue it. It took more than 5 months, but my visa request was eventually approved. I would finally make it to Havana.

My earliest notions of Cuban sport came from a classic picture that legendary Sports Illustrated photographer, Walter Iooss Jr. took of kids playing stickball in the streets of Havana. It’s one of my all-time favorite pictures and has always stuck in the back of my mind when thinking of Cuba. Thus, even though my assignment in Cuba was on boxing, I still planned on documenting the kids playing stickball in the streets of Old Havana.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

On the night I arrived, I walked out of my apartment and in less than two blocks, I found kids playing stickball. I fired off a few frames, but didn’t think the pictures were that great so I moved on. On the next block, I found more kids playing stickball, but this time they weren’t using a ball — they were using plastic bottle caps from two-liter soda bottles. I took a few more pictures and moved on once again. This was exactly like I anticipated — stickball on every street.

As the days went on, however, I started to notice that the sport starting to rule the streets of Havana is “fútbol” (or soccer, as this American calls it). For the next five nights I walked the streets of Havana and didn’t see any other kids playing stickball. But block after block, I would see kids playing soccer everywhere I went. Baseball is still the national passion, and boxing is a close second, but soccer is becoming increasingly popular in Cuba.

The next day I began work on my assignment. The first place I visited was the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym — probably the most famous gym in Havana. Kids from all over the city come to work out here, and some of the coaches are even former Olympic champions. On the day that I was there, they were having a youth competition between two local clubs in Havana.

There were kids everywhere – and photographers as well. I definitely didn’t find a secret location that no one had heard about. But the other photographers started to thin out as the fights went on and on. The skill these kids exhibited was amazing. They start training at a very young age in Cuba and most of the kids at this competition were only 10 years old. But they sure hit each other like they were teenagers. One of my favorite pictures that I took at the gym actually came a few days later. I was walking by at night and noticed that there were still a few people training in the nearly deserted gym.

On day two, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see any other photographers. I headed about 30 minutes east of Havana to a suburb called Alamar. The gym is run by coach Lazaro Goyalo Perez Quintana — although the word “gym” is somewhat generous. Rather, it’s a small room under a now-empty Olympic swimming pool. The room has one light, one punching bag and a couple of bags filled with sand pinned up against the wall for the boxers to train with.

These are the types of conditions many young Cuban fighters start in. If they succeed there, they are offered a spot at one of the boxing academies that are in each province around Cuba. After that, the best fighters are selected to work out at the Junior National team training center. And then, if they are lucky enough, they are picked for the National team — where there are only 12 spots available to represent their country at the Olympics.

Cuba has dominated Olympic boxing since they began competing in 1968. Since then, Cuban fighters have won a total of 53 medals. Of those, 33 have been gold medals, and no other country even comes close to those numbers. One of the greatest Cuban boxers of all time is Félix Savón. He won three gold medals at the Olympic games in Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney — and he has also won six world titles.

The next day was extremely special to me. I was honored to be able to go to the home of Félix Savón. When I started setting up this trip about five months ago, my fixer told me that he knew someone that knew someone who had a sister that was married to Savón, and that we could go to his house and see the room where he keeps all of his memorabilia.

What I wasn’t expecting was Savón to be there and to be so welcoming. We sat around and talked for over an hour. He told me about his career and about the first time he met Fidel Castro. He talked about his choice to stay in Cuba even though he was offered millions to fight overseas. And he told me about how he started painting to fill his days after retiring from the sport. I was torn between trying to scribble down notes as fast as I could, or to just sit there and enjoy the time with him.

I had two more days left in Cuba, and I was looking forward to them. I was supposed to visit two different boxing academies that I had read about. The first one was the Havana Boxing Academy, located in a suburb called Mulgoba. This is where most of the best boxers from Havana go to train.

At one point, the young athletes had lived in the building next to the academy, but it has become too run down for them to stay there now. There are plans to renovate, but nobody’s quite sure when that will happen. We arrived at the Academy and I could see why they didn’t want the kids to stay there any longer — the building was pretty beat up. Kids between 14 and 18 years old started showing up for the afternoon training session. Unfortunately, it turned out they were only going to be running that day, with no actual sparring or boxing taking place. They told us to return the next day when they would be training harder.

On the day I was leaving for Cuba, there was a front page story in the Washington Post about a town named Hershey there. On my final day in Cuba, I planned to go to the Mayabeque Boxing Academy. What I didn’t know was that the Academy was actually in the town of Hershey as well. The town of Hershey was founded by the U.S. chocolate tycoon Milton S. Hershey in 1916. In its heyday of the 1950’s, thousands of people worked at the plant and the town was booming. The Mayabeque Boxing Academy is only a block away from the now-dilapidated sugar plant and the boxers have to walk through the remains of the buildings where the workers lived to get to the training gym.

After we finished in Hershey, we headed back to Mulgoba to see boxers working out at the other Academy, but it turned out the training session was canceled due to an impending storm. Disappointed, we turned around and headed back to Havana. That final night of the trip, I walked around one more time in hopes of finding that quintessential stickball picture, but it was to no avail.

As my feet grew tired, I decided to sit and enjoy one last drink and watch the classic cars roll through the streets.

Looking back, it was a fantastic trip and an unforgettable experience. Havana is a magical city and I hope more Americans get to eventually enjoy this wonderful place.

See all of Ezra Shaw’s pictures from Cuba here