Running with the Cubans: Edgar Kaliboti's Lifetime of Martial Arts


Photos by Harri Phu
 

“Boxing forces you to focus and act as an individual. Whether you win or lose, you go through the training anyway. That is the power of boxing. If you look back of every aspect of your training program, there are all these channels you put together that made you a champion. You look back and realize how much you moved. If you put that focus in any aspect of life, you know you can plan, pursue and get there.“ –Edgar Kaliboti

Edgar Kaliboti, or “Eddy” as people fondly call him, could easily be the lovechild of James Bond and Cus D’amato. Trained in boxing by the Cubans, he has cornered UFC fighters, Muay Thai World Champions and Boxing World Contenders. He spent years in the military, then as a merchant sailor and later a stunt double for A-list Hollywood actors.

He’s also a low-key guy.

I spent a few afternoons with him asking the questions I’ve always wanted answers for, but by the end I realized I was just scratching the surface of his story—our conversation jumped from the battle scars on his body to the Cuban style boxing, from karate to street fights, from life philosophy to life on the seas—all delivered with Eddy’s trademark philosophical musings.

This is a guy who genuinely believes in the transformative powers of the combat arts.

Now in his 50’s—though appearing 20 years younger—Eddy hails from Tanzania. His accent doesn’t easily give it away—it’s a blend of sounds from the countries he’s visited in his lifetime. A Bulgarian student walks by and Eddy greets him in Russian, conversing briefly before returning his focus to me. I’ve witnessed this over half a dozen times in different languages.

What brought Eddy to boxing is a story usually reserved for the martial arts. A soccer player at a young age, he found himself drawing the wrong kind of attention from some of the older kids. 

“My older brother was a very good boxing instructor but I was only interested in soccer. It was only when I got bullied by older kids that I realized I didn’t know how to deal with it. After my brother heard my story, he told me I could start boxing if I made a promise not to tell my friends.  He didn’t want to alert the bullies and I wanted to get them back so I agreed.”

“18 months later, I went back to soccer with a goal to provoke the kid. He took the bait. He thought I was the same kid he used to push around and we got into it. Man, oh, man, I had the footwork—I knew the combos—the jab back to front. It was easy. The other kids couldn’t understand what happened because I hadn’t told them I’d been learning boxing. So I took off to tell my brother, I was so excited. He just told me to stay out of trouble.” 

It didn’t end there. “That kid came back, he thought it was a fluke. I tried to talk my way out of it but he insisted and we got into it. This time I actually knocked him out. Bad. The other kids jumped in and I took off as usual as I didn’t want to get in trouble with teachers. I told my brother, he was not happy, he wanted to have a word with the older kid. I said don’t even bother going to talk to him, because I’m not going back to soccer. From then on boxing was everything.”


Practicing Karate in Tanzania in 1982.

“In Tanzania it was really poor, but sport offered some opportunities for a better lifestyle. So you have this dream of making it to the top because when you make it to the first team, you get all the privileges. You get put in the training camps with top Tanzanian and Cuban coaches, you're taken care of financially so you can take care of your family. So everybody wanted it. If you are a man in Africa, you work hard to support your family. Your father is telling you ‘I’m working hard to give you everything’ and then there is the expectation to take care of them when they get older. That is the African way.”

Although I know that conscription is common among African countries, Eddy informs me that it is later in Tanzania than in other countries. “By the time I entered the Army, I had already graduated with a business degree majoring in marketing. The problem in Tanzania isn’t the lack of education; the issue is a lack of opportunity to use it.”

“At the time, Tanzania had a cultural exchange with the Cuban Government, which included the lending of Olympic boxing coaches to the National Squad. Their residence in Tanzania was enticing compared to their way of life back home. The system was different in Cuba, over there individuals were never allowed to own businesses or shops, everything belongs to the government and they get coupons for food. In Tanzania, even if you were poor, you can work hard and you can buy your own stuff. So the coaches that came from Cuba were really looked after.”

“Even though it’s not uncommon to see a Cuban Olympic Gold Medalist living in poverty,” Eddy informs me. “It’s a mistake to think that their boxing programs are poor. Even without fancy equipment and monetary rewards, their programs are like getting a university degree in boxing. Even from a young age the training is highly programed and the kids are fed with promises of greatness and respect.” As we talk through the specifics, he explains in excruciating detail the structure of the camps, the drills they had for every aspect of boxing, with even the tiniest details being addressed by the coaches.

As we are going through the specifics, Eddy begins to slip into the philosophical. “There were two main lessons I took from my training with the Cubans. The first is self-dependency. After the initial screening, the Coach sets you a program, but nobody forces you to train hard. They set you goals and if you meet them, you stay, if you slack off, you are out. You are hungry for a better life, so nobody slacks off. Today, a lot of fight sports got it wrong and there is a different relationship with the coach. When you are poor, the Coach is an important tool to get you where you need to be so you can’t get angry at the him because you missed breakfast. Nowadays I find that fighters don’t chase the coach, the coaches chase them.”

The second lesson he speaks of is the importance of solo activities in training. “Nowadays, fighters like to be told what to do, but boxing is an individual sport. People who rely too much on pad work forget that someone else is calling the shots. Pad work is important, but afterwards it’s up to you to make the program work. You have to do the shadow boxing, to learn the dance of the warrior—that way you learn to express yourself in a combative way as a person. A Cuban boxer will often shadow box for up to three hours, to get to know themselves, to institutionalize themselves in the art of boxing. That is one of the big secrets.”

He also points out that one of the most important activities for them was running. “A lot of people don’t realize that the most important benefits are not only the fitness aspects; running is where you learn to talk to yourself. We would run eight kilometers every morning and you are not allowed to run in pairs. The thing is that you have to find that drive within yourself, if you are always around a lot of people, you can’t get it. That is your time to develop that skill. When you are in the ring, all your good friends you run with won’t be able to give or take the punches from the opponent, it’s all you. Those are moments when you are going to dig deep and if you couldn’t do it in training, you won’t do it in the ring. At the end of the day you would have to be responsible to carry the vehicle through the journey.” 

I realize in all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never asked Eddy why he came to Australia. “People tend to assume if you are from Africa that you ran from there. They assume you were coming from a place you didn’t want to be. I did come to Australia for the opportunity, but also for curiosity and adventure. I’ve had this dream since I was a young boy.”

“When it came to the point in 1993 that I had to leave Africa, I knew wherever I went on the planet I would have martial artists as friends. I was also lucky that people met me first through the martial arts, because martial artists tend to not assume things about you. They speak to you and get to know you. My friends in Karate advised me to get my security license. The next week I was on the door in King Cross, straight out of Tanzania.”

Back in the 90’s, the area in which Eddy worked as a bouncer was referred to as "The Golden Mile", covered in depth by the TV series Underbelly. It was the most dangerous area in Sydney for over a decade. 

“Working in the Cross back in the day was very full on, you saw a lot of things. You get to hear about a lot of different characters. We saw prostitution, drugs, gangs and drive by shootings. I witnessed a lot of king hits (sucker punches) on doorman that were giant bodybuilders with no combat awareness. But everything came down to one thing for us; don’t cross the line, just do what you are supposed to be doing and mind your own business. So that’s what we did and that’s how we survived.” 

I ask Eddy what it was like in the 90’s to be a young African man in Sydney, the unfortunate truth being that it was uncommon to see a man of color on the street. He employs his trademark pause before replying, “My experience in Australia is that there are some elements of racism but it’s just because there are not a lot of black people here. If you see a black person on the street, they will stand out. Occasionally you will get people who will do things that will actually upset you. You go to a shop to buy something, they will not put change in your hand, they will drop it from above because they do not want to touch your hand. In their mind they may think you are diseased or whatever. But you cannot try and talk to people like that and show your frustration of anger, because you have a lot of people who respect people from other ethnic groups and very few who don’t, so the majority wins and life goes on.”

I’ve witnessed dozens of professional fighters praise his abilities, but he always appears bashful in response. It appears strange to me that he has remained so low key when his abilities could have made him a serious contender in the Australian boxing scene.

“I just never felt I was that good.” I can’t help but laugh in disbelief; over a decade of training I’ve barely landed a single punch on him. He continues. “I feel good that people appreciate what I am able to do and they appreciate my ability to teach, but because I’m constantly learning, I can never settle in one spot and rest on my laurels. You also have to understand who I compare myself to, who my coaches were.”

Now focusing on BJJ and wearing a brown belt, he’s not too far from adding another black-belt to his resume.

“Will I ever stop? Never. Not as long as I can move—I’ll do boxing and martial arts, one way or another, it’s my way of life.”

 

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