Front Door to Cuba

Teofilo Stevenson

An Excerpt From:

In The Red Corner:
A Journey into Cuban Boxing

By John Duncan
Yellow Jersey Press, London

From Chapter 8, Pg. 78:

As a kid Teofilo was restless and difficult. At school, while he was considered bright, he was always seeking out mischief in one form or another. He had boundless energy and it wasn't long before he found an outlet for it in the gym. Like so many of Cuba's champions, Teofilo Stevenson started out training in secret, this time directed by John Herrera. He was terrified that his parents would find out and when the time came to tell his mother he ducked out. His father later told his biographer, 'He came in one day saying in a whisper that he was going to Las Tunas with John Herrera because he was going to make his debut as a middleweight. I told him that was fine, but he would have to go and tell his mother so that she could prepare his clothes. "You tell her," he said, and sneaked out. Well, when I did tell Dolores I was lucky that I had been a boxer because I knew how to avoid a punch. She hit the roof and told me it was my fault. When she calmed down she agreed to let the boy box but only if I went with him.'

They went and Teofilo lost to Luis Enriquez, a boxer with twenty fights under his belt. It was a respectable defeat, however, and Teofilo Senior was just relieved that his son had not taken a beating.

'I liked the way he fought that night,' said Herrera, at whose makeshift open-air gym Teofilo had had his only training. 'You could see that he had something, even against this guy who was much more experienced than him. I knew then that he had what it takes.' Herrera was not village enthusiast either. He had been national champion as light heavyweight and the work he did with Teofilo was an excellent grounding.

Teofilo's career took the normal post-revolutionary Cuban path, eventually coming under the Cuban sports system. He fought a few more times for Herrera, then won the junior title in the eastern part of Cuba and went to Havana for further tuition. In 1968 he went back east again and in Camaguey won the national youth title. At seventeen he went to the national senior championships, the Playa Giron, which were held in December 1969 in the province of Havana, the countryside stretching from Havana in the north for sixty miles all around. Teofilo made it to the heavyweight final against Gabriel Garcia. It wasn't a great contest. He lost, although he should have won, but it was less the result than one man in the audience who was to be the key for Teofilo Stevenson. In the crowd was the Soviet coach who had been sent to help Cuban boxing get on its feet, Andrei Chervorenko, who from that day was to champion Stevenson's cause in the Cuban national team. Stevenson was brought into the senior national set-up on the insistence of the Russian. After that defeat against Garcia his career never looked back.

It was in 1970, however, that the reputation and stature of Teofilo really started to grow, with a knockout victory over Nancio Carrillo.


From Pg 81:

Stevenson now was being thought of as the man who would lead Cuba into a new sporting era at the Olympics in Munich in 1972. Cuba had not won a gold medal in an Olympics since the fencer Ramon Fonst in 1904, who had won both foil and épée and repeated his achievement in the épée. Boxing now looked to be Cuba's best hope. Enrique Figuerola just missed out on gold in the 1964 100 meters, coming second to Bob Hayes, who equaled the world record to beat him. With professional sport banned in 1961 and with the government committed from then on to mass participation and improvement of facilities, which was allied to a massive injection of help from other Communist-bloc countries, the success of the regime's sports policy was now to be proved at the Olympics.

In 1968, only nine years after the revolution, two boxers, Enrique Regueiferos at light welter and Rolando Garbey at light middle, reached Olympic finals and lost. In 1972 it was to be a different story.

For Stevenson the year began with the national championships in Santiago de Cuba. In the final he knocked out his training partner, the southpaw Luis Valier, in the first round after hitting him twice. Stevenson, still only twenty years old, spent the year unbeaten in tournaments in Cuba and abroad, until September 1972 was the beginning of the Munich Olympics which would make his name. Ludwik Denderys was an experienced twenty-eight-year-old Pole, a huge man with a reputation for being able to take a punch. Stevenson knocked him down within thirty seconds, opened a massive cut later in the first and forced the fight to be stopped later on that round. This was the division that the Americans considered their own. In 1964 the title had been won by Joe Frazier and in 1968 by George Foreman. According to Cubans who were there, they had a special desire to rob the Americans of something they believed to be theirs by right. The American entrant was Duane Bobick, the Great White Hope, who was about to be fanfared into a black-dominated world much as Willard had been against Jack Johnson in Havana two generations before.

The Cuban and the American were now set to fight only 48 hours later, with Bobick favorite, having won their only previous meeting the previous year. As the early part of the fight unfolded, Stevenson caught the American with a left and sent him stumbling backwards. He kept up the attack and won the round. The second was Bobick's as Stevenson's corner warned him into to finish the fight on an empty tank. Book on Cuban BoxingBobick meanwhile attacked at full pelt and had Stevenson on the ropes covering up. The American won the round, but at a price - his face was marked and he looked exhausted. Stevenson was unmarked and breathing normally. It was time. At the start of the third, after taking relentless sapping jabs, a body shot sent Bobick reeling to the floor. Bobick, his vision now severely restricted, tried to battle on but was caught flush with one of Stevenson's big rights and went down again. He staggered to his feet, but was barely able to defend himself. One more left and he was back on the canvas and the referee stopped the contest. It was a beautiful moment for Cuban sport, one in which you could sense a whole century of inferiority complexes melting away.

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