If there was one athlete in San Juan who stopped hearts merely by appearing somewhere, it was Cuba's peerless heavyweight boxer, Teofilo Stevenson. At 6'5", 220 pounds and crafted of too-large and too-perfect parts, he silenced an enormous crowd when he carried the huge Cuban flag standard like a Popsicle stick during the Games' opening ceremonies. He had the same effect two weeks later when he ended the boxing tournament with a left hook, followed by a looping right to the chin of Puerto Rico's Narciso Maldonado at 2:18 of the first round. To win the gold medal, Stevenson fought only twice for a grand total of three minutes, 57 seconds.
The world still waits for someone to end the seven-year reign of this 27-year-old, who might well be Muhammad Ali's successor if he were a pro. But as the proud Cuban says, "If you are a professional, you are not an athlete."
The giant killer will have to be someone other than 18-year-old Rufus (Bubba) Hadley, the Marine corporal from Camp Lejeune, N.C., who said before his semifinal bout with Stevenson, "He's just another man, and I don't know any reason why I should fear another man." Reason one: few have ever gone the full three rounds against Stevenson. Reason two: the second time Stevenson threw that right hand at Bubba, Bubba bounced off the canvas. Only 1:39 of the first round had elapsed.
The American who might do the impossible next year in Moscow, should he be inclined to try, is 21-year-old Tony Tucker, who fought as a light heavyweight in San Juan and led a team of young American boxers to six wins in 10 confrontations with the talented and experienced Cubans. It was a startling performance, considering that all five American gold medalists from Montreal—Howard Davis, Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers and Leo Randolph—had turned pro. The Cubans brought to San Juan a team that had six Montreal Olympic medalists, and five gold and three silver medalists from the 1978 world championships in Belgrade. By contrast, the best the U.S. boxers could come up with in Belgrade were two bronzes. Thus new fighters surfaced in San Juan. Tucker, Bernard Taylor, Lemuel Steeples and Jackie Beard are the ones to watch in Moscow.
July 22, 1979
That only four of the six Americans who beat Cubans ultimately climbed the highest step of the victory stand to receive gold medals points out the folly of the Pan-Am Games' random draw system. Just one U.S.-Cuba bout occurred in a final. "It's time we used seeding, at least for the top four," said Colonel Don Hull, president of the International Amateur Boxing Association, after America's lone defending Pan-Am gold medalist, lightweight Davey Armstrong, was outpointed by Cuban world champion Adolfo Horta in a first-round bout.
All told, the Cubans—the four who beat Americans plus lightweight Andres Aldama, who never faced one—won five gold medals to America's four (Puerto Rico got the other two). The astonishing U.S. performance in San Juan was largely a result of the efforts of Coach Pat Nappi. Working at the new Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the boxers learned to help each other. "We eat together, run together, hang together," said featherweight gold medalist Bernard Taylor. In the days before the competition began, Nappi would get his boxers up for roadwork at 5:30 a.m. Running in the steamy heat, they would sing a song they made up: "We're not number five, not number four, or three, or two. We're number one, hey, hey, hey."
The No. 1 American, Tucker, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich., took a 4-1 decision over Cuban world champion Sixto Soria in the quarterfinals before eventually decisioning Puerto Rico's Dennis Jackson for the gold. "He's the best amateur fighter I've seen in years," said veteran trainer Gil Clancy. Tucker expects to remain a light heavyweight for the 1980 Olympics, but at 6'4", with a massive chest and quick, strong hands, eventually he will be a heavyweight. "I've been growing straight up," he says. "I haven't filled out yet." When he does, Clancy feels he could be the heavyweight champion. That may depend on whether Tucker can handle 18-year-old Marvis Frazier, whose father, Joe, kept him out of the Pan-Am Games and thus away from Stevenson's right hand. "I wouldn't be surprised to see Frazier win the heavyweight gold in 1980," says Clancy.
Taylor, 22, the featherweight who works as a TV cameraman in Charlotte, N.C., also beat a Cuban world champion, Angel Herrera, in the quarters, then went on to outpoint Naudi Pi‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ero of Venezuela in the final. "I'm an outside boxer. I like to feint, like Ali," Taylor says. "I don't like to slug or get hit, I don't like to get my face all busted up."
Steeples, 23, the light-welterweight champion from St. Louis, beat Jose Aguilar of Cuba in the semis. Aguilar had won his two previous fights with first-round knockouts, so Steeples wasn't sure how to attack him. Steeples confused the Cuban by constantly changing direction. In the second round Aguilar slipped when Steeples dodged a wicked right, after which Steeples boxed beautifully—bouncing, dancing and circling. Steeples then had no trouble handling Argentina's Hugo Hernandez in the final.
Beard, 17, a fireplug of a bantamweight who works as a probation officer in Jackson, Tenn., met Cuba's Hector Lazaro, three inches taller at 5'7", in the semis, and readily outpointed him. Beard cut the Cuban's left eye in the second round, and puzzled him by switching his lead from left to right. "I'm a righthander," he said. "But all of a sudden I'll change to southpaw and that messes up the other guy's fight." Beard's final bout, with Puerto Rico's Luis Pizarro, was, he says, "the easiest of the four."
Either of the other U.S. finalists could have added more gold to the haul. Light flyweight Richard Sandoval, 18, of Pomona, Calif., lost a hotly disputed decision to Cuba's Hector Ramirez, and James Shuler, 20, of Philadelphia, had his bout with Puerto Rico's Jose Molina stopped in the second round when he suffered a severely cut right eye.
Disappointments to be sure, but ones that may be reversed in Moscow.