Mr. Stevenson dominated international amateur boxing throughout the 1970s and 1980s and won gold medals as a heavyweight in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games. He is widely considered the greatest amateur boxer in history — and the finest heavyweight who never fought in the professional ranks.
Tall and elegant, with lightning-quick punches, Mr. Stevenson was often compared to Muhammad Ali. There were attempts to have the two face each other in the ring, but Mr. Stevenson resisted all offers, turning down a reported $5 million to stay true to the Cuban credo of amateurism.
“I will not leave my country for one million dollars or for much more than that,” he said in 1974. “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?”
At the Munich Olympics in 1972, Mr. Stevenson won Cuba’s first gold medal in boxing. In an early round of the competition, he avenged a defeat the previous year to U.S. boxer Duane Bobick. Mr. Stevenson knocked Bobick down three times to win by technical knockout, then he had an easy march to the gold medal.
Within two weeks, Castro praised Mr. Stevenson for not yielding to the “traffickers of bodies and souls” by becoming a professional. Cubans considered Mr. Stevenson a man of unbending principle and anointed him a national hero. The millions going to boxers, he said, would be better spent on children, education and medical care.
A 1974 Sports Illustrated headline proclaimed, “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich.”
Mr. Stevenson became the second-most recognizable person in his country, after its leader, and for decades was a symbol of Cuba’s athletic prowess.
In the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Mr. Stevenson knocked out U.S. heavyweight John Tate — a future world champion as a professional — on his way to a second gold medal. Then 24 and at the peak of his abilities, Mr. Stevenson reportedly refused offers of as much as $5 million to enter the ring against Ali or other champions such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
Four years later, in the 1980 Moscow Olympics — boycotted by the United States and other countries — Mr. Stevenson won his third gold medal. From 1971 to 1982, he was undefeated in the ring, winning three world amateur titles, besides his three Olympic championships.
Many boxing observers, including broadcaster Howard Cosell, said Mr. Stevenson would have been world champion had he turned professional.
During the 1970s, boxing promoter Bob Arum proposed a series of bouts between Mr. Stevenson and Ali.
Another leading promoter, Don King, tried to sign Mr. Stevenson by using Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos as an intermediary. None of the matches took place.
“Stevenson would have been phenomenal,” King said in the late 1980s. “He could have been in the same class as Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier. But we’ll never know.”