There have been few amateur boxers as polarizing as the late, great Cuban amateur heavyweight, Teofilo Stevenson. To say that this man dominated amateur boxing from 1966 to 1986 would be to utter as big a sports-related understatement as possible. Three-time Olympic champion, three-time World champion, 2-time Pan American Games gold medalist, an obscene amateur record of 302 wins in 322 outings (virtually all the losses coming in the first two years of his career) and an 11-year win streak that was finally snapped by Italy’s future world professional champion, Francesco Damiani; it’s fair to say that there has never been as dominant a figure in amateur boxing. In truth, Stevenson would probably have won gold medals in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, had Cuba not boycotted them.
While the Cuban was plying his craft in the amateur ring, his movie-star good looks and statue-like physique caught the eye of many professional boxing promoters who felt that his real future lay in the paid ranks of the sport. In the 70’s Muhammad Ali had pretty much beaten everyone there was for him to fight and talk began to be bandied about, around a clash between Stevenson and Ali. In fact, a $5-million-dollar purse was cobbled together and offered to Stevenson to take the Ali fight. Stevenson apparently declined, saying, “What is 1-million-dollars compared to the love of 8-million Cubans?” (To his credit, Stevenson was clearly smart enough to figure out how the pro game was played given that he assumed he’s only be left with $1 million after the fight, lol)
Now this concept of having an Olympic champion begin his career by fighting for the professional heavyweight championship of the world wasn’t a new one. Some years previous, Olympic champion Peter Rademacher began his pro stint by fighting Floyd Patterson for the crown. Pete started off well enough, even knocking down Patterson in the second stanza, but in the end, he took a hell of a beating, getting himself knocked down a total of seven times before the bout was called. Few thought this would happen to the far more accomplished Stevenson, at the hands of Ali. I did not, and do not, count myself among those who felt that way.
I believe that Ali would have near murdered the somewhat robotic Stevenson. At the time that Stevenson was dominating the amateur ranks, there was no upper age limit for the participants. Stevenson, who was born in 1952, was often in his late 20’s to early 30’s as he fought boys and young men barely out of their teens! They would enter the ring with their decent records of 30 – 2 or so, to find themselves facing a 30-year-old, 6’ 5” giant, sporting a record of nearly 300 wins! It was truly a case of “man versus boy.”
I think it’s also helpful to consider Stevenson’s style. He was ridiculously orthodox and, at times, quite robotic. He lived off of his jab, which in fairness, was light, but very accurate. His jab was a gift of his great reach and height. I have embedded a video here for you to look at.
Look at it carefully. It’s not that Stevenson wasn’t good; he was. But the Cuban was also extremely limited and predictable. He had some movement – but he only had to fight 9 minutes and I don’t think he could have maintained that pace over a professional 10 or 12-round fight. His jab wasn’t hard but it was accurate. Stevenson stood too erect and seldom, if ever, transferred enough weight to his front foot to make his jab more telling. It was the original “range finder” and “blinder”, but against the likes of Ali? That would never have worked.
Much has also been made of Teofilo’s legendary patience in the ring, but I have always countered that with this. What did he need to be in a rush for? His opponents were virtually always smaller and far less experienced. They didn’t pressure him. They didn’t bring the fight to him. Instead, they mostly just tried to survive. When they did have the temerity to launch some sort of onslaught, they were immediately met by a counter right from a grown man, towering over them. They had neither the skill to avoid it, nor the chin to absorb it, ergo, lights out.
But how can anyone seriously think that he could have done this to the likes of Ali – or any other top pro, for that matter? Here are three videos to look at; one of George Foreman, one of Jerry Quarry (best-ever heavyweight not to be champion, in my opinion), and one of Ali. I want you to look at all three as objectively as possible, then go back and look at the Stevenson video. Now try to imagine Stevenson being successful against any of these three, fighting as he did. Do you agree? No chance!
None of these true pro’s (nor many others) would have been intimidated by Stevenson. None would have simply allowed him to stick his jab out and not hooked him to death around that long-extended arm. None would have been so much as stunned by his punches. If Earnie Shavers couldn’t stop Jerry Quarry, you better believe that Teofilo Stevenson wouldn’t have. Even more than this, at no point in his career was Stevenson ever tagged like he would have been by the likes of a Foreman. Teofilo never encountered a schooled, tough, well-rounded pro, like a Jerry or Muhammad. His chin was never tested by a professional heavyweight top caliber boxer. Stevenson was never dragged into the deep end of the pool and asked to find a way to survive by himself. He never faced the hand speed or footwork of an Ali. He never hit anyone who could take a punch like Ali could. And he most definitely never ran into an opponent with Ali’s ring I.Q.
Any pro or former pro boxer reading this will be shaking his/her head up and down in agreement with what I’m about to write now. There is NO comparison between the pro game and the amateur game. Amateur success is not necessarily a predictor of pro success. Audley Harrison was a very successful amateur; not so successful with a paycheque on the line. The afore-mentioned Pete Rademacher was 15 – 9 as a pro, gold medal or not. Similarly, amateur failure does not automatically preclude a fighter from becoming a good, even great pro. Rocky Marciano was 8 – 4 as an amateur. Duran, 13 – 3. James Degale lost 16 times as an amateur. Why is this? Because the game is different. A so-so fighter can be schooled to “hide” enough during three rounds that he can eke out a ton of wins. Just tap your opponent enough times and run like hell, and more often than not, you’re going to get the nod. But let Stevenson absorb a Foreman shot to the spleen, or a “Muhammad Ali/Brian London” blinding combination, or a Jerry Quarry trademark “parry and hook to the body” combo, and then try just sticking out that light jab; not going to work folks.
The amateur game is “school.” It is where we go, as boxers, to learn the basics of the craft and to determine whether or not we believe that we have what it takes to graduate to the professional game. Even then, we are still in school. It’s why we start with 4-rounders, then 6, 8, and, if we’re good enough, 10, and 12 round bouts. The pro battle is one of attrition. It is a battle of wills, of courage, of willingness to absorb brutal punishment. It is raw, breathtakingly violent, and beautiful in its own special way. To think that we can, as students, begin our careers by successfully challenging our masters is misguided, and the height of arrogance. With all due respect to his memory, Teofilo Stevenson was a great amateur. But to start off his career against the likes of Ali? I’m actually glad it didn’t happen.
Photo courtesy: Vitaliy Arutjunov