Teofilo Stevenson was as popular in Cuba as Michael Jordan was in the United States. Decades after he threw his last punch, he was still a huge distraction when he walked into a baseball stadium to watch his favorite team, Industriales.
It has been reported that he died today in Cuba at the age of 60. Some outlets are calling it heart disease, others reporting he died of a heart attack.
Stevenson exploded onto the world boxing scene after demolishing American Duane Bobick in the 1972 Olympics. He was tall and lean and had a devastating right hand. Stevenson captured three Olympic gold medals (1972, 1976, 1980) in the heavyweigt division. Only two other boxers in history have won three Olympic gold medals -- Hungary's Lazlo Papp and fellow Cuban Felix Savon.
Not only was Stevenson a feared puncher, he became the athletic symbol of Fidel Castro's revolution. He has always been considered Castro's favorite athlete. The reason why? When promoters Don King and Bob Arum offered Stevenson millions of dollars to come fight Muahmmad Ali, Stevenson said simply, "I'd rather have the love of 10 million Cubans than your 10 million dollars."
Stevenson never turned pro, but beat countless American heavyweights. Three of them, John Tate, Michael Dokes and Tony Tubbs went on to win heavyweight titles. Stevenson also beat Tyrell Biggs, the man who won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Stevenson never had the opportunity to win a fourth gold at the '84 games because Cuba boycotted. Stevenson also fought a dual-meet in Madison Square Garden in 1978.
In 2008, I was able to travel to Cuba and interviewed him at his home. It wasn't difficult. A friend tracked down his phone number. We called his house from a payphone and three hours later, we were sitting in his living room.
At the time Stevenson expressed confidence that Cuba would do well at the 2008 Olympic games, despite a spate of defections from the boxing camp. I asked him how come he didn't train young fighters, he smiled and said, "I've spent enough time in gyms."