Obituary: Teofilo ‘Pirolo’ Stevenson, 1952-2012

Boxer for the revolution.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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On 11 June, the world lost one of its greatest boxers, possibly the world’s greatest amateur, and socialist Cuba lost one of its exemplary revolutionaries, when Teofilo Stevenson, popularly known as Pirolo, succumbed to a heart attack at the young age of 60.

Stevenson won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1972, 1976 and 1980, as well as a number of other international medals, for example in the 1986 Pan American games.

Paying tribute the day after Stevenson’s death, Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban revolution, wrote:

No other amateur boxer shone so much in the history of that sport. He could have achieved another two Olympic titles if it hadn’t been for certain duties that the principles of internationalism imposed on the revolution. No money in the world would have been enough to bribe Stevenson. Glory be to his memory forever!

Here, Comrade Fidel refers to Cuba’s principled stance of boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in solidarity with the USSR and the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in solidarity with the DPRK.

Another of boxing’s greats, Muhammad Ali added his tribute: “Stevenson was one of the greatest … Despite his never fighting as a professional, having conquered three Olympic gold medals in three different Olympic games meant that he wouldn’t have been an easy rival.”

The son of a Cuban mother and a father, who arrived as an immigrant from the island of Saint Vincent, then a British colony, Stevenson started boxing at a young age. Throughout his life, he maintained his connection to the sport that brought him so much respect. Alongside his gold medal, he was awarded the Val Baker Trophy in 1972, given to the top boxer in the Olympics. He also was given the title of Honoured Master of Sports of the USSR in 1972. Later in life, he became a trainer of other Cuban boxers.

But above all, he was a revolutionary, fiercely loyal to Cuba and its socialist system. The revolution banned professional boxing on the grounds that it was degrading and Stevenson refused the blandishments that are so often offered to Cuba’s sportsmen and women to turn their backs on the country that has given them so many opportunities and honours. He turned down offers of millions of dollars to fight Muhammad Ali among others.

The US newspaper Workers’ World commented: “Teofilo definitely had the skills. Some would compare him to Ali. Both were somewhat lithe for their division, didn’t lumber – a stereotype for heavyweight fighters – had supreme footwork and textbook one-two combinations.

Ali glided, shuffled and danced, popping a stiff jab, his hands held low at times, slipping punches, using his footwork to get out of harm’s way and setting up foes for his right. Teofilo didn’t use the same techniques, but worked behind his jab, moved laterally at ease, his right hand held at his chin. He would step back, slightly out of reach, the straight right being his best weapon, like a sniper in the bushes, and it took down many a target.” (‘Cuba’s Teofilo Stevenson, a true champion’, by Larry Hales, 21 June 2012)

But to the blandishments to forsake his homeland for dollars, Stevenson would invariably reply: “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Stevenson’s example personified what Che Guevara called the new man under socialism, an example that has gone deep into the hearts of the Cuban people.

BBC journalist Sarah Rainsford reported on one prominent and relevant example in her report from his funeral:

‘As a champion, Teofilo was the greatest, an example to all of us,’ Stevenson’s protégé, and retired heavyweight himself Felix Savon told me when I spotted him towering above the funeral crowd.

‘When he stopped fighting he taught me his tricks. And they were the secret of my success,’ Savon said. He went on to match his mentor with three Olympic gold medals of his own.

I never got the chance to meet Teofilo Stevenson, but Savon’s own story has many parallels. Both boxers were plucked from humble backgrounds and honed into top athletes and – like Stevenson – Savon could have gone on to make a fortune.

In a recent interview, he told me he was offered $5m (£3.2m) to fight Mike Tyson – the best professional heavyweight of his own generation. That fee was later doubled, he said.

Sitting in his modest, pink-painted bungalow – with a broken down Lada in the garage, a small state pension and five children – I wondered how on earth he had resisted.

‘We fought for an ideal, to defend our country,’ Savon explained proudly, recalling the years when professional boxing promoters were buzzing round him.

But then he added: ‘I’m not my own master. I’d have had to abandon my country and my family to fight Tyson and you can’t be happy like that, not for all the money in the world.’

Instead, Savon fought on for Cuba. A small room in his home is testament to his achievements, its cabinets full of trophies, silk boxing robes and battered gloves. Two of his three Olympic golds are draped casually over a wooden bust of the boxer, on a shelf.

But when I asked which item he treasures most, Savon immediately pointed to the badly framed prints on his wall. ‘My 27 photographs with Fidel Castro,’ he said, patting me – I assume he thought gently – on my arm as he spoke.” (‘Boxer Teofilo Stevenson’s loyalty to Cuba’s revolution’, 16 June 2012)