Ariel B. Coya
ONCE, during his recovery from a
heart problem, Teófilo Stevenson asserted that in
life, as in boxing, champions don't retire, they
don't surrender and they never, ever, give up a
fight. Thus, when he died June 11, his name was
spoken everywhere, by everyone and memories of him
occupied our hearts and minds.
Many Cubans still vividly recall
comeback against the "Great White Hope"
They always will, because he was
among the greatest ever inside the ring, and a good
man beyond it, becoming one of the most outstanding
figures in the sport, never letting the glory blind
him. He was always a gentleman.
At just 17 years of age, he won the
admiration of all present when he took the silver
medal at the 1969 Playa Girón Tournament, which led
to his training with Ukrainian Andrei Chervonenko
and Alcides Sagarra. Success, however, did not come
overnight, as might be assumed.
It was after his defeat by U.S.
champion Duane Bobick in the Cali '71 Pan American
Games, that he emerged as the extraordinary boxer
who went on to win three Olympic titles, three World
Championships and innumerable heavyweight trophies,
with 302 victories in 321 fights over his career,
inspiring the International Olympic Committee to
include him on their list of the Top 10 athletes of
the 20th century.
In Munich ’72, he won all of his
fights with knock-outs and extra-officially became
Cuba’s first boxing champion, given that Romanian
Ion Alexe failed to appear. Stevenson came back to
avenge his loss to Bobick, "the Great White Hope,"
knocking him down three times during the third round,
which led Robert Surkein, leader of the U.S. Boxing
Federation, to say, "The Stevenson I saw defeat
Bobick was, at that time, better than Clay who won
the 81 kilos in Rome ’60; better than Frazier and
Foreman who won the next higher weight division in
Tokyo ’64 and Mexico ’68."
Stevenson's opponent in the
semifinals, German Peter Hussing, would later
comment that never before, in his 212 amateur fights,
had he been subjected to such punishment, "You don't
have time to see his right-hand punch and when you
do, it's because it’s hitting your chin."
His style and the power of his
punches were so devastating that Enmanuel Steward
said of Teo, "He is the most perfectly balanced
fighter I have ever seen."
It wasn't long before his virtues
attracted professional boxing agents who were
salivating to promote what was being called the
Fight of the Century, between Stevenson and Muhammad
"He would be phenomenal as a
professional", said an ecstatic Don King. While
Muhammad Ali's manager, Angelo Dundee, offered, "Everyone
wanted Teófilo. I was never after him, I had the
champion. I had Ali. I had the individual who was
going to beat him. You see? But everyone wanted
Teófilo, and I'm saying everyone. They were going to
give him a million dollars. And a million dollars
was a lot of money back then."
Stevenson responded to these offers,
reaffirming his Cuban identity with that famous
comeback, "I prefer the affection of eight million
Cubans. I wouldn't exchange a piece of Cuba for any
amount of money you could offer me."
Thus, the much anticipated fight
never happened, for many reasons, although
Teófilo, with his usual modesty said,
"Ali has said many times that the fight would have
been a tie and I think so, too."
Retired since 1988, he never strayed
far from the ring, returning for those fierce bouts
with Pinar del Río’s Angel Milián which unleashed
public euphoria. Just last week, during the Córdova
Cardín Tournament, he was seen smiling, having a
great time, always true to his passion for boxing.
There are men who never die because
they live on in the collective conscience of others,
of peoples. His great accomplishments, his countless
virtues, make Stevenson one of these.