My obit of the great Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson is up at the Guardian's website now, you can link to it here. Ideally, it will also appear in tomorrow's paper. It was printed with a number of cosmetic changes, but one of them is important. I wrote originally that I was 'privileged' to see Stevenson's gold medal victory while I was working at the Montreal Forum in 1976, and therein lies a story. I was a press liason at the Forum, which meant I worked through every minute of gymnastics, the semi-finals and finals of both volleyball and basketball, and the final night of boxing, which was a great one. It was my first Olympic games; I've been blessed to work at eight more, and London 2012, where I'll be covering basketball for the BBC, will be my tenth.
Stevenson's victory was impressive, in its ironic way (I have never seen a towel fly so fast, for such little reason, at any fight since), but even more impressive was the one that preceded it. Leon Spinks at light heavuweight (his brother Michael had just won the middleweight gold pounding a Russian into submission) had one of the great fights I've ever seen: a three-round slugfest with Cuba's Sixto Soria, who was the favourite (he would win the world championship in 1978). Soria came out fast, and seemed to be landing three punches for every one of Spinks'--but Leon's were more telling. Going into round three Spinks was obviously down by two, but Soria, who could have tried covering up and protecting his lead, was having none of that. The toe to toe continued until Spinks finally staggered Soria, followed up his advantage, and referee stopped the fight with just seconds remaining.
The Stevenson-Simon fight (below right) was almost comic anticlimax, but Stevenson had virtually clinched the gold medal when he knocked out John Tate in the first round of their semifinal bout, which sadly, I didn't see. Tate and both Spinks brothers would eventually become heavyweight champions (Tate briefly held the WBA version). Stevenson, of course, had to be content to be a hero in Cuba, and a legend in amateur boxing.
I probably should have written more about the propaganda war surrounding the Ali-Stevenson matchup; it simply intensified when the Cubans turned down the offer, with the restraint of Stevenson's freedom to earn being held up as an early example of the victory of the free market system. How the actual fight would have gone is impossible to determine: Ali was already a shadow of himself, and Stevenson was younger, stronger and fitter. Stevenson didn't have Ali's speed, and his style had been heavily influenced by amateur scoring; he could certainly have kept Ali away, but how was he going to get in and hurt him? I remember Angelo Dundee telling me Ali would have won easily, but then, Angelo would have said that. I do wish we could have seen it.
It's also amazing how much alike they were, and how, only in the past year or so, Stevenson's aging face began to resemble later Muhammad Ali, a sad reminder that there is no 'safe' boxing.
One last thing I didn't mention in the obit: Stevenson was voted outstanding boxer of the 1972 Olympics, and in that year he was made an Honoured Master of Soviet Sport, an award given to few non-Soviets. He was that impressive.