IF THERE’S a keyword for Erislandy Lara at 40, it’s confident. That wasn’t the case in June of 2008, when he left his native Cuba for an uncertain future in Germany.

It was Lara’s second attempt at defecting, and a successful one after a voyage to Brazil a year prior ended with authorities returning him to Cuba, where he was banned indefinitely from practicing the sport. For a young man whose identity was rooted in boxing, having that outlet taken from him was unthinkable. So he tried to leave again, knowing that his only way to compete professionally required doing so far from home.

He got on a speedboat to Mexico, travelled from there to Germany, where Arena-Box Promotion signed him to a professional contract, and the news – which made the Reuters newswire – was all good. But Lara was still a stranger in a strange land, and the future was far from certain.

“Germany was scary when I first got there, because I didn’t know anyone,” Lara told Boxing News through a translator. “Things got better as we started to make money fighting, and I had good people taking care of me, so I got better over time.”

Less than a month after his defection, the 2005 World amateur champion was in the ring, shutting out Ivan Maslov over four rounds. Lara’s pro debut was in Turkey, ironically on July 4, the Independence Day holiday in the United States, a country that would soon play a pivotal role in his life. In other words, he was a long way from Guantanamo, a place he has not seen since he left 15 years ago.

“I have not been back to Cuba, but I do plan to go back some day,” Lara said. “I still send money to my family. Right now, I want to finish off my boxing career, then I will make my decision on going back to Cuba.”

Lara, now ranked sixth at middleweight and the WBA belt-holder after holding that organisation’s title at 154, knows that he can’t fight forever, so with a bout against Danny Garcia scheduled for August, it’s clear that he wants to go out with a bang.

“I’m at the tail end of my career, so I’m fighting for my legacy,” he said. “I want to be remembered as one of the best fighters to ever come out of Cuba, and a fighter who always wanted to fight the best.”

He may have already hit both marks. His talent on fight night is undeniable and always has been, particularly when fighting the best, as he certainly did at super-welterweight where he faced the likes of Paul Williams, Alfredo Angulo, Austin Trout, Ishe Smith, Jan Zaveck, Brian Castano, Yuri Foreman and Jarrett Hurd. Yet it was his most notable loss that he considers the fight that represented him the best.

“There have been so many great fights that I’ve been in, but the Canelo fight let everyone know I was an elite fighter,” said Lara of his 2014 meeting with Mexican star Alvarez, which he lost by way of a controversial split decision. “Although I didn’t win on the scorecards, the fans knew I won that fight, and so did I. That was pure Cuban boxing at its best. Canelo couldn’t touch me.  He knows I won that fight, and so did the fans.”

Whether you thought Alvarez or Lara won that fight, you have to appreciate the swagger Lara has, and that’s never gone away. And as a member of the Cuban boxing school that values technique and Fight IQ over everything, Lara has adjusted his style as the years passed, going from a slick boxer who many labelled as boring to someone willing to trade on the inside if that’s what it’s going to take to get the win.

“At 40 years old, I feel I’m the modern-day Bernard Hopkins, still going strong in my later years,” said Lara, who picked up the vacant WBA middleweight trinket with an 80-second knockout of the woefully overmatched Thomas LaManna in May of 2021. “I still believe I’m one of the best fighters in the sport. Early in my career, I used my legs to win fights; now I’m fighting on the inside, where I feel people will see that I do have power.  At this stage in my career, I want to show the fans that I’m a complete fighter. I’m sitting on my punches more, so getting knockouts is something I desire…to prove a point, that I have power.”

Since the win over LaManna, he added an eighth-round stoppage of Gary O’Sullivan in his first defense last May. But it’s the upcoming bout with Garcia that will tell the tale, even if the middleweight title fight will be held at a catchweight of 155 pounds.

“Danny Garcia has accomplished a lot in his career, being a multiple-division world champion like me, so I believe this is going to be a great, competitive fight,” said Lara of the former welterweight and super-lightweight titlist, who debuted at 154 pounds last summer. “He’s coming up in weight, so I feel I have the advantage in all areas. My goal will be to knock him out and solidify myself as the premier middleweight in the division.”

If he succeeds, there is a fight against Michael Zerafa waiting, but, at this point, Lara isn’t interested in playing the mandatory game. He only wants marquee-level fights in the twilight years of his career.

“I think this is a big fight for boxing,” he said of his meeting with Garcia. “You’ve got two proven warriors who are going to leave everything in the ring. Boxing needs the big names to be fighting each other, so yes, I agree, I only want to fight the biggest names in boxing.”

An exit strategy like that will only enhance his legacy, but then again, his story isn’t just about boxing. It’s about chasing a dream, no matter the cost, and succeeding. In 2017, Lara and his wife, Yudi, became citizens in their adopted home of the United States, a place that gave them a fresh start that they haven’t forgotten.
“Becoming a U.S. citizen meant the world to me,” said Lara. “I’ve created a great life in America, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity to live life to the fullest. Anytime you can inspire people, it’s a great thing. I hope my story inspires others to follow their dreams and make the best out of life in whatever you do.

“Boxing has been a big part of my life since my early years as a kid, and I believe it will always be a part of my life,” he said. “Only God knows what my life will be like after my career is over, but I feel I’ll be part of boxing in some capacity.”