For many, he was the greatest amateur boxer the world has ever seen, and among the best in any boxing category. Everyone agrees that a history of the Olympic Games would be incomplete without mentioning Cuban boxer Teófilo Stevenson Lawrence.
The man who ended U.S. dominance in the amateur heavyweight division refused, on countless occasions, to sign a professional contract that would have filled his pockets with easy money, by winning almost every time he stepped into a ring.
From his international debut at the 1971 Pan American Games, in Cali, Colombia, to his final goodbye at the Reno World Championships in 1986, he was always in the limelight. Closely followed by the media, he was the most respected boxer among fans and opponents, thanks to his famous knockout punch.
Gold medals in three different Olympic Games earned him recognition as one of the most extraordinary heavyweight amateur boxers, and one of the greatest of all time in any division. He won his first gold medal in Munich, in 1972, when he fought Duanne Bobick, the gold medalist from the 1971 Pan American Games. Bobick had beaten Stevenson previously and was considered “The Great White Hope” by the American press, which also speculated that he would obscure the reign of legendary boxers Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali.
However, in the 1972 Games, Bobick got a taste of the Cuban's powerful right hand that knocked him out, earning Stevenson the gold medal.
The Cuban boxer went on to win world titles in Havana, in 1974, in Belgrade, in 1978, and in Reno, in 1986. The first two were won in the heavyweight division and the third, in the super heavyweight division.
He also claimed consecutive Olympic gold medals in Munich in 1972, in Montreal in 1976, and in Moscow in 1980, not to mention his general dominance in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Santo Domingo in 1974, and in Havana in 1982.
He was crowned national champion 11 times, and won nine gold medals in the Cuban international Giraldo Cordova Cardín in Memoriam tournament, where he faced competition that, at the time, was considered stronger than that of the World Championships. Stevenson's power was devastating and on more than one occasion, he knocked out his opponent using only his jab. He would eventually win all of the awards conferred by the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), which included the Val Balker Cup, awarded to the best boxer on the planet, and the Fair Play trophy for his sportsmanship.
Stevenson was born on March 29, 1952 in the town of the Delicias, now the Puerto Padre municipality, in eastern Las Tunas province.
He made boxing history in the continental events. In the 1971 Pan American Games in Colombia he lost in the semifinals to Duanne Bobick, the same boxer he would beat a year later, in a match that would launch him to stardom at the Munich Olympics.
Four years later, Stevenson was already a star without much opposition to speak of, and won gold in the Pan American Games in Mexico, in 1975, and again in San Juan, in 1979. Unlike some boxers of his generation and almost all who came after him, Stevenson had, in his own country, a fierce rival, Ángel Milián from Pinar del Río province. The two boxers bravely fought in well-remembered bouts.
However, it was not against Milian that Stevenson lost the most matches. It was against Igor Visotsky, a then unknown Russian fighter with limited technical skills, but remarkable resistance, who defeated Stevenson both times they fought. The first time was at the Córdova Cardin tournament in 1973, and the second time was three years later at the international tournament in Minsk. Visotsky was the only boxer in the world that managed such a feat without suffering the vengeance of the iron-fisted Cuban.
Visotsky never became number one in his own country, the Soviet Union, where there were many high quality fighters in the heavyweight division. For this reason, he considered the two victories over Stevenson as his greatest accomplishment. In 2006, Visotsky mentioned in an interview that the Cuban was like a brother to him, and that he had never seen a fighter like him: “I still believe today he is the greatest amateur boxer of all time and all civilizations”, he said.
Stevenson retired from boxing shortly after the 1988 Summer Olympics, but continued to be regularly invited to prestigious tournaments around the world, not only due to his position as the vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation, but for his great legacy.
After a life spanning six decades, four of which were devoted to the sport of boxing, the man known as the Cuban Giant passed away on June 11, 2012, but will forever enjoy the love and respect of his people and of boxing fans around the world.