There is a football quote that says, ”the ball is not filled with air, but with money and fame.” This is like an unwritten rule for all professional sports. Capitalism and profit have infiltrated everywhere. In the history of sport, though, there are a few exceptions to the rule; and one of these we’ll discuss today.
These exceptions create another world, in which money is not everything. These exceptions are rare but then they occur, then they stand out. Such was the case of the Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson. He was never a pro. He refused to fight with Muhammad Ali for a million dollars and remained faithful to his beliefs and to his country; Cuba. He showed us that another way was possible!
A Reflection of Cuba’s revolution:
Before you go down Stevenson’s path, let’s see how the sport was viewed upon in Castro’s Cuba. An approach that has not changed much since its inception decades ago. During the revolution, the system of physical education was the epitome of equality and the image that the state wanted to present. The track record of Cuba at international level was a reflection of the success of the revolution in sports.
The increasing athletic strength due to a conversion to socialism. The Cuban government has followed the Soviet system of physical education and only changed parts of this approach where necessary. The former USSR discovered the value of sport as a political tool. Cuba directly incorporated this policy in their system and ideology.
The Cuban sports system stood up to the Soviet emphasis on centralized control. Targeted mass participation and the promotion of champions. For Cuba, successes worldwide were a power confirmation. In general, the revolutionary government wanted to show that the communist system can help a developing country escape from backwardness and shine its light through sport. Teofilo Stevenson fit perfectly into this framework.
Stevenson was born in 1952 in the provincial city of La Tunas, Cuba. As a child he was always energetic! In school, he was regarded as clever, but kept constantly seeking ways to upset others. He had boundless energy and this energy did not take long to find a route of diversion….the gym!
Like most champions in Cuba, Teofilo started to train in secret. Under the guidance of John Herrera. He was afraid that his parents would find out so when the time came to tell his parents……his father later told his biographer, “one day Teofilo came and whispered in my ear that he would go to La Tunas with Herrera, because he would debut in the middle weights. I said okay, as long as you also tell your mother so she may prepare your clothes! You tell her! He said! And turned and walked away! When I announced the news to Dolores, I was lucky that I was a boxer in the past, and knew how to avoid a punch. She was quite upset and said that’s my fault that her son wanted to become a boxer. But she agreed to let him go and compete as long as I accompanied our son!”
We went together and Teofilo was defeated by Luis Enrigez, and experienced boxer. It was a dignified defeat, and his father was relieved that Teofilo did not get beaten up too bad.
“I liked the way he fought that night,” said Herrera at the gym in which Teofilo had started his training. “You could see that he had something different” he adds. Herrera did a good job and paved the way for Teofilo. He fought a few more times for Herrera. Won the Juniors title in Eastern Cuba and went to Havana to progress even more in training. At 17 (1969) took part in the major league age group. He reached the final of the heavyweight against Gabriel Garcia. He lost, but this was not the issue. In the stands was the man who changed the fate of Stevenson. It was the Soviet Andrei Servorenko. At his own insistence, he had promoted Stevenson to the major league. Since then, his career took a rise. The 1970 he knocked out Nantsio Carilo. The fame and reputation began to grow.
The first gold
1972 is a landmark year for Stevenson. At the Olympic Games in Munich he led Cuba to a higher athletic level. Cuba had not won gold medal in the Olympics since Ramon Fonst 1904, in fencing. At the time, boxing seemed to be the best hope of Cuba. Enrique Figuerola had lost gold in 1964 at the 100m men’s race for a very short distance to America’s Bob Hayes.
Meanwhile, professional sport was banned in 1961 and the revolutionary government of Cuba was faithful to mass participation of potential athletes and improvement of sports facilities. The success of this policy would eventually prove itself at the Olympics. In 1968, two boxers, Enrique Regiferos and Ronaldo Garbi, in different categories, reached the finals and lost. In 1972 this would change.
For Stevenson, the year began with the national games in Santiago. In the final he knocked out his partner in training, Luis Valier. In his 20’s, until September he remained undefeated. It was during this month that his fame would skyrocket! Stevenson in the first round, sent Ludwig Dentri (a Polish 28 year old) down to the canvas. Ludwig could supposedly withstand strong blows but his body eventually wiped the canvas.
The heavy weight class, had till then been an All-American issue. In 1964 Joe Frazier won the gold and in 1968 so did George Foreman. According to the Cubans who were there, in Munich, they were longing to “steal” something which supposedly belonged to the USA. The Americans went to the games with Dwayne Bobik, known as the “Great White Hope”. Quarterfinals: The U.S. boxer was the favorite and for good reason. The previous year, 1971, had defeated a known and great Cuban fighter. The first round went to Stevenson. The second belonged to Bobik. In the third there was an outbreak. Lightning and thunder over Bobik which let him lying flat on the floor! The referee stopped the fight. All was finished. The road to a Cuban gold was paved!
At this point comes the biggest test for Stevenson. To keep true to his values and principles and his faith in what he believed. Faith in Castro’s revolution and opposition to capitalism and dollars. The millions beckoned him. The magazine «Sports Illustrated» on March 18, 1974 wrote about Stevenson and his refusal to accept a million dollars to become a professional fighter. The title read “prefers being Red rather than rich.”
In 1974, two years after Munich, promoters Bob Arum and Don King, approached Teofilo, individually. Their purpose was to persuade him to leave Cuba and become a professional fighter. Their first approach had occurred two years before in Munich. The offer came down to a million dollars, a huge amount at the time….if Teofilo was to fight against Muhammad Ali. NOTHING COULD BEND STEVENSON! His words were: “No. No, I will not leave my country for a million dollars or more. What is one million U.S. dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans? ”
The unanswered question
The question: Stevenson or Ali, would never be answered. It will not, however, cease to exist. We cannot say, because we have no knowledge who may have won but George Foreman in the ESPN article in June 2012, had said. “Stevenson was better than all of us and even though an amateur he spent his time in training like a professional. He had the best right hook of anybody I know in the history of amateur boxing. Too bad he was not professional. He would have most certainly lifted the title in the heavy weights. ”
In the same article, Bobby Cassidy Jr., the creator of the documentary «A Fighting Chance» which investigates Cuban boxing, also talks. Bobby says that Stevenson lived like a celebrity, under Cuban standards of course. He was the favorite athlete of Fidel Castro and ambassador of the athletic program and the revolution.
He loved a nation
To “paint” the final piece of Stevenson’s portrait Antonis Panoutsos, a former boxing referee said that he met Stevenson at the 2004 Olympics, which were covered by the Greek newspaper “To Vima”. He says: “We were with the Cuban mission to the hotel. It was night. At a point the Cubans reveal Stevenson! There were two steps to the roof and I helped him to climb them; discretely. For me he was the greatest boxer of all time! Polite, and never trying to deliberately harm his opponent; a true gentleman of the sport! Regarding the fight versus Ali, Mr. Antonis believes that if the fight would be held in 1975 Stevenson would have been the certain victor! ”
Teofilo Stevenson died on June 11, 2012 of a heart attack. He is referred to as one of the best boxers of all time. Maybe he could have beaten the great Ali. Whatever the casde he will always remain in our memories as the man who refused to be alienated just for money. Never got lured by the trinkets of capitalism and always remained faithful to his ideology and the nation he loved.
Enjoy one of Stevenson’s greatest comeback fights, in the World Amateur Championships 1986