NEW YORK (Reuters) - World class wrestlers from Cuba and the United States celebrated the improving relations between the countries on Thursday with an outdoor exhibition amid the hubbub of Times Square.
Billed as “Salsa in the Square,” the event opened at rush hour and ended at nightfall with Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs registering the only pin of the showdown, taking down Luis Esteban Quintana Martinez in a bout lit only by the massive electronic screens that dominate the area.
The U.S. team of Olympians and world championship wrestlers won nine of the 13 bouts against their Cuban counterparts, but the event went well beyond bragging rights.
“This is an excellent tournament, an excellent opportunity,” Cuban team leader Eduardo Perez told Reuters.
“We appreciate the invitation. This is something that we hope to build on, to come back again and it will make the United States and Cuba strong.
“Hopefully the relationship continues and the relationship keeps getting stronger between the two nations. Right now in Cuba you can’t really see the changes. But when the door opens more, you are going to see trade, going to see business.”
The wrestling showdown precedes a trip to Havana by the New York Cosmos soccer team for a game against Cuba next month, and the hope of Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to arrange some games next year in baseball-mad Cuba.
Talks between the United States and Cuba are going on in Washington as the sides try to reach agreement on reopening embassies shut for more than half a century, the crucial next step in their historic detente.
The opening of embassies in Washington and Havana is part of an agreement struck between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in December to reestablish diplomatic ties severed by the United States in 1961 soon after Cuba’s revolution.
Jointly staged by USA Wrestling and Beat the Streets, which promotes the sport in urban communities, the event began with youth competitors tussling on the mat erected in the shadow of a statue of fabled Broadway showman George M. Cohan.
A section of reserved seating in narrow Duffy Square was surrounded by police barriers that held back hordes of families, fans and bemused onlookers crowding in to watch.
Burroughs said the emphatic finish in his 74 kg (163 pounds) bout was fueled by the audience.
“I was lifted by the crowd’s energy,” he said.
The American’s victory came after an entertaining 18-7 win by two-time world silver medalist Reineris Salas Perez of Cuba in his 86 kg bout against Jake Herbert.
Burroughs was looking forward to September’s world championships in Las Vegas, but even more so to Rio and the 2016 Olympics.
“I’ve done it once in London and once you have that feeling, that emotion and that moment of jubilation on top of the podium, you spend your whole life chasing it again.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford