Teofilo Stevenson, 1952-2012

 “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

This week the greatest amateur heavyweight to have ever laced a pair of gloves died, aged only 60. The phenomenal Cuban, Teofilo Stevenson, won consecutive Olympic gold medals in Munich 1972, Montreal ‘76 and Moscow 1980 and had Cuba not boycotted the LA Olympics in 1984 he almost certainly would have added a fourth title to this triptych. He was crowned world amateur champion in 1974, 1978 and 1986, Pan-American champion in 1975 and 1979 and was one of only three fighters to win three Olympic golds, alongside Laszlo Pap of Hungary and his fellow Cuban, the titanic Felix Savon. It is an extraordinary record.

Despite this remarkable feat, however, he is even more famous in his homeland for his refusal, aged 22 and possibly at the peak of his powers, to fight Muhammad Ali for an unconfirmed $5,000,000. Even in the face of rapacious advances from promoters Don King and Bob Arum. For that reason he is held up alongside Che Guevara and Fidel Castro himself as a post-revolutionary Cuban icon. It was this snub, to the USA, the CIA and all agents of capitalism, and delivered with the immortal line above, that has cemented his place in history. Both political and sporting. As a result he enjoyed the untainted adulation of an entire nation, and the global left, for the remainder of his life.

Whether or not he would, or could, have beaten Ali will remain the subject of barroom debate among boxing fans, from Havana to Honolulu, for many years to come. Tactically amateur and professional boxing are related by only the thinnest of bloodlines. But his death marks the passing of a preternatural  fighter, a giant of a man in every sense, and a unique political era.

Here is the Guardian obituary:

Boxing holds a special place in the hearts of Cubans, and after Fidel Castro banned professional sports in the early 1960s, the country quickly became a dominant power in the amateur rings. Their biggest star was the heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson, who has died after suffering from heart disease aged 60. Stevenson was the second boxer, after the Hungarian László Papp, and the first heavyweight, to become a three-time Olympic gold medallist. (His fellow Cuban heavyweight Félix Savón has since accomplished the same feat.)

Stevenson famously turned down a potential million-dollar payday for a fight against Muhammad Ali, which would have been billed as an epic confrontation between American democracy and Soviet-style communism. “What is a million dollars,” asked Stevenson, “compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” The match would have been intriguing; tall, handsome and formidable, with a seemingly unmarked face, Stevenson was the amateur Ali. But he was rarely tested by the three-round amateur bouts.

I was at the Montreal Forum in 1976 when Stevenson won his second Olympic gold medal. His opponent, the Romanian Mircea Simon, was respectful of Stevenson’s dominance and edged warily around the ring for two rounds, landing the occasional long-range jab, to the delight of his corner. In the third and final round, he tried to land a punch. Stevenson deployed a powerful right-handed counter, and SSimon’s corner threw the towel into the ring immediately.

Stevenson was born in Cuba’s eastern Las Tunas province. His father was an immigrant from Saint Vincent; his mother was a first-generation Cuban whose parents had come from Saint Kitts. Big for his age, and otherwise seemingly unfocused, he began sparring seriously at nine and by his early teens, coached by John Herrera, had won his first junior title.

Soon he was training in Havana under the Soviet coach Andrei Chervonenko, who began teaching him the style perfected in eastern Europe to take advantage of amateur scoring, which counted all punches landed equally. Combined with the more professional style he had already learned, Stevenson quickly established himself. He lost in the national finals at 17 and won bronze at the Pan American Games in 1971, after losing to the highly touted American Duane Bobick.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Stevenson and Bobick met in the quarter-finals, in what was probably the greatest fight of Stevenson’s career. The fight went into the decisive third round, and he won after putting Bobick down three times. Stevenson then easily won his semi-final, and he took the gold when Romania’s Ion Alexe withdrew due to injury. This began Stevenson’s unprecedented run of domination in the amateur ranks. He won the 1974 World Championships before a wildly partisan crowd in Havana and the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City before his Olympic victory in Montreal. These were heady times for Cuban sport – Stevenson and the athlete Alberto Juantorena were arguably the biggest stars of the 1976 Olympics.

Stevenson’s only losses during this time came in dual meets with the Soviets, in 1973 and 1976, to Igor Vysotsky, but he won further World, Pan American and Olympic titles, the latter achieved in Moscow in 1980. His streak ended at the 1982 World Championships, with a loss to Italy’s Francesco Damiani, but he would likely have won a fourth Olympic gold had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles; Stevenson had beaten Tyrell Biggs, who won the Olympic gold, in a Cuba-US dual meet before the Games.

Stevenson won the 1986 World title at super-heavyweight, but retired in 1988 after another Cuban boycott – this time of the Seoul Olympics – cost him another chance for a fourth gold. He ended his career with 302 wins and only 22 losses. Stevenson then lived in relative luxury in Havana. He became a coach with the national team, and rose to the vice-presidency of the national boxing federation. It was while travelling with the national team from a match against the US in 1999 that he was arrested at Miami airport, accused of headbutting an airline employee. Released on bail, he returned to Havana, and never faced trial, but said that he had been provoked by Cuban exiles in Miami, because he was an internationally successful Cuban sports figure.

In January this year, Stevenson was hospitalised with a blood clot. He was gladdened by the outpouring of support he received from around the globe – “even from Miami,” he said.

He is survived by two children.

• Teófilo Stevenson, boxer, born 29 March 1952; died 11 June 2012

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