For the better part of a decade fight promoters in the U.S.
vainly beseeched him to defect and take on the likes of Muhammad
Ali and Joe Frazier in bouts worth countless millions. But the
only gold Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson seemingly cared
about was Olympic gold, and he won more than his share of that.
In fact, because he refused to turn professional and leave his
homeland, he became the only three-time heavyweight boxing gold
medalist in Olympic history. And in the process he left
avaricious promoters Don King and Bob Arum moaning in despair
over what might have been.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 1996 issue
"But what is a million dollars against the love of eight million
Cubans?" Stevenson asked, hewing to Cuban president Fidel
Castro's Communist party line.
Stevenson first tantalized the boxing crowd at the 1972 Munich
Games, when, at 20, he KO'd three straight opponents, including
future American professional Duane Bobick, while fighting,
Stevenson later revealed, with a fractured right hand. At the
Montreal Games four years later, he KO'd four more fighters,
including American John Tate, to win his second gold. By then
fight fans worldwide were apoplectic, for Stevenson had all the
requisite gifts--size (6'3", 220), hand and foot speed, and a
gorgeous righthand knockout punch. And with his finely chiseled
features and rippling physique, he was even more handsome than
"He's the most perfectly balanced fighter I ever saw," said
veteran U.S. trainer Emanuel Steward.
"He'd be phenomenal as a pro," said an enraptured King. "In a
class with Ali and Frazier."
Only Ali seemed to entertain doubts, dismissing Stevenson as "a
good amateur, a three-round fighter. If he's offered $2 million
and he don't take it, he's a damn fool."
King and Arum were both willing to pay that much--and more.
Stevenson serenely ignored them, content apparently to accept
the more modest rewards of his government: two-story houses in
both Havana and his hometown of Delicias and two Soviet-made
automobiles. He was also, of course, a national hero, a Cuban
who could lick the world, even if it was only an amateur world.
All this seemed enough for a man born into poverty--his father,
an immigrant to Cuba from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent,
worked in a sugar mill in Delicias--and with few expectations in
life beyond what his iron fists could bring him.
Stevenson had so little competition at the 1980 Moscow Games,
partly because of the U.S. boycott, that he seemed profoundly
bored by the experience. He KO'd his first two opponents, but
then, after nine straight Olympic knockouts, was obliged to go
the three-round distance against the last two--a cowering
Hungarian, Istvan Levai, and a runtish Soviet, Pyotr Zaev. The
Moscow fans whistled in derision as Stevenson strode, unmarked,
scarcely even perspiring, from the ring as a three-time
champion. There was also the suspicion that, approaching 30, his
once formidable talent was in decline. (The gold medal
heavyweight bout will be held tonight at Alexander Memorial
Stevenson never had a chance for a fourth gold because Cuba
joined the Soviets in boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games. He
might not have won, anyway, for he had failed even to make the
national team for the 1983 Pan American Games, and his best
years were well behind him. Also he was besieged with personal
problems--the death of his father, a marriage that ended in
divorce and an auto accident that killed a motorcyclist. In July
1988 Stevenson, at 36, retired from the ring, leaving unanswered
the question of just how good he might have been.
Stevenson had no regrets, though. He became a boxing advisor for
Cuba's National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and
Recreation. "So there are world champions who earn a lot of
money," he told the Washington Post a year after his retirement,
"but they don't know how to sign their names. They are not
useful to their society. They are in the same condition they
began--without a penny. And they are even worse because they
have burnt all their youth."
Maybe he was right all along.