A Boxing Memory: Teofilo Stevenson
The money was on the table. A lucrative life-changing amount, $5 million, all he had to was sign on the dotted line. Muhammad Ali would have been the opponent. The greatest against probably the greatest amateur boxer in history. The fight would have been promoted as the ‘Fight of the Century.’ Rival codes, different ways of life. It was an easy sell. Ali was then in his final years as a fighter, a shadow of the fabulous fighter he once was, he was 35 and nearing the end. There were talks, at one time it looked probable, Don King said it was close, but it was the fight that got away. Too many complications, one fighter would have had to leave too much behind.
The great Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, said no.
“What is a million dollars, compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
Stevenson was loyal to the Cuban system which had banned professional boxing when Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959. A headline in Sports Illustrated said: “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich.”
“I wouldn’t exchange my piece of Cuba for all the money they could give me.” Stevenson loved his country, and couldn’t be tempted by the dollar to give something up that was more precious to him. Stevenson was the poster boy for the sporting revolution that Castro had implemented. To accept he had to defect he had to betray.
There was an almost mythical presence about Teofilo Stevenson, especially in his native Cuba where he was idolised. A graceful fighter, a brilliant tactical boxer with a right hand that was devastating, the perfect counterpunch, often, a fight-ending one.
The resume was beyond great, very few fighters will ever match it. Three Olympic gold medals, without Cuba boycotting the 1984 and 1988 games, he could easily have had five. Stevenson was denied history.
Could Stevenson have replicated the success in the professional ranks and become the heavyweight champion of the world, one of the great debates that will never be answered definitively. In many ways, it is sad we never found out how Stevenson would have done as a professional. George Foreman believed he would have won the world heavyweight title without any doubt, many agreed.
Stevenson was born in 1952 in the Las Tunas province in eastern Cuba, was sparring before he reached double figures in age and had his first fight when he was just 14, the junior titles soon followed. The Soviet coach Andrei Chervonenko took the raw talent and starting developing Stevenson into the formidable fighter he would soon become.
At 17, he lost in the National finals and in 1971 Stevenson won bronze at the Pan American Games losing out to the American Duane Bobick. Despite the defeat to Bobick, the Stevenson era of dominance was about to begin.
The Olympic Games in Munich would be remembered for many things, but it would signal the start of Stevenson’s long reign in the amateur code.
There would be revenge against Bobick in the early stages, the American hope was destroyed in a fight that had implications well beyond sporting boundaries. There were political tensions between Cuba and the USA, a heightening Cold War, at times it got very serious. Stevenson was aware of what it meant, he made his point in the ring and left others to decide what it meant elsewhere. He left Munich with his first Olympic gold medal.
In 1974 he won the world amateur title, the following year he won the Pan American Games. Montreal would bring Stevenson his second Olympic gold medal, which included the destruction of the future heavyweight champion of the world John Tate. Tate tasted the power of the powerful right hand, his legs betraying him as he vainly tried to stay upright.
It would be gold again in Moscow four years later. The Americans boycotted the Games in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The weakened field hardly mattered, Stevenson would likely have prevailed anyway.
The Olympic memories were special to the legendary Cuban: “The Olympic Games in Munich and Montreal are the fondest memories I have from my life, the best stage of my career.” But sadly due to the Cuban boycott of the next two Olympics, Stevenson would be denied further Olympic glory. Another tale of what could have been.
Stevenson won three world amateur championships, the final one in 1986 when Stevenson was 34 and his prime had gone. Even at that late stage of his career, he was still the world’s best amateur. Stevenson at his peak went eleven years unbeaten until losing to the future WBO heavyweight champion Francesco Damiani in the 1982 world amateur championships.
When the latest Cuban boycott denied him the opportunity to go to Seoul in 1988, Stevenson retired. In 332 fights, he won 302 of those fights.
After his fight career ended, Stevenson passed his knowledge on to the next generation and became a coach and had a spell as the vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation.
In June 2012 Stevenson had a heart attack in Havana, Cuba and died, he was only 60.
Castro never forgot the loyalty and would pay his own tribute to Stevenson: “No other amateur boxer in history shone so brightly. Teofilo Stevenson deserves the recognition of the Cuban people for his athletic success derived from his discipline, his dedication to the sport, his courage. We believe that he set a very valuable example. This young man, the humble son of a humble family, said he would not exchange his people for all the dollars in the world.”
“As a champion, Teofilo was the greatest, an example to all of us,” Felix Savon a protege of Stevenson, would say about his legendary predecessor.
Savon would emulate Stevenson and win three Olympic gold medals and was also offered millions of dollars to turn his back on Cuba and fight Mike Tyson. He to said no.
“Teofilo belonged to Cuba and to the world. Those who have not heard of Teofilo have not lived,” Savon understood the legacy of Stevenson probably better than anybody.