RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Julio Cesar La Cruz saluted the small Cuban section that came to watch him box for gold, then kissed the stand before he stepped up to accept his medal.

La Cruz had already bowed to fans on all four sides of the ring. His respect for the crowd didn't matter to fans as much as the defensive style of boxing that served up a ho-hum fight and got him about booed out of the arena.

"I show respect to the public," he said. "They can think whatever they feel like thinking."

Let 'em boo.

He'd overcome more than a few jeers to find a spot in the Olympics.

La Cruz won 2 1/2 years after he was shot in his home province of Camaguey, defeating Kazakhstan's Adilbek Niyazymbetov on Thursday to win the light heavyweight gold medal.

"I was able to start again and keep going with my career," he said. "I feel that this medal is a payment for all the sacrifices and all the support I got from everyone."

The 27-year-old La Cruz was the tournament's top seed and breezed through the field to become the first Cuban to win a light heavyweight medal. He already had secured Cuba's first medal in the weight class since 1980.

La Cruz taunted and toyed with Niyazymbetov in the third round in his unanimous decision victory and won 29-28 on all three scorecards.

He appeared to suck on his medal more than bite it — with his gold-capped teeth — on the medal stand.

Cuba trails only the United States with 35 Olympic boxing medals.

"This title is a way for me to support our nation's cause," he said. "Hope doesn't die. Everything starts here. The boxing is just getting started now."

La Cruz needed gold to put the exclamation point on an amateur career that included 2011, 2013 and 2015 world championship titles. La Cruz, considered one of the top Cuban athletes, had his life rocked in January 2014 when he was shot in his left hip during a robbery.

His vital organs weren't affected and, after rest and rehabilitation, he was able to fight later that year.

"I feel like when you're hit by life, you mature," he said. "That's what happened to me."

La Cruz failed to fully engage in the fight, content to stand and shuffle with his arms by his side. When Niyazymbetov tried to step in and attack, La Cruz smacked him with just enough jabs to win on points.

Britain's Joshua Buatasi and France's Mathieu Bauderlique won bronze.

Niyazymbetov, a silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, looked crushed on the medal stand. Kazakh fighters fought for gold in three of the first five medal bouts in the Rio Games.

Niyazymbetov clearly wanted the gold that eluded him four years ago. He put the medal in his jacket pocket as he waved off reporters before returning to answer some questions. He flipped his hat backward and starred off in the other direction as his answers were translated.

"When you win the silver medal for the second time, it can be emotional," he said. "I've been training for four years, preparing myself for the gold medal. Now, I've got silver. I think my feelings are much more stronger, more emotional than the London Games."