As we countdown to Fury-Wilder II, behold Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson — a man who fought for more than himself
On 22 February in Las Vegas one of the most eagerly awaited heavyweight fights in many a year sees lineal world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury take on WBC champion Deontay Wilder in a rematch guaranteed to generate a vast amount of cash for both fighters — deservedly so given the nature of a sport that accounted for four ring fatalities in 2019.
However despite the self-evident risks involved in boxing the sport is currently enjoying a purple patch when it comes to its worldwide popularity and the huge revenues it is generating.
And such is the gargantuan amount of money the sport’s elite fighters are earning nowadays, especially at heavyweight, it’s incredible to ponder the life and career of a heavyweight who despite being offered the chance to enrich himself at the peak of an amateur career that’s never been matched, chose instead to turn the opportunity down with these immortal words: ‘What is one million dollars compared with the love of eight million Cubans?’
They were spoken by Cuban amateur heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, who died age 60 on 11 June 2012, in response to a lucrative multi-million-dollar offer to turn pro and fight Muhammad Ali after winning his second gold medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. They stand as testament to the character and worldview of a man who fought not for individual gain or riches but for the prestige of his country and people.
Today, let’s be honest, ‘legend’ is a word bandied around so often in sport that it’s almost been rendered devoid of any real meaning.
But when it comes to the life and career of Teofilo Stevenson, a man who dominated world amateur heavyweight boxing over a career which spanned 14 years, the word ‘legend’ is inarguably apt. Competing in three Olympic Games between 1972 and 1980, on each occasion Stevenson returned to Cuba with a gold medal, while his tally from the four World Championships he competed in was three golds and one silver. Interestingly, Stevenson is only one of three boxers to have achieved the remarkable feat of winning three Olympic golds, and one of the others is fellow Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon.
Making up the rest of Stevenson’s amateur medal tally were the two golds he won at the Pan American Games in 1975 and 1979, having previously picked up a bronze at the 1971 tournament, after losing to America’s Duane Bobick.
Born in 1952 and brought up in Cuba’s fourth largest city Camaguey, the son of immigrant parents, Teofilo’s destiny seemed all but mapped out. His father had been a boxer, fighting seven times before retiring in dismay at the corruption that was endemic in the sport during Cuba’s pre-revolutionary era. Teofilo was thus endowed with the physical attributes required to succeed in a sport of which he developed an early passion, making regular trips to the open air gym where his father had trained without his mother’s knowledge.
There he was taken under the wing of former Cuban light heavyweight champion John Herrera, who after matching him against a series of far more experienced opponents knew that he the potential to go far.
During the mid sixties, Stevenson development under Herrera progressed rapidly when he won a junior title and afterwards enjoyed a stint training in Havana, where came to the attention of Cuba’s newly created state sponsored boxing school. Headed then by former Soviet boxer Andrei Chervnevenko, the school marked the beginning of Cuba’s outstanding achievements in the sport of amateur boxing, earning Cuban boxing the world renowned status it continues to enjoy to the present today.
When the 20-year-old Teofilo stepped into the ring to mark his Olympic debut at the 1972 games in Munich Cuba hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal since 1904, and that was in fencing. By 1972 the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal was felt to be the property of the US almost as if by right. Joe Frazier had taken the gold at the 1964 games in Tokyo while George Foreman did likewise at the 1968 games in Mexico City. Ali’s gold medal at the 1960 games in Rome had come in the light heavyweight division.
The US heavyweight representative in Munich was the previously mentioned Duane Bobick. He was considered the favourite after taking the gold medal at the Pan-American Games in 1971, during which he’d handed the still developing Stevenson one of his rare defeats, and after defeating future heavyweight professional champion Larry Holmes to win the right to represent his country at the Games.
With Bobick and Stevenson drawn against one another in the third round, the stage was set for a rematch of their Pan American Games encounter the previous year. The fight lasted three rounds and was to be one of the most brutal of Stevenson’s career. In the first he took the fight to the American, catching Bobick with a left hook which sent him stumbling back against the ropes on the way to winning the round.
In the second Bobick came out determined to make amends. Fighting most of the round on the front foot, he managed to pin Stevenson back against the ropes, where he attacked him with body shots and hooks to the head. However, Stevenson’s strategy of allowing his opponent to punch himself out paid off, as by the end of the second Bobick had nothing left in the tank while Stevenson was still breathing normally.
It was in the third and final round that the Cuban handed his more prestigious American opponent a boxing lesson which he and those watching would not soon forget. Utilising a punishing array of jabs and overhand rights, Stevenson proceeded to punch Bobick all over the ring. Indeed such was his dominance in the third round of the fight that Harry Carpenter, commentating on the fight for the BBC, excitedly exclaimed, ‘The legend of Bobick (is) absolutely being destroyed here!’
The fight ended when the referee stepped in to stop what by now was one way traffic to earn Stevenson and Cuba a famous Olympic victory. Describing the Cuban’s emphatic victory in his book The Red Corner: A Journey Into Cuban Boxing, author John Duncan writes, ‘It was a beautiful moment for Cuban sport, one in which you could sense a whole century of inferiority complexes melting away.’
Predictably, Stevenson again swept all before him at the Montreal Olympics of 1976 to claim his second gold. Once again he faced an American opponent, this time in the shape of John Tate in the semi-final, and knocked him out in the first round.
The US team boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow in protest at the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, but there’s little doubt with his continuing dominance of the sport that Stevenson would still have claimed his third Olympic gold even if the US team had taken part. The Cuban was only robbed of a fourth gold medal when Cuba boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, along with the rest of the Communist Bloc countries, in retaliation for the prior US boycott of the Moscow games. However rather than bemoan another opportunity for glory, Stevenson announced his support for the boycott, describing it as an ‘act of solidarity.’
Teofilo Stevenson (pictured above with Ali) retired a sporting hero in Cuba in 1986, whereupon his maintained his involvement in the sport first as a national boxing coach and latterly as vice-president of the Cuban Boxing Federation.
In 1999, as coach of the Cuban national boxing team, while passing Miami International Airport on the way home with the Cuban team from an international tournament, Stevenson retaliated after he and the rest of the team were subjected to insults and verbal abuse from anti-Castro protesters. Stevenson was arrested, released on bail, and returned to Cuba. Thereafter he refused to return to Miami for the resulting court proceedings into the incident.
A bona fide boxing legend, Stevenson was a man of immense pride and dignity whose commitment to his country and people not only saw him turn down the opportunity to enrich himself but also inspired millions.
As none other than Malcolm X said: ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’
John’s upcoming book, This Boxing Game: A Journey in Beautiful Brutality, is now available to pre-order online from Pitch Publishing and all major booksellers.