Teofilo Stevenson, Olympic boxing champion and hero in Castro’s Cuba, dies at 60

June 12, 2012

Teofilo Stevenson, a three-time Olympic boxing champion who became the first sports hero of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and who spurned millions of dollars to turn professional, died June 11 in Havana. He was 60.

A statement from the Cuban government said he had heart disease.

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.”

Teofilo Stevenson Lawrence was born March 29, 1952, in the coastal town of Puerto Padre in eastern Cuba. His father had emigrated from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. His mother, Dolores Lawrence, was born in Cuba, but her parents were from the island of St. Kitts, in the West Indies.

As a result, Mr. Stevenson and his four brothers and sisters grew up speaking English at home and Spanish with their schoolmates.

Mr. Stevenson was playing basketball in his youth when a Soviet-trained coach spotted him and recruited him to be a boxer. By 17, he was a national champion.

He used his 6-foot-5-inch height to his advantage and had exceptionally long arms — outstretched, they measured seven feet from fingertip to fingertip. At his peak, he weighed 215 to 220 pounds.

He had a sharp left jab and a devastating right hand that felled many opponents with a single blow. (Years after winning his 1972 gold medal, Mr. Stevenson revealed that he fought in the Olympics that year despite a broken right hand.)

Despite the fury in his punches, he was considered a model of sportsmanship. In 1979, after knocking out a 205-pound U.S. opponent, Mr. Stevenson gently took him in his arms and carried him back to his corner.

He remains one of only three Olympic boxers to win three gold medals, along with Hungary’s Laszlo Papp and Mr. Stevenson’s Cuban protege, Felix Savon. He might have won a fourth in 1984, but Cuba boycotted that year’s Olympics in Los Angeles.

In addition to his three gold medals, Mr. Stevenson won three other amateur world titles — including in 1986, when he was 34. After retiring, he was an official with Cuba’s national boxing federation.

Outside the ring, however, he was not always in such control. In 1987, was cleared of responsibility in an auto accident in which a motorcyclist was killed. He was arrested at the Miami airport in 1999 after head-butting an airline employee, apparently when he tried to rush past a check point. Mr. Stevenson said he had been taunted by anti-Castro protesters. In later years, reporters often noted that he drank large amounts of rum.

He was married at least four times and had at least two children, but a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Ali visited Mr. Stevenson in Cuba several times, and the two great boxers mused on what might have been if they had met in their prime.

“Someone asked Ali what would have happened if we had fought,” Mr. Stevenson told The Washington Post in 2001, “and he said it would be a draw. I think that’s right. It would have been a draw.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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