Thursday 21 September 2017

Teofilo Stevenson

The greatest amateur boxer of all time, who won three Olympic gold medals but refused to turn pro and face Ali

Teofilo Stevenson, who died last Monday aged 60, was generally regarded as the finest amateur boxer of all time. A close friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro, he dominated the sport for 15 years, winning the Olympic heavyweight division at three successive Games, in Munich, Montreal and Moscow.

Indeed, Stevenson was possibly denied a fourth gold medal by Cuba's decision not to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

What makes the Cuban unique is that, during what is now viewed as a golden age in the heavyweight division, he turned down countless offers to turn professional (including a reputed $5m offer from promoter Don King), thus refusing what would have been hugely lucrative paydays against world professional champions Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Renowned for his gentlemanly conduct and sportsmanship both inside the ring and out, Stevenson -- who once famously helped a stricken opponent back to his corner having knocked him flat in the opening round -- elected to remain true to his president and the Cuban people.

"I don't believe in professionalism, only in revolution," he told one interviewer. "I tell these men from America, these promoters, that money means nothing to me. What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?" Sports Illustrated subsequently ran the headline: "He'd Rather Be Red Than Rich."

Universally known on the island by the nickname of 'Pirolo', Stevenson possessed a lethal right hand, excellent ringcraft and deft hand-and foot-work -- attributes that would have cemented his greatness within the professional ranks.

Yet although 'The Fight Of The Century' between Stevenson and Ali was mooted for almost a decade, the Cuban's passionate belief in his amateur status and undying loyalty to Castro ensured the showdown never happened. Instead he remained the figurehead for arguably the most fervent amateur boxing nation in the world.

Born into a poor background on March 29, 1952 in Las Tunas, eastern Cuba, Teofilo Stevenson first boxed at the age of 14. His father had boxed a little and Teofilo began to learn his craft in the gym where he had sparred. Within two years he won his first international title, in the Central American and Caribbean championship.

The Mexico Olympics of 1968 signalled Cuban boxing's global breakthrough, but it was not until four years later, at Munich, that Stevenson won the nation's first Olympic gold, having knocked out the heavily favoured American Duane Bobick at the quarter-final stage. Bobick had overcome future world champion Larry Holmes in the US Olympic trials -- and beaten Stevenson at the Pan American Games the previous year -- and was regarded as Olympic champion-in-waiting. Stevenson floored the American three times en route to a third-round triumph.

In the semi-final, Stevenson overwhelmed Germany's Peter Hussing, who subsequently revealed he had never been hit so hard in any of his previous 212 bouts. Stevenson's impact on the tournament was so great that when Russia's Ion Alexe -- his scheduled opponent in the final -- withdrew with a broken hand, some observers speculated he would not have turned up even if fit.

Four years later, and by now at his physical peak, Stevenson repeated the feat at the Montreal Games after disposing of his first three opponents -- including future world champion John Tate -- in a combined time of just seven minutes and 22 seconds. His opponent in the final, the Romanian Mircea Simeon, managed to survive only until the third round by back-pedalling frantically.

By the Moscow Olympics of 1980, Stevenson's aura of invincibility appeared to have slipped, with his acclaimed speed and power diminished. Nevertheless, in the final Stevenson took a 4-1 verdict over the Russian Pyotr Zaev to emulate Hungarian Lazlo Papp's feat of three gold medals. Twenty years later, Stevenson's compatriot, Felix Savon, repeated the feat by winning his third Olympic crown at Sydney.

As if to underline what might have happened at the Los Angeles Games of 1984, Stevenson visited the United States in 1986 to capture the world amateur crown in Nevada. He retired in 1988 after Cuba decided to sit out the Seoul Olympics as well.

Stevenson retained his interest in the sport and passed on his experience to young boxers. He served as an inspirational figure to the Cuban boxing team, which secured four gold medals and three silvers at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Latterly he had served as vice-president of Cuba's boxing federation.

Teofilo Stevenson, who suffered a heart attack, is survived by two children.

Sunday Independent

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