Imagine you're an athlete living in a country that prohibits you from competing at the professional level. For you to realize and achieve your athletic aspirations, you must leave the country and everything and everyone you love behind, knowing that more likely than not, you'll never see them again.
Now imagine you're eighteen years old, tearfully looking at your mother and fighting every emotion telling you to stay. Courageously facing your fears, knowing you must leave to pursue your dreams and a better life for you, and possibly for them. Since 1962, this has been a grim reality for many Cuban boxers and the current WBA Regular Super-Middleweight Champion, David Morrell Jr (6-0). In an exclusive interview with NYF, Morrell emotionally revisited that fateful day and what his life has been like since he defected in 2018.
He is sitting in his hotel room wearing a red shirt with a white baseball cap turned to the back. The young champion smiled as he recounted his childhood.
“I was born on January 18th, 1998, at 9:00 am, in Villa Clara, Cuba. I was always taken care of, but I grew up in a rough neighborhood. To live there, you had to throw punches daily. One night, I watched TV and saw a boxer who had the same last name as me. I asked my mom why the guy on TV had the same last name. And she said to me, ‘that the guy on the TV was my brother.' My stepfather loved to watch boxing and was a fighter himself. He asked me if I wanted to box, and I said, ‘sure, if my brother could, why not me.' The next day we went and found a trainer, and that's when my life in boxing started,” said the twenty-four-year-old Morrell Jr.
David remembers having a beautiful childhood but also an equally difficult one. His mother made a lot of sacrifices to raise him and his twin brothers. “I am proud of her and the childhood she provided for us. Thanks to her, I am the man I am today”, said Morrell Jr. of his mother proudly.
Morrell's parents were very supportive of him pursuing the sport of boxing. However, they never watched him fight. “They never wanted to watch me fight because they never wanted to see me throw or receive punches. There was only one time my father saw me fight in person,” said Morrell while chuckling. Nevertheless, David would go on to have a very successful amateur career. He won numerous competitions and had an exceptional amateur record of 135 wins and two losses.
The Cuban boxing system has produced some of the most successful amateur boxers globally, with some becoming memorable world champions. I asked Morrell to describe the Cuban boxing system and why it is so effective. “We have great trainers, with all respect to trainers around the world. But in Cuba, everyone knows that our school of boxing is the very best regarding everything that has to do with boxing and becoming champion,” attested the Cuban native.
Morrell continued, “As kids in Cuba and other Latin countries, we know how to sacrifice and overcome things at a very young age. We have no choice; we have to keep moving forward amid hardships. That's what characterizes Latin people. When it's time to do something, we do it no matter how complicated or tough the situation is. So, given that and the great trainers we have, that's why our boxing system is high quality.”
After an illustrious amateur career, Morrell, now 18-years-old, dauntingly said goodbye to his family and friends and left Cuba. “I wasn't emotional about the decision. Instead, I experienced a high adrenaline rush and sadness because I had to leave my island and did not know when I would be able to return. I didn't know when I would see my mother and father again. That's what was going through my mind. But I said to myself; I have to be a better person so that I can help them. Also, become someone and do something with my life. My career wasn't allowed to progress, so I was wasting time in Cuba. So, I figured I would sacrifice now. That way, in the future, my kids, my parents, and my family don't have to. It's been four years since I left Cuba, and I haven't been able to see them”, said the champ sadly.
With nothing more than the clothes on his back and a heart full of hopes and dreams, Morrell Jr. courageously stepped onto a boat and embarked on the arduous journey to America. Fueled by ambition, Morrell endured eighteen long months in Mexico, waiting for the necessary documentation to enter the United States. David eventually was granted entry into the United States. He finally made it, but everything seemed surreal to the young pugilist during the first days of his arrival. “I spent three days without sleep,” said Morrell while laughing.
David continued, “I couldn't believe it. I spent so much time in Mexico that when I finally got to the U.S., I couldn't believe it. I would fall asleep and then suddenly wake up in the middle of the night. I would wake up scared because I didn't know where I was. But it went away after three days once I knew that it was real and not a delusion that I was here. With time it became easy to adjust.”
Some adjustments were easy, and some were difficult. The champ humorously described what it was like experiencing winter in Minnesota. “Cuba is hot, Mexico is hot, Miami is hot; imagine when I got to Minnesota and experienced the cold. The first time I ran in the snow, I said to myself, ‘this can't be, I can't be running here.' My eyes were frozen; it was tough. But like I said, I'm always moving forward.”
Since then, Morrell Jr. has adjusted and embraced his new home. But his heart and mind are with Cuba and the people he left behind. “What I miss most about Cuba is my family—spending time with my family. Sharing a smile with my mom-joking around with my dad-spending time with my friends-going outside and playing a random pick-up game of soccer,” said Morrell Jr. solemnly.
Shortly after his arrival, David didn't take long to take boxing by storm. His first professional bout was August 31st, 2019, and he knocked out his opponent within sixty-five seconds of the first round. Two fights later, he would be fighting for the WBA Interim Super-Middleweight title against a tough veteran, Lennox Allen. Allen was undefeated in twenty-two fights and won fourteen of those fights by knockout. Most fighters don't fight for a major world title in under twenty fights. Some do it in less than ten, but three, that's hardly the norm. It seemed like it was too much too soon for the young Cuban from the outside looking in. Perhaps his team was moving his career too fast.
I asked him to recount his emotions and thoughts going into that fight. I was also curious if he felt ready for such a grand stage three fights into his professional career. “It was my first fight that went twelve rounds. My thoughts were if my team had confidence in me that I could do it, then I'd do it. Nerves? Everyone gets nervous. No one can't tell you that they don't get nervous because it's a lie. A man without fear is a man without hope. That's the way I think. I felt some anxiety. But the only fear I felt was not being able to live up to the expectations of the fans,” said Morrell Jr.
David continued, “Before the fight, I spoke to mom, and my grandmother, R.I.P. And I suddenly forgot about the fear and anxiety. Then it was business as usual. I started listening to music, I started dancing, and I started to relax; that's my therapy. Truthfully, the last week of camp, it dawned on me that, ‘damn, this a world title fight- it's only my third fight.' There were millions of critics-millions of negative things-not negative in the sense that they were saying anything directly to me. But people were saying things like, ‘how does a kid who only has three fights already fight for a world title?' The only one to recently do it was Lomachenko. I was very positive and a little anxious at the same time because this was my opportunity to prove to everyone that I was ready for that kind of fight. The most important thing is that we won and proved to the world that yes, we could do this and much more.”
Morrell Jr. dominated Allen and beat the Ghanaian by a wide margin on the scorecards. That fight was his coming-out party, and he put the rest of the Super-Middleweight division on notice. Morrell Jr. demonstrated that he could win and do so over twelve rounds if he needed to. He learned a lot about himself in that fight and found his comfort zone in the ring. He now coolly dominates his space within the ring.
“Yes, it's like you doing interviews; you dominate that craft,” said the champ when describing the comfort level in which he operates. “It's like a chef when he goes to cook. You see how the chef handles a variety of things simultaneously. And if I don't dominate my domain, I won't be the boxer I want to be. You also need the support of your family. Lastly, if you don't have high self-esteem about yourself-believe in yourself-then, you won't dominate the ring.”
Merely two fights later, he wins the WBA Regular Super-Middleweight title against Mario Cazares. Six fights into his professional career, he made his first title defense against Alantez Fox. The D.C. native was taller, longer, and was an eleven-year veteran with twenty-three fights. Alantez is a very skilled opponent whose only other losses were to Liam Williams and Demetrius Andrade. This wasn't intended to be a “walk in the park” for Morrell Jr.
But David strolled into a comfort zone early in the first round. Fox was tough and bravely fought back, but the writing was on the wall early in the fight. The young Cuban bombarded Fox with hard punches coming from different angles. The referee would stop the carnage in the fourth round and save Fox from further punishment.
What seemed like an easy fight, I wondered if that's how the champ felt? “To be honest, we knew we were going to win, but it wasn't an easy fight,” said Morrell jr. humbly of his opponent. “Simply, we just worked hard. We made it look easy, but the fight wasn't easy. Alantez Fox is a boxer with a tremendous amount of experience. I admire him as a fighter and as a person. I spoke to him after the fight, and he's super nice. The fight wasn't easy; we put the work in, and that's why the fight looked easy.”
The Super-Middleweight division houses some of the best fighters in the world. But only one fighter currently reigns as the “King” of the division. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez stands alone as the undisputed champion of this highly touted division. Canelo is the WBA Super-Champion, while Morrell Jr. holds the regular version of the title. This could potentially lead these two champions to a collision course in the future.
There is a vast disparity in levels between Alantez Fox and Canelo Alvarez. So is the young Cuban ready for a world-class fighter like Canelo? Morrel Jr. had this to say when I asked him about the possibility of facing Canelo and if he feels ready to fight the undisputed champion now.
“I feel good, and I feel ready. But that is a decision that my team will make in due time. Rome wasn't built in a day-little by little-step by step. When a building is being built, you have to start with a solid foundation and start building until you get it to the height you want to reach. We have created a solid foundation in my career. Now, we continue to move up from here. So, when the time comes, and we are established, we'll take action. But we are more than ready.”
Canelo recently signed a two-fight contract with Matchroom Boxing to fight Light-Heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol and the third fight with Gennadiy Golovkin for over 80 million dollars. In turn, he passed on a more lucrative offer by Premier Boxing Champions to fight Jermall Charlo and David Benavidez for 100 million dollars. A decision that didn't resonate well with fans or with other fighters. The perception amongst fans is that Canelo picked the contract with the easier of the four fighters.
Morrell Jr. smiled wryly when I asked him his thoughts on Canelo's decision. Always classy, David responded, “If the decision that he made is what he believes is the best decision, then it's the best decision. Each head is a world on its own. This is a business. Yeah, it's more money, but there is a thing called ego. There is a thing called reputation. And you're not going to lose out or sacrifice those things. It's more money, but you're not going to want to risk those things for a fight. I just believe he made the best decision that suited him. Canelo is still young. He can still fight with Benavidez and Charlo for way more money in the future. That's what I think Canelo is doing now. He is taking advantage of every opportunity life gives him. And when he believes the time is best, he'll fight whomever in the division for more money. It's simple.”
Morrell Jr. was as calm and collected during the interview as in the ring. He doesn't have a fight scheduled nor a specific opponent in mind. But, being the consummate professional he is, Morrell stays in the gym working on his craft and remains ready to fight whoever, whenever.
“I can't say that I have a specific person I want to fight. I want to fight everyone. I don't have an individual in my mind. I want to fight them all. I don't care in what order. For one to say they are the best in the division is because they've beaten the best in the division,” said Morrell Jr. passionately.
Beat the best and become the best is what Morrell Jr. wants to achieve in boxing. Not only for himself but for all the future fighters of Cuba. “I'll be content with Cuba allowing boxers to fight professionally. So they can have the opportunity to prove to the world that they can do beautiful things. My legacy is that my family, kids, and grandkids are proud of what I've achieved. And that one day, a kid comes running to me after watching my fight and says, ‘I want to be like David Morrell Jr.”
Fighting in any capacity doesn't come naturally to most people. And for those that do, they usually fight for something other than themselves. David Morrell Jr. left Cuba with two things in mind. First, he becomes a world champion and then earns enough money to reunite with his family in the future. For Morrell Jr., it's more than boxing that gets him out of bed each day. He's fighting for more than just titles. He's fighting for the inherent human right to be with his family. A right perhaps most of us take for granted.
“I speak to my mother every day. I train every day. I love to sweat every day. My family is very proud of me. Sweat and family are the things that motivate me,” concluded the champ with a determined look. As if to say, “there is still work that needs to be done!”
David Morrell Jr. is at the cusp of boxing superstardom. The 24-year-old Cuban native has demonstrated a maturity well beyond his years—both in the ring and out of it. Morrell is poised to be a future superstar in the sport.