Teofilo Stevenson: Hero of the revolution

News from Cuba | Tuesday, 12 June 2012

from the Morning Star

BOXING OBITUARY: Teofilo Stevenson, three-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion and three-time World Amateur Heavyweight boxing champion, sadly passed away on Monday of a heart attack.

Given the huge impact the Cuban heavyweight made not just in the world of amateur and Olympic boxing throughout the 1970s, it is hard to believe that he was just 60 years old when he died.

This impact is all the more powerful given the circus antics and decline of heavyweight boxing today.

For not only was Stevenson a superb boxer and athlete, he was also a great man devoted to the Cuban revolution and Cuban people to such an extent that he rejected the opportunity to turn professional after the 1976 Montreal Olympics and fight Muhammad Ali for a million dollars.

In turning down the offer, Stevenson said: "What is one million dollars compared with the love of eight million Cubans?"

The pride implicit in this simple sentence, not to mention rejection of personal riches, stands as a testament to what the revolution meant to millions of men and women who, like Stevenson, would otherwise have suffered the same exploitation and indignities which previous generations of Cubans suffered under US economic and political domination.

He was born in 1952 and brought up in Cuba's fourth-largest city Camaguey, the son of immigrant parents.

His father had been a boxer, fighting seven times before retiring in dismay at the corruption that was endemic in the sport in its pre-revolutionary era, and he endowed his son with the physical attributes required to take up the sport himself. Indeed, it wasn't long before a young Teofilo was making regular trips to the open-air gym where his father had trained, though without his mother's knowledge.

There he was taken under the wing of former Cuban light heavyweight champion John Herrera who, after matching him against a series of far more experienced opponents, knew that the young Teofilo had the potential to go far.

The young Cuban's development under Herrera progressed rapidly after winning a junior title and then coming to the attention of Cuba's newly created state-sponsored boxing school during a stint spent training in Havana.

Headed by former Soviet boxer Andrei Chervnevenko, the school would mark the beginning of Cuba's outstanding achievements in the sport, earning Cuban boxing the world-renowned status it has enjoyed up to the present day.

The turnaround in fortunes for Cuban sport as a result of its boxing programme is obvious when you consider that when the 20-year-old Teofilo stepped into the ring to mark his Olympic debut at the 1972 games in Munich, Cuba hadn't won an Olympic gold medal since 1904, and that had been in fencing.

By 1972 the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal was felt by the US to be their property as if by right. Joe Frazier had taken the gold at the 1964 games in Tokyo, while George Foreman did likewise at the 1968 games in Mexico City (Ali's gold medal at the 1960 games in Rome came in the light heavyweight division).

The US heavyweight at the Munich Games was Duane Bobick, considered the favourite after taking the gold medal at the Pan-American Games in 1971, during which he had handed the still developing Stevenson a rare defeat.

The stage was set for a rematch when they were drawn in the third round of the Munich Olympics a year later. At 6'3" tall and weighing in at 215lbs, Bobick was every bit as physically impressive as his Cuban opponent.

Known as a hard puncher, he had arrived at the Olympics having defeated future heavyweight professional champion Larry Holmes to win the right to do so as US amateur champion. Given his prior victories over Teofilo and Holmes, Bobick was expected to return home with yet another heavyweight boxing gold for the US.

The fight lasted three rounds, during which Stevenson handed his more prestigious opponent a boxing lesson that both he and the world watching would not forget. In fact, such was his dominance that Harry Carpenter, commentating on the fight for the BBC, excitedly exclaimed: "The legend of Bobick (is) absolutely being destroyed here!"

Describing the Cuban's emphatic victory over his US opponent in his book The Red Corner - A Journey Into Cuban Boxing in words that could also be a metaphor for the Cuban revolution itself, the author John Duncan writes: "It was a beautiful moment for Cuban sport, one in which you could sense a whole century of inferiority complexes melting away."

Predictably, Stevenson swept all before him at the Montreal Olympics of 1976 to claim his second gold medal. Once again he faced a US opponent, this time in the shape of John Tate in the semi-final, knocking him out in the first round.

The US team boycotted the 1980 games in Moscow in protest at the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, but there's little doubt that Stevenson would still have claimed his third Olympic gold even if the US team had taken part.

In his later years, Stevenson maintained his passion for boxing in his role as vice-president of the Cuban Boxing Federation.

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