King of Cuba: Teófilo Stevenson

Robert Cassidy reminisces about Teófilo Stevenson in this article for Boxing.com. Follow the link below for a series of very interesting videos chronicling the life of Stevenson.

He was 56 years old when I met him and he was still majestic. He came out of a back room shirtless, wearing white linen pants and white sneakers…

It had been 26 years since Teófilo Stevenson had last landed a punch in an international competition. It had been 32 years since he won his last Olympic gold medal. Yet, at the time of his death on June 11, he was the most popular athlete in Cuba.

Why?

Because he stayed.

The numbers for Stevenson are daunting. He won three Olympic gold medals, three world amateur championships and two Pan American gold medals. According to most sources, he compiled 302 wins against only 16 losses.

The most important number for Stevenson, though, was 10 million Cubans.

The quote has been recited many times in many different ways. It became his standard answer to the many promoters and agents who attempted to lure him off the island for a career in professional boxing.

“I would rather have the love of 10 million Cubans, than your 10 million dollars.”

To some in Cuba, loyalty still outranks the left hook.

But that number is dwindling. For more than a decade, professional baseball and boxing has benefitted from the exodus of Cuban athletes fleeing the Communist island with the idea of competing for money and not medals. None of them—Joel Casamayor, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Guillermo Rigondeaux—had a greater temptation than Stevenson. Awaiting the Cuban heavyweight had he chosen to leave was the biggest name in sports—Muhammad Ali.

Stevenson didn’t want it. He didn’t need our money in his bank account or our stamp of approval on his career. I once asked Eliseo Castillo, a Cuban heavyweight who defected to the U.S., why he thought Stevenson stayed home.

“He’s like a king,” said Castillo. “Why would a king leave his country?”

Indeed, Stevenson was a king. He very well might have been the world’s most recognizable Cuban after Fidel Castro. He was the first athlete to become a star after Castro’s revolution and El Jefe never forgot it. He took care of Stevenson, the only way athletes get taken care of in Cuba—a home, a car, a no-show job. Up until his death by heart attack at the age of 60, Stevenson remained the face of the country’s sports machine.

Stevenson lived the life of a celebrity, as much as one could live that life in Cuba. People constantly waved at him or honked their horns. If he went to a baseball game, the crowds turned their attention to him. Just think of Ali walking down a busy street in Manhattan or entering Yankee Stadium. Same reaction. But, unlike here, there is no way to monetize that fame in Cuba. So Teófilo did so the only way he could, bartering with tourists or journalists. Autographs and interviews went for a certain dollar amount. Sometimes all it took was a bottle of rum or a nice dinner for his family.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union—Castro’s primary source of financial support—Cuba’s economy has steadily waned. Couple that with the United States’ 49-year trade embargo and times are particularly dire on the island. Thus, the increase in Cuban athletes defecting.

In February 2008, I traveled to Havana with producer Fred Rosenberg to work on a documentary on Cuban boxers called, “A Fighting Chance.” We spent an afternoon interviewing esteemed sportswriter, Sigfredo Barros, who writes a column for the state-run newspaper, GRANMA.

Barros is exceedingly pleasant and knowledgeable of sports on both sides of the Florida Straits. “I love Alex Rodriguez,” he opens the conversation with. “But $25-million a year? $25-million? That’s too much.”

After discussing baseball a bit more—which he described as a religion in Cuba—I asked him who he thought was Cuba’s greatest boxer of all time?

“There was Kid Gavilan, Kid Tunero,” said Barros. “But I believe the best boxer in Cuban history is Kid Chocolate. I have read about him. I have seen films. The Ring magazine said he was the best fighter in his weight class in the history of boxing. His movements were like a black panther. He was sleek, he was elegant.”

And what about the greatest fighter he had ever covered?

“With all due respect to Mr. Felix Savon, for me, it’s Teófilo Stevenson,” he said. “I never saw a combination of velocity, style and power as Stevenson.”

Stevenson’s victory over American Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympics was a defining moment for the Cuban sports machine.

“It was not just because Duane Bobick was an American,” said Barros. “But Bobick defeated Stevenson in the Pan Am Games. When he arrived in Munich and said he could beat Stevenson again, all Cubans, said, ‘Ok.’ So we waited for the fight and Teófilo Stevenson destroyed Duane Bobick. All of Cuba was excited. Teófilo Stevenson became a national hero. He’s tall, he’s elegant. He speaks with everybody. He’s a normal person. He speaks with me, he speaks with you. He’s very popular.”

We were about to find out if he would actually speak to me. The next morning, a translator for the film placed a call to Stevenson’s home—via payphone. The arrangements were settled during a brief conversation. By late afternoon, we were sitting in his living room. Do you think we could have gotten into Ali’s living room that quickly?

At the time, Stevenson lived in Vedado, a suburb of Havana near the water. His house was nice by Cuban standards, modest by American. The property was gated and the fence, chain-locked. Upon arrival, we were greeted at the gate by his wife, Fraymaris, who took us into the living room and offered refreshments. We met Stevenson’s young son David as we waited for the champion to make his entrance. There were several fight pictures of Stevenson on the walls of the living room.

It was a 10-minute wait before Stevenson emerged. He was 56 years old when I met him and he was still majestic. He came out of a back room shirtless, wearing white linen pants and white sneakers. At 6-5, his waist was thin and he appeared to be close to his fighting weight of 220 pounds. He put on a matching linen shirt and greeted us. He posed for pictures with Fred and then took me into his den where there was a collage of his knockout of Bobick centered on the wall. He was looking for a highlight reel of his fights but explained that he lent it to a friend and had yet to get it back.

We turned on the camera and began speaking with Stevenson about boxing. After a few moments, Stevenson cut the interview short. Our translator explained that, with the advent of YouTube and other social media sites, people had been posting unflattering videos of Stevenson and he could no longer afford to embarrass the country, no less himself.

Still, the evening remained amicable. And although there were steady reports of his excessive drinking, it was not evident during our visit. At the time, Castro allowed people to expand their homes and serve food to tourists. It was a way to make extra money in addition to the government stipend that every Cuban receives. They are called palladors and the one Stevenson took us to was exquisite. It was lit primarily with candles, had six tables, a bar and a private room for a small party. It was the only place that I saw on the island that served Coca Cola.

At dinner I suggested that Stevenson would have won a fourth gold medal in 1984 had Cuba not boycotted the Los Angeles games.

“Seoul too,” he said, in English, referring to the next Olympics and that he would have won a fifth gold.

I ask him why he doesn’t train fighters. “I spent enough time in gyms,” he said, this time using a translator.

Like most restaurants in Cuba, there was live music. Fred summoned the band and requested the famous Latino ballad, “Besame Mucho” (Kiss Me Much.) Stevenson was singing it to his wife, and she, with her hands clasped over her heart, was singing right back at him. Fred was sitting between them, singing along and rocking side to side. It was the most surreal moment of the trip.

Stevenson was boxing royalty and on this night, he acted the part. Like a lot of famous athletes, he seemed restless, like his motor was always running. He would get up from the table and talk to people at another table and then come back. He was flirty with the waitress and once he came back to our table holding a small child. He and his wife fawned over the baby. He drank with dinner but not excessively.

As we arrived back at his house, Stevenson had his arm draped around Fred’s shoulder and told him in English, “You have a home right here if you ever come back to Cuba.” He looked north and said, “Why can’t we all get along?” He then shook his head, “Ah. Bush!”

We posed for more pictures. We learned that he thinks the greatest heavyweight of all time was Joe Louis. I asked him about a favorite of mine, his former teammate, Rolando Garbey, a junior middleweight who won a silver medal in 1968 and bronze in 1976.

“He’s doing great,” said Stevenson. “He lives nearby and he is a coach on the national team.”

It was an Olympic year in 2008, so I asked how Cuba would do, despite all the recent defections.

“We have gone through this process before,” Stevenson said, proud to toe the party line. “Each time we have excelled. I have confidence that we will be successful. I expect great results.”

At the time, Stevenson was an official with the Cuban Boxing Federation, but served more as a goodwill ambassador.

I asked, is there another Teófilo Stevenson on the current Cuban team?

“Every fighter we send to Beijing is capable of winning a gold medal,” he said.

I try again, wondering if he sees another Stevenson on the horizon.

He smiles at the question but doesn’t answer.

It dawned on me now, that it was a dumb question. There will never be another Teófilo Stevenson.

For the original report go to http://www.boxing.com/king_of_cuba_Teófilo_stevenson.html

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