Alan Hubbard: I've fond memories of the days when Olympic boxing rings actually rang true
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
My friend Colin Hart of The Sun and I decided to take the opportunity to buttonhole Ali's trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, and quiz him about the United States boxing prospects in the upcoming Olympics in Munich, and in particular their heavyweight, a blonde bomber named Duane Bobick who was being hailed as the new white hope.
We told Angelo we intended to make an interview with Bobick a priority when we got to Munich.
"Don't bother," he retorted. "He's gonna get knocked out."
He added as he noted our raised eyebrows. "There's a Cuban kid who's as big and good-looking as Ali, and he has one hell of a punch. Go talk to him instead."
So, when we arrived in Munich, we did, and with the aid of an interpreter unearthed the story of the young man born of Jamaican immigrants in the Cuban village of Las Tunas who was to become arguably the greatest boxer in the history of the Games.
The Cuban kid's name was Teófilo Stevenson (pictured below) who, as Dundee had prophesied, duly KO'd Bobick, spreading his bloodied nose all over his face with one of the most fearsome punches I have ever seen.
I promptly dubbed him Castro's right hand man.
Stevenson, then 20, went on to win the first of three successive Olympic gold medals.
In Munich he had despatched the first of his three opponents, including Bobick, in a total record time of 7min 22 sec. He won the final on a walk-over when his Romanian opponent appeared with a massive plaster on his right hand, claiming he was unfit to fight. One wondered why.
Sadly 40 years on big Teo died last week, aged just 60, from a heart attack, leaving the world wondering just how great he might have been had he accepted a $5 million (£3 million/€4 million) offer from US promoters Don King and Bob Arum to turn professional and fight Ali.
Instead he bequeathed one of the most memorable quotes in the annals of the game. "What is $5 million worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?"
This prompted Sports Illustrated to run the headline: "He'd Rather Be Red Than Rich."
Interestingly, it was because of Ali that Dundee had known so much about Stevenson (whose sailor father was said to have Scottish ancestry). Ali's long-time masseur, Luis Sarria, was an exiled Cuban who still keenly followed the island's burgeoning boxing scene. He marked Dundee's card about Stevenson, who might well have won a fourth gold medal had Cuba not boycotted the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
Apart from that thundering right hand Stevenson also had exquisite ring skills, moving with similar feline grace and fleet-footed dexterity to Ali.
What a match-up that would have been had he defected like many other Cuban fighters, though I suspect Ali's experience, guile and ability to absorb heavy punches would have resulted in an ultimate points victory.
In staying loyal to his country, to communism and his leader, who had declared professional boxing illegal, Stevenson has to be bracketed with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as an iconic figure of the post-revolutionary Cuba.
He remained faithful not only to his political ideals, but the spirit of Olympism.
Stevenson won the 1986 world title at super-heavyweight, but retired in 1988 after another Cuban boycott – this time of the Seoul Olympics – cost him a further chance of a fourth gold. He ended his career with 302 wins and only 22 losses.
He then lived in relative luxury in Havana in a mansion given to him by Castro, becoming a coach with the national team, and vice-president of the national boxing federation.
But he liked the rum, and while travelling with the Cubans for a match against the US in 1999 he was arrested at Miami airport accused of butting an airline employee.
Released on bail, he returned to Havana, and never faced trial, but said that he had been provoked by the taunts of Cuban exiles.
Stevenson is not the only boxer to have won three Olympic gold medals. It was subsequently achieved by his successor to the Cuban heavyweight dynasty, Félix Savón (1992, 1996, 2000) , another fine, legendary boxer who also won six world amateur crowns, though he lacked Stevenson's charisma and wrecking ball punch.
And earlier another all-time great, the Hungarian László Papp, a stylish, light-middleweight and middleweight southpaw had won in London (1948), Helsinki (1952) and Melbourne (1956).
Although also from a communist country, unlike Stevenson he did turn pro while not forsaking his homeland.
But he was only permitted to box professionally in Western Europe, mainly Austria, where he became European champion. Unfortunately the Hungarian regime reneged on the concession as he was about to box for the world title.
Papp died in 2003, aged 77, never having been defeated in 29, pro fights losing only a handful of 301 amateur bouts.
When Papp (pictured above) won his third gold in Melbourne it coincided with two Britons also becoming Olympic champions – flyweight Terry Spinks and lightweight Dick McTaggart.
If Stevenson is the world's greatest amateur boxer then surely McTaggart is Britain's post-war finest, though Spinks, who died recently, Chris Finnegan, James DeGale and even dear old Audley Harrison (who, for all his blemishes as a pro, knew how to work the super-heavyweight scoring system in Sydney) could be considered contenders.
Like Stevenson, Scotland's McTaggart never turned pro. After his success in Melbourne, where he was awarded the Val Barker Trophy as the outstanding stylist, he went on to Rome four years later and returned with the bronze before going on to a third Olympics in Tokyo.
In 634 contests he lost only 24. He was European and Commonwealth champion and held five ABA titles. Some boxer.
So you might think he would have a place of honour at London's ExCeL during the Games.
Alas, all he was offered was, like every other British medallist, was a take it or leave it entry into a special lottery which, if successful, would, have allowed him to purchase tickets for around £250 ($393/€310).
McTaggart, now a 75-year-old pensioner, said he could not afford the tickets, let alone the travel expenses and accommodation in London.
"I'm more sad than angry," he says. "I would have loved to have been at the ringside, particularly if any of the British lads are going for gold.
"I don't want to make a fuss but I must admit I was hoping they were going to invite me to watch the finals."
I hear that Derek Mapp, chairman of GB Boxing, is now doing his best to work something out for someone who has given the sport a lot, without taking a penny out. Let's hope he succeeds.
On the subject of McTaggart (pictured above, right) I spoke recently with another former GB amateur star, Frankie Taylor, European bantamweight gold medalist who boxed in the same GB Olympic team as a young McTaggart in Rome in 1960.
Taylor tells me that, unlike today, when Team GB members have benefits and goodies ranging from cars to condoms showered upon them, in 1960 they each received a pair of blue suede shoes – and, would you believe, a carton of 200 Rothmans cigarettes!
"There was only one smoker in the team – Dick McTaggart – so we all gave them to him!"
As a fistic footnote on Olympic boxing, I also had a call from former GB coach Kevin Hickey, who reminded me that while amid the current selection controversies in a number of sports Hugh Robertson rightly says it is not a Sports Minister's job to interfere, it was not ever thus.
Hickey, 70, recalls that back in 1984 he named Clinton McKenzie at light-welterweight on his list submitted to selectors for the Los Angeles Olympics. When this was returned to him it had been replaced by that of Chris Davies, son of the team manager. A fuming Hickey, who threatened to quit, happened to mention it to the then Sports Minister, the peerless Denis Howell. Two days later he received call to say that McKenzie had been reinstated.
McKenzie (pictured above, right), later a British pro champion and brother of triple world champion Duke, went on to acquit himself well before being gamely outpointed by one Sugar Ray Leonard.
Yes, those were the days when Olympic rings rang true.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.