Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What's in a name?

--Gary King

Earlier this week, Cuba said goodbye to one of its favorite sons, Teofilo Stevenson. Stevenson won three consecutive Olympic gold medals during the glory days of amateur boxing–Munich (1972), Montreal (1976), and Moscow (1980). By claiming gold in 1980, he became the second boxer, after the Hungarian Lazio Papp, to triumph on three consecutive occasions. Felix Salon, a fellow Cuban, also accomplished this feat in 2000.

I was first introduced to the story of Teofilo Stevenson during the summer of 2006. The equine Teofilo (without the Stevenson) sparked this interest. Jim Bolger’s charge ruled supreme in a highly impressive juvenile campaign, which ended with a perfect five-for-five record. His epic duels with Holy Roman Emperor will live long in my memory, most notably the G1 Dewhurst S. (click here). Holy Roman Emperor’s run that day was visually breathtaking, almost Arazi-like, but he couldn’t get his head in front at the line. Teofilo was not for beating in the closing strides, displaying a rare combination of talent and determination. Unfortunately, injury prevented him from trying to replicate his juvenile sparkle as a 3-year-old. As a strapping son of Galileo, it had been predicted that Teofilo would improve as he matured.

Widely regarded as the finest amateur boxer of his generation, perhaps of all time, Teofilo Stevenson refused to turn professional. Unlike many other Cuban athletes, he stayed loyal to his country’s ban on professional sports. Stevenson never considered defecting and preferred the admiration of the Cuban public to financial gain. In fact, at one point during his career, he turned down a substantial money offer to fight an aging Mohammed Ali. The American boxing promoters Bob Arum and Don King tried everything to entice him, but to no avail. In doing so, Stevenson became an international standard bearer of the left with declarations such as: "What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?" Stevenson expressed absolutely no regret about this decision right up to his passing.

Whether or not you believe in his political ideology, it takes a pretty brave man to remain true to his principles when there is that much money on the line. There is more to the Teofilo Stevenson saga than meets the eye, and several stories have been bandied about over the years. I’m sure Stevenson was not without his flaws, but he was often used as a political pawn in the Cuban-American divide. Sometimes it’s very difficult to believe everything that you read, especially when the opportunity to engage in propaganda is rife. One thing remains certain, his record as a sporting icon will stand the test of time.

Stevenson retired in 1988 and never got the chance to claim a historic fourth Olympic gold, as Cuba did not attend Los Angeles (1984) or Seoul (1988). Just like his equine namesake, I guess we will never know what might have been...

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