By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Everywhere Erislandy Lara’s mind wanders, he encounters thoughts of devastation.
In his adopted hometown of Houston, where he has lived and trained the past five years, families have lost everything due to Hurricane Harvey. Lara is fortunate enough to live in an area of the city that wasn’t decimated by unfathomable flooding, but the Cuban immigrant’s heart hurts when he sees some of the damage done by the severe storm on his way every day to trainer Ronnie Shields’ gym in southwest Houston.
As Houston residents try to recover from this unprecedented natural disaster, Lara also is fearful of what Hurricane Irma will do to his native Cuba over the weekend. Lara’s wife, Yudi, and three of his children live with him in Houston, but the rest of his family, including his 10-year-old son and 8-year-old son, still live on an island that is in Irma’s direct path.
The Category 5 hurricane also will directly hit Miami, where Lara lived after moving from Germany in 2009. Lara still has many friends in Miami and its surrounding area, so he’d be lying if he said it’s been easy to concentrate on training these days.
“You can only imagine how difficult a time it is for me, my loved ones and the people that I know,” Lara said through a translator Wednesday following a press conference at Barclays Center. “Hurricanes are terrible things. It’s tough training when you know loved ones possibly could lose everything they own, everything they’ve worked hard for. And then there are people who’ve already lost everything in Houston. It’s a sad time right now.”
Somehow, all the harmful flooding in Houston kept Lara from training for only two days late last month. That has enabled the WBA/IBO super world super welterweight champion to mostly remain on track while preparing for his title defense against unbeaten Terrell Gausha next month at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Lara-Gausha will be the main event of a “Showtime Championship Boxing” tripleheader October 14 that will feature three 154-pound title fights. Being able to continue training in Houston has offered little consolation to the 34-year-old Lara, who became an American citizen six months ago, as did his wife.
“Thank God the zone where I live was not affected,” Lara said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people are homeless. It’s a terrible thing for Houston and the whole state of Texas. A lot of families lost their homes and a lot of families lost everything they had. So I just pray and hope that everyone can overcome it.”
Even with everything going on in Houston and Cuba, Lara (24-2-2, 14 KOs) didn’t consider postponing his fight. The highly skilled southpaw hasn’t boxed since he knocked out faded former champion Yuri Foreman (34-3, 10 KOs) in the fourth round of their January 13 fight in Hialeah, Florida.
“This is a job,” Lara said, “and I have to put food on the table by fighting.”
The disheartening destruction in Houston weighs on Shields daily as well. Like Lara, Shields considers himself lucky because his home in suburban Sugar Land, about a 15-minute drive from his Houston gym, wasn’t affected by the flooding.
Many of Shields’ family members and friends weren’t as fortunate. One of the most respected trainers in boxing cannot believe what he has seen since Harvey hit Houston the last week of August.
“I’ve lived in Houston almost all my life,” Shields said. “It’s devastating, man. I’ve been through like five hurricanes, but this is definitely the worst I’ve ever seen, as far as the water is concerned. And a lot of my family in my hometown lost everything. Some of my best friends in Houston lost everything. It’s terrible.
“There’s really nothing you could say to a person that loses everything. You could offer to help and that’s all you can do, basically. There’s no words that you could say to somebody to make that go away. It’s a terrible, terrible thing. And then there’s this other hurricane coming. It’s crazy.”
Shields and Lara have tried their best to keep their focus on preparation for his scheduled 12-round title defense against Gausha (20-0, 9 KOs). The 2012 American Olympian from Cleveland is a big underdog, yet Lara and Shields are well aware that the relatively unknown contender wants to exploit the biggest opportunity of a pro career that began in November 2012.
“Gausha, he’s not a big name to a lot of people,” Shields said. “But people who know boxing know this is an undefeated guy who’s been around a while, who’s been to the Olympics. He’s been a national champion in the amateurs. That might not mean a lot to a lot of people. But it means so much to us because we know he can fight. You take a guy like that lightly and he’ll beat you.”
Gausha told BoxingScene.com following the press conference Wednesday that he hopes Lara is overlooking him. Lara acknowledged that he wants a title unification fight after facing Gausha, hopefully against the winner of one of the other two televised fights that night.
One of those fights will match IBF junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd (20-0, 14 KOs), of Accokeek, Maryland, against former WBA champion Austin Trout (30-3, 17 KOs), of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The other televised fight October 14 will pit WBC super welterweight champion Jermell Charlo (29-0, 14 KOs), of Houston, against mandatory challenger Erickson Lubin (18-0, 13 KOs), of Orlando, Florida.
Nevertheless, Lara and Shields said Gausha will be disappointed if he expects Lara to look past him.
“There’s no way,” Shields said. “He can forget that. A lot of people don’t know anything about Lara. They see him fight, but they don’t know anything about him. And that’s a good thing. But inside of that ring, as soon as that bell rings he’s gonna find out who Lara is.”
Lara firmly feels he is the best boxer in the world at 154 pounds and intends to continue proving it.
“Gausha is a strong, young kid,” Lara said. “He’s an undefeated Olympian. But I’m the best in the division and I’m looking forward to doing what I do best, which is win and putting on a great show for the fans.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.