Teófilo Stevenson, one of the greatest amateurs in boxing history, the winner of three Olympic gold medals for Cuba and a national hero who shunned the prospect of turning pro, possibly fighting Muhammad Ali and becoming rich in the United States, died on Monday in Havana. He was 60.
The cause was a heart attack, the government-run Radio Havana Cuba said.
Stevenson was a formidable heavyweight fighter, standing 6 feet 5 inches, weighing 220 pounds and wielding a powerful right hand. In the 1970s and early ’80s, when Cuba emerged as a power in international boxing, he dominated worldwide amateur boxing in its most prestigious division, winning three world amateur championships.
Stevenson won the heavyweight title at the 1972 Games in Munich, the 1976 Games in Montreal and the 1980 Games in Moscow, which were boycotted by the United States to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He became the first Olympic boxer to capture three gold medals in the same division. He won the last of his three world titles, at Reno, Nev., in 1986, when he was 34.
American boxing promoters could have profited hugely from a cold war-era matchup pitting Stevenson, the product of a Communist sports system, against Ali. There were reports that Stevenson
was offered millions to fight in the United States. But the Castro government banned Cuban athletes from competing professionally, so he would have had to defect to take on Ali.
“No, I will not leave my country for one million dollars or for much more than that,” Stevenson was quoted as saying by Sports Illustrated in 1974 in an article headlined “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich.”
“What is a million dollars,” he added, “against eight million Cubans who love me?”
Teófilo Stevenson was born on March 29, 1952, one of five children. Some news media reports said he was a native of Jamaica, but he said in a 2003 interview with The Chicago Tribune in Havana that he was born in the Cuban town of Puerto Padre. He grew up in Cuba and began boxing as a teenager at a gym where his father, who loaded sugar onto ships, sparred recreationally.
He became a Cuban junior champion, then began his long international reign when he won Olympic gold at Munich, fighting out of an upright style with an effective jab and his right hand cocked, waiting for an opening.
In the Munich quarterfinals Stevenson scored a technical knockout over Duane Bobick of the United States, who had beaten him at the 1971 Pan American Games. Bobick became a leading pro heavyweight. In the semifinals at Montreal, Stevenson knocked out John Tate, a future World Boxing Association heavyweight champion.
He scored knockouts or technical knockouts in nine of his Olympic bouts, won two others by a three-round decision and won the final in 1972 when his Romanian opponent defaulted because of an injury.
In 1980, Stevenson joined Laszlo Papp of Hungary as the second boxer to win gold at three separate Olympic Games. (Papp won as a middleweight and light middleweight in the 1940s and ’50s.) Felix Savon of Cuba, who idolized Stevenson while a young boxer, won three Olympic heavyweight titles from 1992 to 2000. Stevenson might have won a fourth Olympic gold if Cuba had not boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Stevenson retired in 1987. He had 301 victories in 321 bouts over a 20-year career, according to Radio Havana Cuba. He was later vice president of Cuba’s boxing federation and its national sports institute and lived in a suburb of Havana. His survivors include two children.
In October 1999, Stevenson, who was coaching a Cuban boxing team, was arrested at Miami International Airport while returning home after he had head-butted a ticket agent, the police said. He was released on bail and did not return to Miami for a hearing. Back in Cuba, he told a newspaper that he had accidentally butted the agent after dropping his ticket during a heated exchange in which the agent insulted Fidel Castro.
Stevenson, whose boxing career was subsidized by the Cuban government, remained loyal to Castro, but his motivation in deciding against turning pro in the United States by defecting may have been more nuanced than he let on at the time.
“I didn’t need the money because it was going to mess up my life,” he told The Tribune in 2003. “For professional boxers, the money is a trap. You make a lot of money, but how many boxers in history do we know that died poor? The money always goes into other people’s hands.”
Source: Richard Goldstein, NY Times Sports