Teofilo Stevenson vs. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fight That Never Was

BY The Sweet Science ON July 19, 2012
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What do you make of the man who turned down millions upon millions of dollars, and the chance to see if he was better than The Greatest?

Teófilo Stevenson won his first Olympic gold medal in 1972 and his last world amateur championship in 1986. He won 302 fights and once went an unbelievable 11 years without a loss. Had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics, many think Stevenson would have won an unmatched four gold medals in boxing. Stevenson had already flattened the eventual 1984 gold medalist Tyrell Biggs twice.

An offer to fight Muhammad Ali came after Stevenson won his second Olympic gold in Montreal in 1976. Stevenson was at his peak. The world had never seen a heavyweight with the tools Stevenson brought into the ring. He was bigger (6'5", 220 pounds) and deadlier than George Foreman, yet boxed with effortless grace and intelligence. Prior to Montreal, Stevenson had demolished every opponent that stood before him, relying on one of the most lethal right hands ever seen in boxing.

American promoters offered him five million dollars to turn pro and challenge Muhummad Ali. He refused.

He said of the offer, "What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"

Stevenson died at the age of 60 in Havana on June 11.

* * *

I traveled to Cuba with the intention of speaking with boxers who had turned down enormous offers to leave. When explaining my project to people, again and again I was met with amusement and skepticism. I heard the same sentiment repeated everywhere I looked for fighters: "Something must be wrong with you. The only journalists who come here for a story are looking at why we leave."

Which makes sense. That very common journalistic approach argues against Cuba's values and attempts to undermine them. But I wasn't interested in that side of the story. Anyone can see why an elite athlete would want to leave a small, impoverished country where their skills were effectively uncashed winning lottery tickets. All they had to do was wash ashore almost anywhere else in the world and cash in. Yet the vast majority of Cuban boxers—and Cuban athletes in general—despite that incentive, stayed.

Was the decision to stay in Cuba honest? Could anyone, let alone an Olympic champion, turn down that much money without being either brainwashed or afraid for their lives or the lives of loved ones if they defected? I wanted to speak to the people themselves who had faced down that decision and lived with the consequences.

When I interviewed Teófilo Stevenson in his modest house—often reported as a mansion that Fidel Castro gave him—in a leafy Havana neighborhood, I asked him why he stayed.

"If people cannot understand how someone can turn down millions of dollars for a matter of principle, who seems brainwashed to you?"

"Forget the money then. As a competitor, don't you wish you ever had a chance to fight the best from your time?"

Stevenson pointed to a portrait of himself and Ali on his wall from Ali's 1998 humanitarian visit to the island.

"You mean my brother?"

The physical similarity between Ali and Stevenson is downright spooky.

"Don't you wish you'd had a chance to fight Ali?" I asked.

"How could I fight my brother?" he smiled, signaling for me to turn off the cameras so he could have a cigarette break.

Was the decision to stay in Cuba honest? Could anyone, let alone an Olympic champion, turn down that much money without being either brainwashed or afraid for their lives or the lives of loved ones if they defected? I wanted to speak to the people themselves who had faced down that decision and lived with the consequences.

When I interviewed Teófilo Stevenson in his modest house—often reported as a mansion that Fidel Castro gave him—in a leafy Havana neighborhood, I asked him why he stayed.

"If people cannot understand how someone can turn down millions of dollars for a matter of principle, who seems brainwashed to you?"

"Forget the money then. As a competitor, don't you wish you ever had a chance to fight the best from your time?"

Stevenson pointed to a portrait of himself and Ali on his wall from Ali's 1998 humanitarian visit to the island.

"You mean my brother?"

The physical similarity between Ali and Stevenson is downright spooky.

"Don't you wish you'd had a chance to fight Ali?" I asked.

"How could I fight my brother?" he smiled, signaling for me to turn off the cameras so he could have a cigarette break.

In the trailer ofmy filmSplit Decision, which profiles boxers like Stevenson who stayed, and some who left Cuba, I used a famous photo of a young Muhammad Ali sitting on a million dollars inside a bank vault, and another of Mike Tyson spreading out enormous amounts of cash inside his hands at a Don King-helmed press conference. The Cuban counterparts of those fighters, Teófilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, were being offered those same stacks of money.

But these men chose to become boxers before the money was spread out before their eyes. Their desire to fight goes deeper.

I interviewed Mike Tyson for my film. I asked him about a time early in his career when he had tearfully told a reporter that he missed fighting "when it wasn't just all about money."

I asked Tyson what it was that he was fighting for before it was money.

"My mother was dead before I was 16. I'm the son of a pimp and an alcoholic. But if I ever brought anything home of value into my mother's house, she knew I'd stolen it. I never saw her proud of me in my entire life. Not once. And somewhere, somewhere I always had that in my mind. I was fighting to make this woman who caused me more pain than anyone in my life... " Tyson cleared his throat and wiped his face a couple times. "Deep down I was always fighting to make this woman... I wanted to make this woman proud of me. That's what I was always fighting for."

So how much is that worth?

* * *

Muhammad Ali, a man adept at finding weakness in his opponents and cruelly exploiting it to his own advantage, never saw weakness in Teófilo Stevenson's stand against turning professional and facing him. He never saw weakness in a boxer rejecting millions because of something he believed in.

Instead, in visits in 1996 and 1998, Ali donated over $1.7 million worth of medical aid to Cuba as a way of opposing the economic embargo against the island nation and to help alleviate the brutal economic crisis of that decade. Teófilo Stevenson was there to greet Muhammad Ali at Havana's international airport when the former champ arrived. They were inseparable during Ali's visit.

* * *

In 1977, the year Stevenson turned down the money, Muhammad Ali was fresh off winning decisions over the likes of Ken Norton, Alfredo Evangelista, and Earnie Shavers. The following year, he would be defeated by lightly regarded Leon Spinks.

Ali would be 35 years old, with his skills rapidly in decline, at the time Stevenson would have challenged him for the heavyweight title.

By contrast, Teófilo Steveson was 25 years old, at the height of his powers. Stevenson could have quickly dominated the heavyweight division had he turned professional. Given Stevenson's poise, size, and ability, it's hard to imagine favoring any pro heavyweight of the era against what Stevenson brought into the ring.

To look at photographs of Stevenson post Montreal is to look at a modern, massive heavyweight transported back in time. He has the height and physique of a Lennox Lewis with the footwork of someone several weight classes beneath him. Boxing had never seen anything like Stevenson, entering the ring with an elegant leg rising over the top rope. Perhaps even more lethal than the power in his right hand was the speed with which he could deliver it. Had Ali fought the Cuban, a fading but crafty champ would have met a new kind of heavyweight at the peak of his powers. Ali would have brought all the experience and punishment he'd earned in wars against Norton, Frazier, Chuvalo, Terrell, and Foreman. Where could Ali look to solve Stevenson in the ring? What did he have left in his tank to use against a force like Cuba's greatest champion?

Inevitably, Ali vs Stevenson would have served as a symbolic battle between the United States and Cuba, capitalism and communism, Castro's values instilled in his boxers pitted against the values of "merchandise" boxers from the rest of the world. Sport is to war as porn is to sex. We all need our proxies. Nothing cemented Castro's argument against the US more forcefully than when his boxers rejected money to sellout their country; their loyalty was even better than beating Americans in the ring. But the weight of that loyalty is telling even when the boxers take the money. With Cuban boxers leaving in record numbers, we get a new look into the system and its failures to keep fighters.

S.L. Price, author and senior writer at Sports Illustrated, once said that while Cuba might be the worst place in the world for an athlete, it might also be the best place in the world for a spectator.

I asked Stevenson and several of the other boxers still on the island, all with their careers behind them, if they had regrets about any decision they'd made.

Stevenson gave me a hard look. A silence spread out between us while he glared.

Stevenson had only agreed to be interviewed provided that I pay him (and not the state) for the privilege. It's an odd feeling paying $150 to someone to find out their reasons for turning down tens of millions. You can choose between the gestures of taking a little money or turning down a lot, and say one defines Stevenson, but I'm more inclined to say it defines you.

Sitting there interviewing one of the most famous men in a country I wasn't allowed to be in, trying to have an honest conversation with him about his life, I had no hope of getting an answer from Stevenson that said more about him and the place he came from than what my questions said about me and where I came from.

Stevenson was a heavy smoker late in life, but he pleaded that I not film him while smoking—he didn't want children to see him engaged in a bad habit. I agreed to not film, but mildly resented that he considered his smoking breaks to count against our agreed 75 minutes of interview time.

"Don't let the children see the champ smoking. I know for a journalist this is just the kind of thing you love to show about someone like me, but it does harm for others. I am not proud of this. It is not me being seen as a hypocrite that worries me. Just that kids would do something so stupid as this."

I offered him one of my cigarettes.

"What is this?" he asked suspiciously.

"American Spirit."

"You want Teófilo Stevenson to smoke American Spirit? Why did I ever let you into my house?"

* * *

I interviewed Stevenson in the early morning, but he was already noticeably intoxicated. He drank vodka from a water bottle for the duration of our conversation and toyed with my translator mixing up his Spanish with remarkably strange and amusing segues into Russian and English. He returned again and again to Michael Jackson as a subject of fascination.

At 59, he was still an imposing physical presence. When he locked the gate behind us with a padlock just before we stepped inside his house, I felt fear. Many Habaneros had mentioned scaling his fence to escape Stevenson and his antics when drunk. There were rumors he had a pistol on the premises, given to him as a gift from Fidel.

* * *

"Do I look like I regret any decision I've made?" Stevenson asked me.

I shrugged.

He took a long drink from his bottle and smiled. The translator I'd hired, a close personal friend of Stevenson's, gave me a hard look of his own. There was a great deal of reluctance on his part to reveal this side of his friend to the world.

"My friend," Stevenson began, clearing his throat unsuccessfully, "I have no regrets. I am the happiest man in the world. And our time is up. I hope you got what you were looking for."

Brin-Jonathan Butler is the director of the forthcoming documentarySplit Decision (rigondeaux.com), a documentaryexploring Cuban and American life through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with accepting or rejecting million dollar offers to abandon their country and step into a smuggler’s boat in the hopes of chasing the American Dream.

Comment on this article

deepwater says:

Teo is my fav heavyweight boxer of all time. pro or amatuer. please youtube his fights. you will see a 6'5 man glide around the ring like a smooth lightweight but with power that was so so devestating but so beautiful and graceful. youtube the olypics where he knocks out weaver I think it was or was it tate. cosell introduces foreman to teo right before the fight and george tripped over himself saying he was teos friend. during the fight foreman says teo is a champion in every way and if he did turn pro ali and foreman would not be where they are. it really is a great thing to watch, I probably watch it once a week or so. communism is true evil as it eradicates the individual and replaces God with the state but as far as boxing goes please watch this man.its beautiful. I wish the klitchos tried to emulate him.

brownsugar says:

Even without ostentatious wealth he still still lived the life of royalty. Fantasy fights aren't my thing. But if any body in boxing history could have been a better pro heavywt than Ali....Stevenson would have been the one

deepwater says:

hey brownsugar check out teo vs tate on youtube when you get a chance. that 6 min will be worth it!

brownsugar says:

Yep the day he died I watched 2and a half hours of Stephenson onYoutube. Glorious!!!

tlig says:

The writer obviously didn't turn off the cameras to allow Teofilo the cigarette break. I'm sure he made out like he did but took the sneaky photo anyway. Journalists!

dino da vinci says:

The writer obviously didn't turn off the cameras to allow Teofilo the cigarette break. I'm sure he made out like he did but took the sneaky photo anyway. Journalists!


Yeah, darn journalists!

dino da vinci says:

I was once asked by someone; "Who was the greatest fighter you saw in your lifetime?"

I replied that although most would say Sugar Ray Robinson, I'd probably have to lean to Henry Armstrong. To which he replied, Yes, but you told me your age, and you didn't see Armstrong with your own eyes, live. He riterated who was the best fighter you have seen live, with your own eyes?

I said you wouldn't know him, as he suffered some injuries that prevented him from emerging on the national stage. 'Injuries got him'.

He asked his name, I told him, and he replied, "no, I never heard of him". Few more sentences, said our goodbyes, and as I was hanging up the phone, I heard something, so I put the phone back to my ear.

'Hello?'
Yeah. That guy ever life in Florida?
Yes.
Did he have a brother who also fought?
Yeah...Johnny. He (Juan) was ranked 6th in the world as an amateur.
And wasn't he in like a motorcycle crash or a car crash?
Yes, both. (Within a relatively short time of each other).
Yeah, I know who you're talking about. That's the guy that retired me...and you may be right.

I had great respect for the big Cuban. But I believe there's a world of difference between preparing for a nine minute battle and one that may last 45 minutes. Maybe Stevenson was the best nine-minute fighter of all-time, but would have proven to be only a very good twelve minute fighter. Stamina is only one issue. The grind to ready oneself for a 12 round or a 15 round adventure is a real testament to what these fighters are put through.

After gathering my thoughts on this topic, I realize this could run another twenty paragraphs, which means two things: With me looking for one letter at a time it will take all morning to type and in todays attention span, nobody will read it.

So, while his accomplishments were both great and many, who really knows what stumbling blocks may have been encountered along his path in attempting to achieve sports greatest title.

Radam G says:

DDV, that was nice one. I'm with you 99.9 percent of the way. Stevenson was a great, great nine-minute fighter. But like many greats of nine-minute fighting, he had too many bad habits -- boxing, social and diet. Those great nine-minute fighters came a dime a dozen back in da day.

I can name tons of fighters of his amateur era from around the world that could match him in skill and kickarse. ONE -- Pound for pound -- was Howard Davis Jr of New York USA. And one can easily see that HDJ couldn't do pro 45-minute fighting half as he could do the amateur nine-minute action. Dude was the only U.S. gold medal fighter of 1976 O-games that did not win a professional world title. Holla!

Radam G says:

BTW, HDJ was selected Fight of the 1976 O-games over Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers. So that should indicate to anyone that HDJ was a bad mofu as an amateur. Holla!

kidcanvas says:

anyone who thinks stevenson had a chance at all with Ali is out of their mind ... what a joke ,then and now .. u guys werent there obviously

dino da vinci says:

anyone who thinks stevenson had a chance at all with Ali is out of their mind ... what a joke ,then and now .. u guys werent there obviously


It's a science. Every time you add a new element you most probably change the equation. I watched Foreman and Lyle trade bombs, both climbing off the canvas. I watched Foreman bludgeon Frazier when I believed that was an impossiblity.
No, you have to earn it.

andrej_palacko says:

Hi, I´m author of a 12 minutes long historical document of Teofilo Stevenson- he won the olympic games three times, which was made only one week before his death (It was made in La Habana- 3.6.2012). Here is a short part of the document: [URL="http://http://youtu.be/IQbMZqA8frk">http://youtu.be/IQbMZqA8frk
If you are interested about the full document, please contact me: info@andrejpalacko.com

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