The winding and political history of boxing in Cuba is well acknowledged, as is the island’s tendency to spill greatness into its boxing rings. Being even simply among the best that Cuba has produced is an honor unto itself, but to have a name surrounded by an aura of greatness that transcends the amateur ranks when the fighter himself doesn’t is a rare feat.
According to the Associated Press, Teofilo Stevenson Lawrence passed away this week, a heart attack accomplishing what future heavyweight title holders John Tate, Tony Tubbs and Michael Dokes, among others, couldn’t do in the amateurs.
Last month, Stevenson told CNN, “Cubans like to box because of out temperament. Because of our idiosyncrasies and because we have needed to know how to defend ourselves.”
Stevenson was one of only three men to win Olympic gold in boxing three times, alongside Laszlo Papp and fellow Cuban Felix Savon, but likely received a boost in notoriety from comparisons to a young Cassius Clay in quality and potential.
Georg N. Meyers of The Seattle Daily Times reported from Munich in 1972, “In all respects, Stevenson is a startling reminder of Muhammad Ali when he was the Olympian Cassius Clay — except that Teofilo is a more formidable puncher.”
But stateside, Duane Bobick, who had defeated Stevenson at the ’71 Pan American Games, was still “probably the most publicized fighter to come out of the amateurs since Muhammad Ali,” according to Don Moran, president of the Cornhuskers Boxing Club, ahead of promoting one of Bobick’s fights.
However, Teofilo Stevenson would snap Duane Bobick’s amateur win streak off at 61 in a row in winning Olympic gold in ’72.
When dust was still scattering in the wake of Ali’s 1974 reclamation of the heavyweight title over George Foreman in Zaire, already reports from Kinshasa were mentioning Stevenson as a future menace to the throne. “And now it is Frazier who appears to have the next crack in this game of musical chairs among three black American fighters — Ali, Frazier and Foreman. Their only potential threats on the horizon are Teofilo Stevenson, a Cuban giant whom Fidel Castro may not permit to leave home, and Duane Bobick, an American Olympian such as Ali and Foreman who is now unbeaten as a pro,” reported the AP via The Trenton Evening Times.
And this was before standing highest on the Olympic podium twice more.
Following his opening round win en route to his final gold medal in 1980, AP writer Ed Schuyler said, “Stevenson’s right when it is on target has a rag-doll effect. The victim’s bone structure seems to dissolve.” He continued, “Ataga reeled drunkenly across the ring and sank to a knee. Stevenson helped him up and then helped him back to his corner.”
Just moments earlier, Teofilo had drawn the ire of the Moscow crowd by blowing kisses and waving to them before backpedaling boringly for most of the 1st round. One right hand put him into the quarterfinals, and a small gesture earned him a different type of appreciation.
His Olympic record was 11-0 (9 KO).
Stevenson respected the Cuban government’s decision to not participate in the 1984 Olympics, as well as the professional boxing ban, even going a step further in eventually becoming vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation. In 1988, Boxing Illustrated voted him the greatest ever Olympic boxer.
In January of this year, Stevenson spent a few weeks in the hospital due to an arterial clot near his heart, but seemed to be recovering.
Gone at only 60-years old, boxing loses a veritable icon in Teofilo Stevenson, 1952-2012.