The Cuban Boxer Who Turned Down Millions and Muhammad Ali

The Cuban Boxer Who Turned Down Millions and Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali and Teófilo Stevenson spar jokingly at the El Morro lighthouse, on Jan. 20, 1996, in Havana, Cuba.

SourceSven Creutzmann / Mambo / Getty

Why you should care

Because he chose admiration over wealth. 

It was a rematch of sorts. The two men had met in the ring the year before at the 1971 Pan American Games. American Duane Bobick outboxed his Cuban opponent then, but this time Teófilo Stevenson came out swinging with clean, crisp punches, furious left-right combinations and a devastating right jab. Bobick fell in the third — and the bout would prove one big step in Stevenson’s march to Olympic gold at the 1972 Munich Games.

Born to Teófilo Stevenson Sr., a sugar mill worker, and Dolores Lawrence on March 29, 1952, Stevenson was a child when Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The revolutionary leader banned professional boxing, flooding Cuba’s amateur ranks with talent that the Soviet Union — then one of the biggest boxing countries in the world — sent trainers to help groom. Cuban boxing became intertwined with communism, and its champions struggled with the decision to defect in hopes of joining professional U.S. ranks, or to remain amateurs and support Castro’s regime.

If he’s offered $2 million and don’t take it, he’s a damn fool.

Muhammad Ali

Stevenson was the best of this generation of Cuban fighters. Natural talent, combined with Soviet-Cuban training, made him a world-class fighter and an Olympic champ. But his decision to support Castro and remain an amateur made him a hero at home. “As with Eastern Bloc countries, success in sports was crucial as a way to demonstrate to the rest of the world a different side to communism,” says Havana native Jesus Sierra, whose family moved to San Francisco when he was 12. “As a Cuban growing up in the United States, [Stevenson] made me proud.”

When the boxer began his career as an amateur in 1968, he was the lanky runt of the next litter of Cuban amateur fighters. The youngest member of the O’Brien Quesada Boxing Camp, where Cuba’s best amateurs trained under head coach Alcides Sagarra, Stevenson was often bullied and teased, sometimes to the point of tears, by his national teammates. He was a mere boy, training among men.

But all that changed when, at age 17, he reached the final bout against Gabriel Garcia for Cuba’s heavyweight title, in 1969. Though Stevenson lost, his performance against a much more experienced fighter put him on the map, and his fierce right hook led to one U.S. scout comparing him to Joe Frazier. Stevenson’s gold medal victory three years later, the first of his three consecutive Olympic golds, put him on the radar of professional boxers, promoters and fans around the globe. “He was a very strong amateur fighter. He had a very powerful punch from both sides,” says Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, noting that Stevenson was in his prime between 1972 and 1976.

Stevenson knocked out Mircea Simon of Romania in the 1976 Olympic final to secure his second gold. By then he was a household name in boxing, sought after by the biggest names in the sport for fights against the best of the professional ranks. At a time when the U.S., U.S.S.R. and Cuba were the three big boxing countries, Stevenson was the pride of the Cuban team. In his career, he went 14-2 against American boxers in major competitions.

But the greatest test of Stevenson’s resolve to remain true to his country came after the 1976 Olympics. One of the biggest boxing matches to never happen was one between Stevenson and Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight world champion title. When Ali was asked about Stevenson and the possibility of the bout, Ali expressed confidence that the fight would happen but skepticism that Stevenson could dethrone him. The American champ felt that his being accustomed to 15 rounds in professional matches would help him overcome Stevenson, who was used to far shorter, three-round amateur bouts.

“He’s going to fight me, we’re working on it. He needs money. He’s real poor. If he’s offered $2 million and don’t take it, he’s a damn fool,” Ali told The New York Times in 1976. He admitted that Stevenson was a “good amateur,” but added that you “can’t tell until they say ‘round seven,’ ‘round eight,’ ‘round nine,’ ‘round 10.’ ”

Fool or not, Stevenson turned down the offer — rumored to be worth as much as $5 million — as well as every offer to turn professional, noting that he would only do so with Castro’s blessing. And while Ali’s point about the difference in stamina is valid, Silverglade believes Stevenson would have been up for the challenge. “If you know you are fighting for three rounds, about 11 minutes maximum, you can go all out. If you’re fighting for 12 rounds, you have to pace yourself differently,” Silverglade says. “With his ability, his power and determination, I think [Stevenson would have] done very well against Ali with the proper training and conditioning,” he adds, noting that Ali probably would have prevailed in what would have been a good fight.

We’ll never know for sure. Ali was wrong when he guessed in 1976 that Stevenson — who nabbed his third gold at the 1980 Moscow Games — needed the money. After Stevenson won his first gold, the Cuban government, as was custom for its champions, built him two homes and gave him two cars, one of each in his hometown of Delicia and in Havana. Though he was not by any means rich, Stevenson — who died in 2012 at the age of 60 — wanted for nothing and had what no amount of professional success could give him: the respect of his countrymen.

“I will not leave my country for $1 million dollars, or for much more than that,” Stevenson famously said in 1974 when the promoters first started calling. “What is a million dollars against 8 million Cubans who love me?”

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