In this photo taken Saturday Jan. 21, 2012, Abraham Fernandez, right, and Andy Lopez exchange punches during their match at a championship tournament in the Rafael Trejos boxing gym in Old Havana, Cuba. Boxers in Cuba are beginning competition earlier with the addition of a new age category for 9- and 10-year-olds. The boys are part of the pilot program in just Havana for now, but officials say it could be rolled out to the rest of the island, where 11-12 is currently the youngest level of competition. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
Boxing-mad Cuba is putting its athletes in the ring earlier than ever. The idea is that those who start young, like Abraham Hernandez, will have a critical edge in the sport's motions and techniques when they start competing more seriously down the road.
A young boxer stands outside the Rafael Trejos boxing gym in Old Havana, Cuba. Boxers in Cuba are beginning competition earlier with the addition of a new age category for 9- and 10-year-olds, part of a pilot program in just Havana for now, but officials say it could be rolled out to the rest of the island, where 11-12 is currently the youngest level of competition.
Lacing 'em up
Carlos Navarro (right) and Raymond Diaz dress in preparation for their championship tournament inside the Rafael Trejos boxing gym. The new age category is part of a top-to-bottom shake-up aimed at restoring Cuban boxing to its former glory after the national squad returned from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing without a gold medal for the first time in 40 years.
In this corner
Raul Diel weighs in before the start of a championship boxing tournament at the Rafael Trejos boxing gym in Old Havana, Cuba. It's not uncommon for children this age to enter the ring these days. The International Boxing Association sanctions competitive boxing for 15 years and up, but lets national federations set their own rules for younger children. A spokeswoman for USA Boxing said competition starts at 8 years old in the United States, and many begin training at 7.
Dr. Diosdan Mojena examines Lazaro Perez before his bout. There are strict rules to keep competition safe for the preadolescent pugilists. A doctor examines them before each fight and referees watch the action closely. Bouts are limited to three 50-second rounds. Only straight punches are allowed, and fighters are supposed to keep their distance. Headgear is mandatory, as in all organized amateur boxing.
Lazaro Perez spars with his trainer before the start of the championship tournament. ''I started boxing to follow in my father's footsteps,'' said Perez, a small and wiry 9-year-old. ''I'm not afraid. I'm fast, and I really like it. I want to be great like (Olympic and professional champion Yuriorkis) Gamboa, the boxer I admire most, and win lots of medals like (Felix) Savon.''
Lazaro Perez speaks with his trainer as they ready for his bout. Since competition in Cuba's new age class began last year, hundreds of boys have been boxing in tournaments like the Jan. 21 city championship at the Rafael Trejo gym in Old Havana, with its splintering wood bleachers and discolored walls.
Can I hit someone yet?
Carlos Navarro (left) and Lazaro Perez wait for the start of their championship tournament. It's a far cry from the ''Rumble in the Jungle'' or the ''Thrilla in Manila,'' but don't tell that to the kids, or to the parents who crowd the stands and cheer each bout like an Olympic final.
Stick and move
Lazaro Perez jabs rhythmically at Leandro Borges in the steamy gym, dancing, feinting and punctuating each blow with a grunt. After the final bell, he thrusts a weary arm skyward in triumph, and a proud smile spreads across a face still years from feeling a razor's scrape. Perez has just become Havana's first under-75-pound boxing champion.
Show me my opponent
Lazaro Perez is assisted by his trainer during his match. Starting boys at this age could give Cuba an edge over places like Puerto Rico, which holds fights starting at 11 years old, and Spain, where boxers start competing at 15.
Let the punches fly
Abraham Fernandez (right) and Andy Lopez exchange punches during their match at a championship tournament. Amateur boxing is second only to baseball as a national sport in Cuba, and it's a point of pride among islanders that their country of 11 million usually punches above its weight in medal counts during international competitions.
Trainer Jo De Vrieze instructs Andy Lopez in the ring. ''At this young age we teach the basic movements, the basic punches and defense,'' said De Vrieze, a Belgian-born coach who trains children in the Cerro district of the Cuban capital. ''The idea is that the youths arrive at higher levels with a more advanced technical base.''
They want to be him
Cuba's Yuriorkis Gamboa wears the championship belt after winning the IBF WBA World Featherweight title by beating Jorge Solis of Mexico during Top Rank's "Featherweight Fury" on March 26, 2011 in Atlantic City. He also won gold in the 2004 Olympics.
Getty ImagesHunter Martin
Artist in the ring
Felix Savon, a three-times Olympic champion and six-time World Cup Champion, is the most laureated amateur boxer in the world. A heavyweight legend who hung up his gloves in 2000, Savon now works for the Boxing Federation and praises the decision to bring in a new national team coach, Rolando Acebal, who renewed emphasis on discipline, rigor, toughness. ''The change was decisive. Under Acebal, some things reappeared that had gotten a little lost.''
Three-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson, now a vice president of the Boxing Federation, said, ''There has been good work. We have several possibilities for medalling" in the London Games.