A female boxer's story of resilience, self-love and self-determination.
Written by Haymme Marin
01 Namibia Flores Rodriguez is a Cuban boxing champion and the recent focal point of Maceo Frost's documentary, Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight.
02 Women aren't allowed to box in Cuba. So Namibia moved to the U.S. to pursue her dreams — a journey that came with many challenges.
03 Namibia encourages women, both young and old, to lean into their strengths. Believe in yourself. Invest in yourself. Find the silver lining in everything you do.
Namibia Flores Rodriguez is a Cuban boxing champion although she's actually never competed. In her country women are deemed too beautiful to be hit in the face, the sport is too rough for women. Ironically, this was the thinking of the former president of the Cuban Federation of Women and wife of Raul Castro Vilma Espín – she is now deceased but her idea lives on.
Namibia, who has been advocating for women to be able to fight competitively, has been the subject of countless articles and a couple of documentaries. We recently watched her in Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight directed by Maceo Frost (2018) and were blown away not only by her physical strength and skills, but by her resilience. We recently spoke with her while she is confined in Cuba due to the pandemic.
Too Beautiful: Our Right to Fight | Trailer
Too weak. Too old. Too beautiful. Naysayers only fuel Namibia Flores Rodriguez’s need to fight.
At the end of the documentary we see that you left Cuba. Where did you go and what changed in your life?
After the documentary I had the opportunity to travel to the US. That door was already open and the way things were going with boxing not being allowed here in Cuba and my time as an athlete coming to an end; I was told that in the US I could have the possibility to fight professionally.
We all have this deluded idea that the US is the land of opportunity. And so, I decided to go and I spent about two years going back and forth looking for opportunities alongside people who wanted to help me.
What I didn’t know and maybe these people didn’t know is that in order to fight professionally, you needed a ranking and in boxing you needed money to be able to have a career. In my case, I didn’t have a ranking. I had only been training and hadn’t competed in my country or anywhere else in the world.
So that was money that the people who brought me to the US didn’t have access to. I kept stumbling until I decided to go on my own terms and go live the American dream and see what I could do, but that wasn’t to be. So, I came back to Cuba about five months ago. I sacrificed a lot here to go the US but, in the end, I had to return because the US isn’t really what we think it is.
I tried working the first few months. I would work and train, work and train but I was depleted both physically and psychologically. When I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw Namibia the warrior, my name had been left by the toilet or the floor I had been cleaning.
It’s something honorable, I am not ashamed of having had to do it but it wasn’t the path for me. It bothered me a bit to have been Namibia the boxer and now being in the bathroom of a casino. This began creating a lot of obstacles, mentally and I preferred to be here and start from scratch but be happy and not under that system where you are a slave. I didn’t have a good childhood or adolescence, and as an adult I have found inspiration in myself, to keep moving forward. I couldn’t punish myself and suffer for a little bit of money. Everything I have become until now, I’ve done without money, without anything, with only a positive mind.
How did you manage these thoughts and feelings at the time?
When I started boxing it was a hobby and in it, I found a good friend. Boxing is like my church, where I could always be supported and where I always had an outlet. I started training, made sacrifices, even if I had to work very early and didn’t feel like doing anything at all, I had to keep training because it was the only thing that gave me life. It was a source of energy.
You mention in the documentary that you leave your problems at the gym. Did this happen immediately or did you work at it?
When I taught Tae Kwan Do, I’d go to the boxing gym to kill time before class and the trainer would always talk with me. I had a lot of problems and when I’d get home, I’d notice that I had so much energy, as if I had something in my hands but didn’t know how to use it.
At the time I was in a bad place, I had to take care of myself and I decided to sell pastries. I’d wake up, drop off money to get pastries, train and when I’d get back in the afternoon, I would sell the pastries so quickly. I thought to myself that something was happening, I would leave the gym a new person. I’d think about my busted shoes and that I had no clothes but when I’d leave the gym with those busted shoes, I would fix them and it would be okay. Little by little it motivated me, it advised me, it made me smarter.
I think boxing is a sport that makes you think because when you’re practicing a technical combination you have to think about what you’re doing. In my case I had to think about what I was going to do once I left the gym, how to attain the happiness of that beautiful thing that was happening to me and apply it to my life. That’s how I did it and I started becoming a happier person, I started laughing more, loving the person I was more.
We’ve seen how you’ve been a source of support for young women who want to box. Did you have someone like that in your life?
I have a great friend who has always supported me when I needed advice and even financially. She’s always been there. But really the support I found thanks to boxing has been from Danish photographer Bo Grabiel Karlsen. He came to Cuba and saw me at the gym, the only woman training with all the men, focused on what I was doing not on the photographer or what the foreigner would leave for us and he fell in love with who I am as a person. All the support I’ve had has been from him and boxing.
My family and my neighbors also support me by telling me I can do it and my trainer, Naldo Mestre Flores, gives me unconditional support for everything. But sometimes in life it's not about who tries to lend a hand or the support you get or not. Life is about what you decide to do, telling yourself you can do it with or without support because sometimes that helping hand isn't the right one. It's all in your mind telling yourself you can do it. I ventured and went to the US telling myself I could do it, but I couldn't. It's another experience I gained, for me defeats are experiences. The person who has most supported me has been me.
How does it make you feel to be a role model for young female boxers?
It’s incredible. At this stage in the game it’s like a medal. Each person that writes me, every boxer in and outside of Cuba, each trainer, each person that says, “Hey boxer, you’re a champ.” Those are all medals, it’s another triumph in my life. I don’t have a car or a house or wealth but I do have that emotional piece that few of us have, that comes from all these people who are proud of who I am.
I feel a lot of people now call me the Iron Lady to tell me that I am unique and special, this boosts my ego. I am like a monk, filled with greatness, it’s like I don’t need material wealth. I feel like I’m floating, I am happy. Sometimes the medal, the triumph, being a champion, that's temporary. When your sporting career is over, it's over. I, however, have not been a champion and every day I receive a message from someone saying that I am a champion, a warrior, you are an example to follow.
What advice do you have for young women who feel defeated or worthless?
My advice for these women would be simply to let them know that there’s a tremendous feeling that exists in all humans and it’s the love of oneself. When we are able to love ourselves more than anyone in the world, we will become much stronger women.
I would also say that every day, when they wake up in the morning, to look at themselves in the mirror, even for a just a minute, and to find themselves, ask themselves what it is they want to want do in life. To find an objective in life, a charm, a guide for their lives - something that will present itself as long as you have faith and put your all into it. And when they find it, there won’t be any human or natural obstacle that’ll make them feel knocked down.
There’s nothing like having faith and believing in yourself and telling yourself, “you can do it!” If my objective in life is to sing, then I am going to sing even if others don’t like it. My sound will always be the most beautiful to me. That’s it, find yourself, have faith in yourself, wake up day after day wanting to live the life you’ve been given and also accepting yourself.
Are you still advocating for women to have the right to fight or do you presume things won’t change?
I’m still advocating for this. When everything was still open (pre pandemic) I would motivate the girls to go train. They all had things going on but would try and arrange their schedule so we could meet up and do something. But now with this situation I didn’t get the chance to get them together. Now that I’ll be here for a while, I will keep advocating for it. A lot of local journalists have interviewed me here but we have a closed government and we can’t all express our opinions the way we’d like and we can’t make a lot of noise. In any case nothing will happen that the government doesn’t want to happen.
What is your plan once the confinement is over?
When this is over, while I’m here in Cuba, I’d like to go to my gym – Trejo, and start working to perfect my role as a trainer and later go away to Europe. I’d like to visit as many gyms as possible not for people to see the Cuban boxer but to talk with people. I want to convey to all those people, women, especially women, kids, men, how much life can change if you find a charm like I found at the gym. If you use boxing as a way of life, as if the glove was your heart and you move forward with that. I’d like to be someone who can communicate that more directly in whatever gym I go to, to tell whoever is there that day to not stop going not even for a day until strength finds them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About the author
Haymme is a copywriter and translator based in New York. She is a mental health ally who believes in the power of mindfulness and is currently working to introduce a program at her daughter’s school.