As expected, Teofilo Stevenson won his third consecutive Olympic Games heavyweight championship last Saturday and thereby became the first boxer ever to receive three gold medals in the same weight division. But in four tedious bouts, two of which actually went the full three-round distance, the dour Cuban expended about as much energy as the ordinary Free World prizefighter does in conversation with Howard Cosell. And if Stevenson established anything, it is that his own once-formidable gifts are on the decline. Either that or he is simply bored with the bum-of-the-month quadrennial campaign his amateur status has imposed on him.
Stevenson, who is 29 now, proved he can still hit with his right hand, but he employed it so infrequently against his cowering opponents that he might as well have left it in Havana. And he proved incapable of adapting his basically orthodox upright style to the turtle-in-distress tactics confronting him in Moscow. Henry Cooper, the old British champion, working the Games as a color man for BBC radio, found the bouts deplorable. "This is the worst collection of heavyweights I've seen in any tournament in my life," said Our 'Enry after Stevenson's waltz in the semifinals with Istvan Levai of Hungary.
Stevenson has said, "For me, three rounds is enough. I take them out in that time." And he has in the past, with eight knockouts in eight Olympic bouts. But three rounds wasn't enough for him in Moscow, where he fought three as if he intended to go 15, pawing at the various poltroons opposite him with a languid left jab, searching for openings that seldom occurred, biding his time until there was none left. The fierce Soviet fans responded with whistling derision.
It was unfortunate that Stevenson's bouts were so desultory, because the other Cuban fighters put on a lively show, accumulating an Olympic-record 10 medals—six gold, two silver and two bronze. The Cubans, whose aggressiveness and showmanship seemed to irritate the fans as much as Stevenson's torpor, completely dominated the favored Soviets, winning four of five bouts against them in the finals.
The only gold medal not won by Cuba or an Eastern Bloc country went to Italy's light-welterweight Patrizio Oliva, who defeated the Soviet Union's Serik Knoakbaev in a hit-and-hold fight. He fell to his knees in gratitude when the decision was announced. He had good reason to give thanks, for unlike the Cuban and Soviet winners, Oliva knew that his gold could be converted into cash.
Stevenson steadfastly holds that he will never become a capitalist boxer and, considering what happened in Moscow, it's just as well. In his first fight of the Games he dispatched Solomon Ataga, a balding 32-year-old Nigerian, in the first round with the one really good right hand he threw in two weeks. Grzegorz Skrzecz, a 198-pound Pole, was next. Skrzecz was considered a challenger for the gold, and he had looked aggressive enough in knocking out William Isangura of Tanzania in his first fight, but against Stevenson he retreated into a shell, chancing scarcely a blow. Stevenson pawed him in the first round, then clubbed him into two standing eight-counts in the second. The fight was stopped with the Pole on the ropes with 48 seconds remaining in the last round.
Levai, the Hungarian, had polished off Sweden's Anders Eklund, supposedly another prime challenger, in his first fight. Significantly, he is coached by Laszlo Papp, the only other fighter to win three Olympic gold medals, in 1948 and '52 as a middleweight and in '56 as a light-middle. But even Papp's distinguished presence was no help to Levai, who made the timid Skrzecz seem like a Marciano. The champion was content to dance with Levai for three rounds. By the middle of the third round, as the pas de deux continued, the crowd was whistling like a freight train. It was the first time in 10 Olympic bouts that anyone had gone the distance with Stevenson.
Stevenson's opponent for the gold was more hostile, but at 5'10½" and 191 pounds to 6'6", 220, the U.S.S.R.'s Pyotr Zaev could scarcely reach the handsome face above him, let alone damage it. Zaev's most distinguishing feature, aside from his squat physique, is a nose that, like de Bergerac's, precedes him by a quarter of an hour. Stevenson popped away at this protuberance with his left hand, finding it as difficult to punch down at Zaev as it was for Zaev to punch up at him. But Zaev at least tried to mix it up, and once when he did, in the last round, Stevenson found him with a right uppercut that nearly ended the literally uneven fight. But Zaev recovered and, like the prudent Levai, he made it through to the end. And he, like Levai, made some history: one of the five judges, Marvin Caldera Lacayo of Nicaragua, voted him the winner, and no one in any Olympics before had cast a vote against Stevenson.
Stevenson's reputation has been built in part on his knockouts of Duane Bobick and John Tate in the two previous Olympics, victories that recent events have made less consequential. Certainly he did nothing in these latest Games to enhance that reputation. If anything, he did as much as Bobick and Tate have done to diminish it. Too bad. He might once have been a real champion.