Can This Flashy Cuban Defector Claim Wrestling’s Top Spot?

Frank Chamizo as he trains with the Columbian University wrestling team in New York City.

Source Photographs by Dolly Faibyshev for OZY

Why you should care

Because he’s the kind of character who can help the world’s oldest sport break out.

Decked out in matching royal-blue jumpsuits, Frank Chamizo’s former teammates are waiting for their buddy to arrive. It’s been years since some have seen him and, tomorrow night, they’ll be back on the same stage, competing under the lights on a Manhattan roof overlooking the East River. The not-so-friendly exhibition against the United States is a premier stage for the men in blue, Cuba’s national wrestling team. So, they sit — hard exteriors conveying the exact message expected of wrestlers from Cuba.

Then their friend appears.

Ceremonial weigh-in or not, Chamizo is here to put on a show. He barges into the 12th-floor conference room at the New York Athletic Club with the gusto of a professional wrestling heel who can hardly contain his laughter. Seven years after defecting from his communist homeland, the naturalized Italian citizen has ditched state-supplied jumpsuits for whatever designer outfits he pleases. Chamizo’s training partner and media translator, former Boston University wrestler Nestor Taffur, holds his Gucci sunglasses while the champ pops off a custom sweatshirt reading “Bad Boy Chamizo.” Shirtless, standing on the scale for a meaningless weigh-in that he’ll repeat in earnest tomorrow, Chamizo flexes for the press. He winks at Jordan Burroughs, his opponent in tomorrow’s highly anticipated match and one of the best American wrestlers ever. By now, the once stern Cubans are howling with laughter. He’s the same old Frank.

His status as a world champion has led to modeling opportunities and a fan favorite role on the recent season of Dance Dance Dance — Italy’s version of Dancing With the Stars. 

“It’s great to see [Chamizo],” said Yuriski Torreblanca via a translator at the May event. “He’s an entertainer. We miss having him in Cuba, but we’re proud of his accomplishments.”

Combining elite athleticism and world-class defensive tactics with a flair for the dramatic, Chamizo, 26, is one of the most intriguing talents in the sport of wrestling. “He’s so good defensively that you forget how many ways he can score,” says Eric Azersky, a former Division I grappler turned youth coach in Brooklyn. “And his lifestyle is unlike anyone else in wrestling. On Instagram, he’s either training, modeling or drinking champagne with Italian actresses.”

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Fidati di me 😎🕶

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In Cuba, Chamizo’s path to Olympic glory once appeared etched in stone. But he defected in 2011, shocking the wrestling world by moving to Italy, home of his now ex-wife. Italy is an afterthought on the world wrestling scene, but Chamizo found a fresh start, and Italy acquired its best chance at Olympic gold. While immigrants in Italy encounter no shortage of racial tension, Chamizo has become one of several prominent Black Italian celebrity athletes. His status as a world champion has led to modeling opportunities and a fan favorite role on the recent season of Dance Dance Dance — Italy’s version of Dancing With the Stars.

 

“Italy welcomed me with open arms,” says Chamizo in Spanish, through his translator, Taffur. “It’s great to be back here with my people. It makes me feel at home. But Italy is home now too. I try to represent both countries.”

Chamizo was raised by his grandmother in Matanzas, a northern shore town east of Havana. His parents, Pavel and Merba Chamizo, sought political asylum in the U.S. when Frank was 2; he remained in Cuba with his grandmother. By age 7, he was on the mat in a local gym. The Cuban government tapped him for Escuelas de Iniciación Deportiva (EIDE) — a program that places athletic children in sports-oriented secondary schools. Pavel Chamizo, now a truck driver for Coca-Cola in College Park, Georgia, also wrestled in EIDE. Like his son, he held the No. 1 ranking in Cuba, before fleeing to the States in 1994.

At 18, Chamizo won bronze at the 2010 world championship of wrestling in Moscow. But in 2011 the Cuban national team suspended him for two years for his difficulties making weight at a puny 55 kilograms (121 pounds). It was time to move. Chamizo left Cuba for Rome and a career that he alone could control. After gaining citizenship, he resurfaced with silver at the 2015 European Games and Italy’s first men’s freestyle gold medal at 65 kilograms at the 2016 world championship. He took bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In 2017, he bumped up to 70 kilograms (154 pounds) and won another world championship gold.

In an effort to modernize and build intrigue for the world’s oldest sport, wrestling has adopted the “super match” model that boxing and mixed martial arts have employed for years. Weight class be damned, fans want to see the best athletes go head-to-head. Beat the Streets — a New York nonprofit that promotes education and wrestling in inner cities — knew that no match would move the needle like Burroughs vs. Chamizo. Burroughs, a 74-kilogram world and Olympic champion, is the sport’s model of excellence and effort. He’s also one of the greatest offensive attackers in the game. Chamizo, meanwhile, is the mysterious, undersized defensive guru with the rare athletic gifts to put Burroughs, 30, on his head. “It was the most exciting match we could make,” says Mike Novogratz, chairman of the board of Beat the Streets.

“We’ve both wanted this for a while,” Burroughs said in May. “[Chamizo] is not afraid to throw caution to the wind. I enjoy watching him compete, but we both want to be the best in the world. That’s a problem.” 

In May, Burroughs defeated Chamizo in New York in a narrow, gritty performance, as the American held on to an early lead. At the world championships in October in Budapest, Hungary, Burroughs again bested Chamizo in the bronze medal match. Burroughs notched a late point to tie the match at 4 and then was named the winner in a tiebreaker.

Chamizo’s current strategy? Keep your enemies closer. The new Manhattan resident trains at Columbia University’s New York City Regional Training Center. If all goes as planned, he’ll see Burroughs in the wrestling room soon. Just in time to stoke the flames of rivalry before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. 

Read more: She’s fighting her way from reality TV to UFC stardom.

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