HAVANA, Cuba ● Cuba paid its respects on Tuesday to the late boxer Teofilo Stevenson, one of the greatest Olympians of all time who turned down the chance to fight Muhammad Ali at the height of both fighters powers.
Stevenson, who won three gold medals as a heavyweight boxer and turned down multi-million dollar offers to turn professional after emerging as a huge talent at the 1972 Munich Games, died of a heart attack on Monday at the age of 60.
Stevenson, born into a poor family in Puerto Padre in the eastern province of Las Tunas, won gold medals at the Munich Games in 1972, Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980.
He also won three successive world amateur championship titles and missed out on a shot at a fourth Olympic title when Cuba boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
In a 20-year career, Stevenson stood out for a devastating right, skilful movements in the ring and sportsmanship which won him a Fair Play trophy.
Stevenson, widely regarded as the best amateur heavyweight ever, fellow Cuban Felix Savon and Hungarian Lazlo Papp are the only amateur boxers to have won three successive Olympic titles.
“Teofilo belonged to Cuba and the world. Those who haven’t heard of Teofilo haven’t lived,” said Savon.
U.S. boxing promoters tried in the late 1970s to tempt Stevenson to fight then world champion Ali for $5 million in what they said would be the “fight of the century” but it never happened as he rejected the offer.
“What’s a million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Stevenson was quoted as saying as a 20-year-old after his first Olympic gold in Munich, expressing his loyalty to the Cuban revolution which outlawed professional sport.
“I wouldn’t change a piece of Cuban soil for all the money they could give me.”
This won him the love and admiration of his fellow Cubans with former President Fidel Castro to the fore.
Boxing fans were left to wonder how Stevenson would have fared as a professional against Ali and other great fighters of his generation like Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
Such was his authority in the Olympic ring, though, that few doubt he would have been able to live with them.
At the end of a visit to the United States with Cuba’s boxing team in late 1999, Stevenson was briefly jailed after an incident at Miami International Airport when he was accused of head-butting a U.S. airline employee.
He insisted he had been provoked by insults against his country and Castro and that the man was an agitator and not an airline employee.
Stevenson followed his Saint Vincent-born father into boxing and was groomed by coach John Herrera, a former Cuban light heavyweight champion, as the country became a communist state.
He then came under the tutelage of Russian Andrei Chervonenko in Cuba’s new Boxing School and his quarter-final victory over American favourite Duane Bobick at the Munich Olympics, regarded as one of his most memorable performances, sealed his arrival as a top amateur.
Having retired from boxing at the age 36 in 1988, Stevenson trained his country’s young boxing talents and became the Cuban Boxing Federation vice-president but became worried about his health this year.
At the end of January he told Reuters he had a scare when he went to hospital for a normal check-up and doctors found a blood clot in an artery near his heart.
Stevenson, who had two children, said then he had received calls from well wishers all over the world including the United States.