A boxing legend

Print edition : July 13, 2012


Teofilo Stevenson (1952-2012), three-time Olympic heavyweight gold medallist, was the finest exponent of the Cuban sports system.

Teofilo Stevenson, possibly the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, passed away in Havana on June 11 following a stroke. The three-time Olympic gold medallist was one of the finest exponents of the Cuban sports system. Many eminent sports writers have said that if the socialist bloc had not boycotted the Atlanta Olympics of 1984, Stevenson would have won a record-breaking fourth gold medal in the heavyweight category. He won the Olympic gold medals at Munich in 1972 when he was only 22 years old, followed by Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980.

Born in Camaguey, Cubas fourth biggest city, in humble surroundings, Stevenson took to boxing emulating his working-class father who sparred for a few dollars when the country was a virtual colony of the United States. After the Cuban revolution, he was inducted into the Cuban sports system, then patterned after the Soviet Unions. He first became the Cuban junior champion. Subsequently, at the insistence of a Russian coach, he was included in the countrys team for the Munich Olympics. He brought Cuba its first gold medal in more than six decades.

Stevenson won numerous other amateur world boxing titles, including the world championship titles in Havana in 1974, Belgrade in 1978 and Reno in 1986. Only two other boxers have won the Olympic heavyweight gold medal three times in a row. One of them was a fellow countryman, Felix Savon. Hungarys Lazlo Papp was the first boxer to win three Olympic gold medals.

American boxing promoters such as Don King and Bob Arum tried to entice him into the world of professional boxing by offering him huge sums of money. Stevensons exploits in the ring coincided with that of another boxing star, Muhammad Ali. Ali entered professional boxing after winning a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics in the light heavyweight category. Ali was the reigning heavyweight champion at the time when Stevenson was knocking out opponents as an amateur boxer. Stevenson was offered $5 million to turn professional and fight Ali for the heavyweight crown in the early 1970s. But Stevensons loyalty to Cuba and the revolution was unshaken.

I wouldnt exchange one piece of Cuban soil for all the money you could give me, I prefer the love of eight million Cubans, he had famously said. In order to fight Ali, Stevenson had to turn professional, which was anathema to the socialist state. His other easy option, which some Cuban sportsmen had taken, was to defect and live the rest of his life in the lap of capitalist luxury in the West.

The U.S. media had said that an Ali-Stevenson fight would have been the fight of the century, eclipsing the thrilla in Manila (the Ali- Joe Frazier fight) and the rumble in the jungle (the Ali-George Foreman fight). In his condolence message, Ali said he was profoundly sad to hear about the death of one of the great champions of boxing. Ali acknowledged that Stevenson in his prime would have been a formidable opponent for any other reigning heavyweight champion or challenger.

Socialist Cuba discouraged professional sports and Stevenson stayed true to the revolution and retired as an amateur. Successive U.S. administrations have encouraged the trafficking of Cuban sportspersons. In early June, a plot was uncovered in the Dominican Republic to entice Cuban baseball players to enter the U.S. illegally. Baseball is Cubas national game. Sportsmen are urged to defect, leaving their families behind, and denounce the Cuban government. In 1999, as the coach of the Cuban boxing team, which was returning from an international tour, Stevenson head-butted a ticketing clerk at the Miami airport. He was arrested briefly and released on bail. On his return to Havana, he told the media that the incident happened in the course of a heated argument after the ticketing clerk started abusing Fidel Castro, who was then Cubas President. Stevenson refused to return to the U.S. for the court hearings in Miami.

No other amateur boxer shone so much in the history of that sport. He could have achieved another two Olympic titles had it not been for certain duties that the principles of internationalism imposed on the revolution. No money in the world would have been enough to bribe Stevenson, wrote Fidel Castro after hearing of his death. Cuba boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics for political reasons. Stevenson was to have participated in those Games and could have won yet another gold medal for his country. Stevenson announced his retirement from boxing in the same year.

August 2, 1980: Teofilo Stevenson goes to work on his Soviet opponent Pyotr Zaev to win the heavyweight bout at the Moscow Olympics.-AP

This author had the privilege of meeting the great boxer during a visit to Cuba in 1995. Stevenson at that time was actively engaged in training upcoming Cuban boxers at a special training facility outside Havana. Those were difficult days for Cuba. The socialist bloc had collapsed, leaving the country with few friends and in great economic difficulty. Despite the general belt-tightening that the Cuban people had to do in what was called the special period of the 1990s, sports were given a privileged place and people like Stevenson lent their considerable expertise to produce more champions. Stevenson was a towering physical presence (6 feet 5 inches) with a ready smile and a strong handshake. He thanked the Indian people for the solidarity they showed with Cuba in the trying times. In the early 1990s, solidarity with Cuba committees were set up all over the world.

At the time of his demise, Stevenson was the vice-president of the Cuban Boxing Federation. The federation had a big role in making Cuba a sporting superpower. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Cuba had figured among the top five countries in the gold medal tally. Cuban boxers and wrestlers invariably returned with a rich haul of medals.

The Cuban Boxing Federation has been training Indian boxers for many years now. In fact, the Indian Sports Ministry and the media are all praise of the Cuban coaches for the fine display Indian boxers have put up in recent international competitions, including the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. A village near Bhiwani in Haryana is called little Cuba because many of Indias boxing champions hail from there. As Fidel Castro said, Cuba has never stolen a single athlete from a single country in the world, and our teachers and trainers have worked with thousands of them, in many countries.

Felix Savon was among those who attended the boxing legends funeral. Before he was laid to rest, the coffin carrying the body was taken in a procession through the streets of Havana so that the people could pay homage. Among those who sent floral tributes were Fidel Castro, President Raul Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Teofilo belonged to Cuba and the world. Those who have not heard of Teofilo have not lived, said Savon.

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