Thursday, 14 June 2012

Cuba mourns revolutionary boxing hero

Muhammad Ali with Teofilo Stevenson
Teófilo Stevenson – the Cuban boxing legend who chose the love of his people over a lucrative professional contract in the United States – died this week at the age of 60. Reporting his death, state newspaper Juventud Rebelde said Cuban sport had lost "one of its greatest exponents ". After rejecting the lure of the Yankee dollar in 1974, his death also means the Cuban Revolution has lost one of its greatest exponents. 

Teófilo was a product of the revolution as it eradicated the elitism of professional boxing and replaced it with a universal system based on mass participation. His father Teófilo Stevenson Patterson – an immigrant worker from Saint Vincent – fought seven professional bouts prior to the revolution but became disillusioned with the corrupt payment structure and insidious gangsterism of professional sport. As Teófilo Junior later remarked to one journalist, “I don’t believe in professionalism, only in revolution”.

He fought his first bout at the age of 14 and went on to win gold medals as a heavyweight in three consecutive Olympic Games – Munich in 1972, Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980 – as he emulated the Hungarian Laszlo Papp’s feat of winning a trio of Olympic gold medals.

Widely considered the greatest amateur boxer of all time, he missed out on the chance to supplement his medal tally when Cuba boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Teófilo had beaten Tyrell Biggs – Olympic Champion in Los Angeles – in a Cuba-US dual meet on the eve of the games. He retired shortly after Cuba boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

In a game awash with generous sponsorship deals and professional contracts, Teófilo remained loyal to the Cuban people. At the height of his dominance, American fight promoter Don King offered him $5m to challenge world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. He refused the offer, asking famously, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Sports Illustrated later ran the headline: “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich.”

As the Guardian’s boxing correspondent Kevin Mitchell wrote:
Had he gone, he might well have won. Ali was in the fading days of his brilliant career and Stevenson, at 22, had just won the first of the three Olympic gold medals that would secure his place in boxing history, with a murderous right hand and exquisite ring skills. For a big man, he moved with the grace that Ali had once owned. Although there were clear differences between the skills of the three-round amateur sport and the longer version of professional boxing, the call on who would have prevailed ultimately was irrelevant; Stevenson's real victory arrived in a single sentence.
According to Mitchell, the eloquent declaration – which has become an iconic maxim for the left – “was so devastating … to the many and various enemies of Cuba's socialist ideal: the CIA, the US government and all the agents of capitalism who saw in the unkillable struggle of a minor paradise off their shores a threat to their hegemony and values.”

As commercial sporting deals continue to balloon – contrary to the direction of worldwide economic recession – the loyalty and passion which defined Teófilo is becoming evermore rare. But Teófilo’s integrity was not just reserved for outside the ring. He was renowned for his sportsmanship within the boxing arena and – after flattening an opponent in the first round – he famously helped him back to his corner.

After Fidel Castro, Teófilo Stevenson became the most recognisable Cuban on the planet. His unstinting support for the revolution and sporting excellence was an inspiration to a whole nation. Following Olympic victories in 1992, 1996 and 2000, his compatriot Felix Savon recreated his triple medal haul. Like his boxing mentor, Savon rejected Don King’s multi-million dollar advances to turn professional and fight Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. 

Following his retirement, Teófilo was named coach of Cuba’s amateur boxing program as he sought to impart his experience to the next generation of Cuban boxers. He was figurehead of the masterful boxing team which secured four golds and three silvers at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “I talk to the boxers, inspire them and remind them what they are fighting for,” he explained.

Teofilo may be gone, but he will remain an inspiration for generations.

No comments:

Post a Comment