Rolling with the Punches: A Review of The Domino Diaries by Brin-Jonathan Butler

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The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing With Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba.
By Brin-Jonathan Butler
Picador, 2015
292 pages, $26

When the words “How’d this white motherfucker get in this house?” appear on the first page of a book, you know you’re in for a wild ride. When the person saying those words is Mike Tyson, one of two things will happen. 1) You’ll forget about the book and go watch The Hangover or 2) You’ll turn the page because you want to see what happens to the white motherfucker. Turn the page.

Sports journalist and filmmaker Brin-Jonathan Butler’s memoir, The Domino Diaries is a book that will hook, cross, and jab you with a mix of anecdotes, history, and personal insight into three main topics: Boxing, Cuba, and Butler’s own journey from being a little Canadian boy who was beat up and humiliated by his classmates to maxing out credit card after credit card in order to pursue his fascination-turned-obsession with Cuban boxing and the life-changing decisions faced by Cuba’s athletes. If they defect, they’ll make millions and be known around the world, but they will be dead to Cuba. If they stay, they’ll remain poor, eking out an existence in a place where professional sports are outlawed, but they will have their family.

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Originally traveling to Cuba for his own training, Butler’s story quickly becomes that of two major figures in Cuban boxing—Teófilo Stevenson and Guillermo Rigondeaux Ortiz—two Olympic medal-winning boxers. Stevenson chose to stay in Cuba while Rigondeaux defected. Through these stories—and his eventual documentary that focuses on Rigondeaux and his defection—Butler explores his own story and his ties to what becomes like a second home to him.

The Domino Diaries is a book that is at times beautiful and at others brutal in its ability to show the divisiveness that is Cuban sports (and by proxy, cultural relations with the United States). Butler’s prose whisks you along until you are practically feeling the oppressive heat and humidity of Havana right there with him. Regardless of if you’re a fan of boxing or Cuba, this book will still entrance and inform—a worthwhile read for sure.

Buy the Domino Diaries here.

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