Sullivan Barrera Trades his Dancing Shoes for a Pair of Combat Boots

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Diego Morilla

One common criticism of Cuban fighters is that they’ve allowed the island’s infectious Afro-Caribbean rhythms to intrude upon their boxing style a little bit too much. But there is at least one among them who has chosen to neglect that tradition in favor of a more aggressive approach. And if that Cuban fighter delivers on his promise, we might end up seeing one of the world’s best pugilists finally involved in a brawl that could put his extraordinary skills to the test.

“I’ve never been much of a dancer on the ring,” light heavyweight contender Sullivan Barrera (17-0, 12 KOs) told Inside HBO Boxing in the days leading up to this Saturday’s challenge of pound-for-pound entrant Andre Ward (28-0, 15 KOs) at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, televised live on HBO World Championship Boxing at 9:45 p.m. ET/PT. “I can do it if I need to do it in an emergency, but I have always liked to go toe-to-toe and to fight in close quarters, and I believe that’s the reason why my transition to professional boxing has been easy.”

The issue of “excessive footwork” may seem a minor one, but when it comes to earning paydays, a significant number of boxing observers have made it clear that more elusive fighters should not be given the same consideration as their feistier counterparts. An inordinate number of those fleet-footed fighters happen to be Cuban, like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Erislandy Lara, and they have withstood a relentless attack by media and fans alike for their “safety-first” approach to boxing.

Barrera, though appreciative of the teachings of Cuban greats such as Candelario Duvergel, Eleodoro “Duque” Estable, and the rest of a team of coaches who gave him the solid boxing foundation he displays in the ring, is more interested in the professional approach that he has been learning since his arrival in the States some seven years ago.

“I will never lose the style of the Cuban school,” said Barrera. “But my style of boxing is completely different than the traditional Cuban style, which involves a lot of leg work, dancing around, keeping distance, and all that.”

Barrera’s desire to make it as a pro may be the main catalyst for this change in style, but he also credits the contribution of his new training team in his transition toward the fan-friendly style that some of his of countrymen are still struggling to grasp.

“We’re combining that style from the Cuban boxing school with the Mexican school, which is what the fans like,” said Barrera of trainer Abel Sanchez, who has given him the chance to learn from another advocate of “Mexican style,” Gennady Golovkin. “I’ve learned a lot here in Big Bear [California] with Abel. I know I’ve never gone the 12-round distance before, but we’ve worked hard in training, and I don’t think I’ll have any problems fighting 12 rounds.”

Barrera’s mention of the 12-round distance is not insignificant. That number has been routinely mentioned as one of the main differences between he and Ward. Barrera has never gone beyond eight rounds. Ward has reached double digits nine times.

But Barrera’s definition of “experience” goes beyond counting up professional rounds.

“I consider myself an experienced fighter. I’ve been in boxing for many years, not in professional boxing but rather in boxing as a whole,” said Barrera, who won a world junior amateur championship in the year 2000 at the tender age of 18 and was widely considered back then the best emerging athlete in his island-nation — in any sport. The fact that Barrera has only two notable pro wins (knockouts of Karo Murat in December and a washed-up Jeff Lacy 11 months before that) has also been mentioned when discussing his chances of beating Ward, but Barrera believes his odds are much better than what the cold numbers could express.

“I believe Ward is underestimating me,” said Barrera, noting that Ward always expects to win comfortably, especially when fighting at home in Oakland. But could Ward actually overlook Barrera, given the stakes of this fight? With a win, Ward would be positioned to face Sergey Kovalev in what would be one of the most anticipated matchups in boxing.

Still, even if Ward is properly focused, the style clash might catch him, and many boxing fans, off-guard. Barrera is intent upon becoming the stalker and taking the initiative, while Ward may very well behave in the manner we’d expect from a Cuban boxer.

“I don’t think we’re going to fight from the outside,” said Barrera. “We’re going in to put some pressure on him. I believe that on Saturday, I’ll do something big. I see myself throwing a lot of punches, wearing him down, and finishing him in eight or nine rounds.