Saturday 20 January 2018

Stevenson worth his weight in gold

Eamonn Sweeney

Sometimes they haunt you, those great unanswered sporting questions.

Would the Busby Babes have become the greatest club team of all time had it not been for the Munich air crash? Could The Tetrarch have become the greatest three-year-old of all time and Golden Cygnet the finest hurdler? Could Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards have tamed the West Indian pace attack in the '70s if South Africa hadn't been excluded from international cricket? Suppose Brian Clough had got the England job and Bob Paisley secured the single extra vote needed to give him the Irish one?

And how great would Teofilo Stevenson have been had he turned professional? This question is more often phrased as, would Teofilo Stevenson have beaten Muhammad Ali? But there's little doubt the great Cuban, who died of a heart attack last week, would have had Ali's number had he turned professional after winning his second Olympic heavyweight title in 1976.

After all, two years later Leon Spinks, who'd won the light-heavyweight title at the 1976 games, beat Ali. And Spinks was hardly fit to hold Stevenson's gumshield. When Stevenson was at his peak, Ali had passed his.

It's more interesting to wonder if Stevenson would have dominated professional boxing in the same way he did the amateur game where he's often described as the finest fighter ever. He's one of only three boxers, the other two being Hungarian middleweight Laszlo Papp and Stevenson's fellow Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon, to win three Olympic golds. He'd almost certainly have won a fourth had the Cubans not boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles, given that he'd already beaten eventual champ Tyrrell Biggs earlier that year.

Stevenson was imposing physically and hit tremendously hard, notably when stopping American gold medal favourite Duane Bobick in their 1972 Olympic quarter-final bout and demolishing his first three opponents at the '76 games, including future world pro champion John Tate, in just seven minutes and 12 seconds.

Yet he never did turn pro despite big money offers, commenting, "what is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me". An admirer of Fidel Castro, Stevenson, in the words of a famous Sports Illustrated headline, would 'rather be red than rich'. So we'll never know if he'd have carried the torch on from Ali. What we know is that at his peak the man was invincible.

Or was he? Because in March 1976, just four months before the Olympics where he gave his finest performances, Stevenson was knocked out by Soviet heavyweight Igor Vysotsky in Minsk. It was actually Vysotsky's second win over Stevenson as he'd outpointed him in Havana three years earlier. But a cut sustained in training meant Stevenson's nemesis missed out on the games. Had he gone . . . well, who knows?

Those might-have-beens. Always those might-have-beens.

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