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Teofilo Stevenson vs. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fight That Never Was

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What do you make of the man who turned down millions upon millions of dollars, and the chance to see if he was better than The Greatest?

Teófilo Stevenson won his first Olympic gold medal in 1972 and his last world amateur championship in 1986. He won 302 fights and once went an unbelievable 11 years without a loss. Had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics, many think Stevenson would have won an unmatched four gold medals in boxing. Stevenson had already flattened the eventual 1984 gold medalist Tyrell Biggs twice.

An offer to fight Muhammad Ali came after Stevenson won his second Olympic gold in Montreal in 1976. Stevenson was at his peak. The world had never seen a heavyweight with the tools Stevenson brought into the ring. He was bigger (6'5″, 220 pounds) and deadlier than George Foreman, yet boxed with effortless grace and intelligence. Prior to Montreal, Stevenson had demolished every opponent that stood before him, relying on one of the most lethal right hands ever seen in boxing.

American promoters offered him five million dollars to turn pro and challenge Muhummad Ali. He refused.

He said of the offer, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Stevenson died at the age of 60 in Havana on June 11.

* * *

I traveled to Cuba with the intention of speaking with boxers who had turned down enormous offers to leave. When explaining my project to people, again and again I was met with amusement and skepticism. I heard the same sentiment repeated everywhere I looked for fighters: “Something must be wrong with you. The only journalists who come here for a story are looking at why we leave.”

Which makes sense. That very common journalistic approach argues against Cuba's values and attempts to undermine them. But I wasn't interested in that side of the story. Anyone can see why an elite athlete would want to leave a small, impoverished country where their skills were effectively uncashed winning lottery tickets. All they had to do was wash ashore almost anywhere else in the world and cash in. Yet the vast majority of Cuban boxers—and Cuban athletes in general—despite that incentive, stayed.

Was the decision to stay in Cuba honest? Could anyone, let alone an Olympic champion, turn down that much money without being either brainwashed or afraid for their lives or the lives of loved ones if they defected? I wanted to speak to the people themselves who had faced down that decision and lived with the consequences.

When I interviewed Teófilo Stevenson in his modest house—often reported as a mansion that Fidel Castro gave him—in a leafy Havana neighborhood, I asked him why he stayed.

“If people cannot understand how someone can turn down millions of dollars for a matter of principle, who seems brainwashed to you?”

“Forget the money then. As a competitor, don't you wish you ever had a chance to fight the best from your time?”

Stevenson pointed to a portrait of himself and Ali on his wall from Ali's 1998 humanitarian visit to the island.

“You mean my brother?”

The physical similarity between Ali and Stevenson is downright spooky.

“Don't you wish you'd had a chance to fight Ali?” I asked.

“How could I fight my brother?” he smiled, signaling for me to turn off the cameras so he could have a cigarette break.

Was the decision to stay in Cuba honest? Could anyone, let alone an Olympic champion, turn down that much money without being either brainwashed or afraid for their lives or the lives of loved ones if they defected? I wanted to speak to the people themselves who had faced down that decision and lived with the consequences.

When I interviewed Teófilo Stevenson in his modest house—often reported as a mansion that Fidel Castro gave him—in a leafy Havana neighborhood, I asked him why he stayed.

“If people cannot understand how someone can turn down millions of dollars for a matter of principle, who seems brainwashed to you?”

“Forget the money then. As a competitor, don't you wish you ever had a chance to fight the best from your time?”

Stevenson pointed to a portrait of himself and Ali on his wall from Ali's 1998 humanitarian visit to the island.

“You mean my brother?”

The physical similarity between Ali and Stevenson is downright spooky.

“Don't you wish you'd had a chance to fight Ali?” I asked.

“How could I fight my brother?” he smiled, signaling for me to turn off the cameras so he could have a cigarette break.

In the trailer ofmy filmSplit Decision, which profiles boxers like Stevenson who stayed, and some who left Cuba, I used a famous photo of a young Muhammad Ali sitting on a million dollars inside a bank vault, and another of Mike Tyson spreading out enormous amounts of cash inside his hands at a Don King-helmed press conference. The Cuban counterparts of those fighters, Teófilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, were being offered those same stacks of money.

But these men chose to become boxers before the money was spread out before their eyes. Their desire to fight goes deeper.

I interviewed Mike Tyson for my film. I asked him about a time early in his career when he had tearfully told a reporter that he missed fighting “when it wasn't just all about money.”

I asked Tyson what it was that he was fighting for before it was money.

“My mother was dead before I was 16. I'm the son of a pimp and an alcoholic. But if I ever brought anything home of value into my mother's house, she knew I'd stolen it. I never saw her proud of me in my entire life. Not once. And somewhere, somewhere I always had that in my mind. I was fighting to make this woman who caused me more pain than anyone in my life… ” Tyson cleared his throat and wiped his face a couple times. “Deep down I was always fighting to make this woman… I wanted to make this woman proud of me. That's what I was always fighting for.”

So how much is that worth?

* * *

Muhammad Ali, a man adept at finding weakness in his opponents and cruelly exploiting it to his own advantage, never saw weakness in Teófilo Stevenson's stand against turning professional and facing him. He never saw weakness in a boxer rejecting millions because of something he believed in.

Instead, in visits in 1996 and 1998, Ali donated over $1.7 million worth of medical aid to Cuba as a way of opposing the economic embargo against the island nation and to help alleviate the brutal economic crisis of that decade. Teófilo Stevenson was there to greet Muhammad Ali at Havana's international airport when the former champ arrived. They were inseparable during Ali's visit.

* * *

In 1977, the year Stevenson turned down the money, Muhammad Ali was fresh off winning decisions over the likes of Ken Norton, Alfredo Evangelista, and Earnie Shavers. The following year, he would be defeated by lightly regarded Leon Spinks.

Ali would be 35 years old, with his skills rapidly in decline, at the time Stevenson would have challenged him for the heavyweight title.

By contrast, Teófilo Steveson was 25 years old, at the height of his powers. Stevenson could have quickly dominated the heavyweight division had he turned professional. Given Stevenson's poise, size, and ability, it's hard to imagine favoring any pro heavyweight of the era against what Stevenson brought into the ring.

To look at photographs of Stevenson post Montreal is to look at a modern, massive heavyweight transported back in time. He has the height and physique of a Lennox Lewis with the footwork of someone several weight classes beneath him. Boxing had never seen anything like Stevenson, entering the ring with an elegant leg rising over the top rope. Perhaps even more lethal than the power in his right hand was the speed with which he could deliver it. Had Ali fought the Cuban, a fading but crafty champ would have met a new kind of heavyweight at the peak of his powers. Ali would have brought all the experience and punishment he'd earned in wars against Norton, Frazier, Chuvalo, Terrell, and Foreman. Where could Ali look to solve Stevenson in the ring? What did he have left in his tank to use against a force like Cuba's greatest champion?

Inevitably, Ali vs Stevenson would have served as a symbolic battle between the United States and Cuba, capitalism and communism, Castro's values instilled in his boxers pitted against the values of “merchandise” boxers from the rest of the world. Sport is to war as porn is to sex. We all need our proxies. Nothing cemented Castro's argument against the US more forcefully than when his boxers rejected money to sellout their country; their loyalty was even better than beating Americans in the ring. But the weight of that loyalty is telling even when the boxers take the money. With Cuban boxers leaving in record numbers, we get a new look into the system and its failures to keep fighters.

S.L. Price, author and senior writer at Sports Illustrated, once said that while Cuba might be the worst place in the world for an athlete, it might also be the best place in the world for a spectator.

I asked Stevenson and several of the other boxers still on the island, all with their careers behind them, if they had regrets about any decision they'd made.

Stevenson gave me a hard look. A silence spread out between us while he glared.

Stevenson had only agreed to be interviewed provided that I pay him (and not the state) for the privilege. It's an odd feeling paying $150 to someone to find out their reasons for turning down tens of millions. You can choose between the gestures of taking a little money or turning down a lot, and say one defines Stevenson, but I'm more inclined to say it defines you.

Sitting there interviewing one of the most famous men in a country I wasn't allowed to be in, trying to have an honest conversation with him about his life, I had no hope of getting an answer from Stevenson that said more about him and the place he came from than what my questions said about me and where I came from.

Stevenson was a heavy smoker late in life, but he pleaded that I not film him while smoking—he didn't want children to see him engaged in a bad habit. I agreed to not film, but mildly resented that he considered his smoking breaks to count against our agreed 75 minutes of interview time.

“Don't let the children see the champ smoking. I know for a journalist this is just the kind of thing you love to show about someone like me, but it does harm for others. I am not proud of this. It is not me being seen as a hypocrite that worries me. Just that kids would do something so stupid as this.”

I offered him one of my cigarettes.

“What is this?” he asked suspiciously.

“American Spirit.”

“You want Teófilo Stevenson to smoke American Spirit? Why did I ever let you into my house?”

* * *

I interviewed Stevenson in the early morning, but he was already noticeably intoxicated. He drank vodka from a water bottle for the duration of our conversation and toyed with my translator mixing up his Spanish with remarkably strange and amusing segues into Russian and English. He returned again and again to Michael Jackson as a subject of fascination.

At 59, he was still an imposing physical presence. When he locked the gate behind us with a padlock just before we stepped inside his house, I felt fear. Many Habaneros had mentioned scaling his fence to escape Stevenson and his antics when drunk. There were rumors he had a pistol on the premises, given to him as a gift from Fidel.

* * *

“Do I look like I regret any decision I've made?” Stevenson asked me.

I shrugged.

He took a long drink from his bottle and smiled. The translator I'd hired, a close personal friend of Stevenson's, gave me a hard look of his own. There was a great deal of reluctance on his part to reveal this side of his friend to the world.

“My friend,” Stevenson began, clearing his throat unsuccessfully, “I have no regrets. I am the happiest man in the world. And our time is up. I hope you got what you were looking for.”

Brin-Jonathan Butler is the director of the forthcoming documentarySplit Decision (rigondeaux.com), a documentaryexploring Cuban and American life through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with accepting or rejecting million dollar offers to abandon their country and step into a smuggler’s boat in the hopes of chasing the American Dream.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 287: Boxing Wars on Tap in Philadelphia and Las Vegas

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Those boxing wars continue.

Rival promoters battle it out in America as Matchroom Boxing shows off its newest prize Jaron Ennis while Top Rank presents a world title fight in the middleweight division.

Take your pick. Both are scintillating.

Philadelphia’s Ennis (31-0, 28 KOs) makes his promotional debut for the British boxing promotion company and faces David Avanesyan (30-4, 18 KOs) for the IBF welterweight world title on Saturday June 13 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

It’s been a year since Ennis last fought and meanwhile he was bestowed the IBF title without throwing a punch. He earns it on Saturday.

“Having this time off isn’t going to affect me at all. I just want to get back in the ring,” said Ennis whose last fight was a knockout win over Roiman Villa back on July 8, 2023.

A promotional war ensued for the right to sign Ennis. Matchroom Boxing was the winner and they’re itching to showcase one of the most talked-about welterweights to come along since Sugar Ray Leonard.

Avanesyan was selected to replace original opponent Cody Crowley who was forced to withdraw for medical reasons. The Armenian fighter has upset a few in his career including Sugar Shane Mosley and England’s Josh Kelly a few years back.

He’s not shy.

“I think that this is a 50-50 fight. He’s younger, He’s strong, it’s a very good fight,” said Avanesyan who lives in the United Kingdom.

Ennis had no qualms about facing a veteran like Avanesyan.

“It’s a better fight than Cody Crowley but I’ll beat him up, break him down and get the knockout,” Ennis said.

For the past several years boxing experts have been crowing about the Philadelphia prizefighter’s immense talent. On Saturday in front of a hometown crowd he continues the journey toward stardom.

Also, on the same card female WBC featherweight titlist Skye Nicolson (10-0) defends against Dominican stalwart Dyana Vargas (19-1). The Aussie southpaw makes her first real world title defense.

Las Vegas

IBF and WBO middleweight titlist Zhanibek Alimkhanuly (15-0, 10 KOs) defends against Andrei Mikhailovich (21-0, 13 KOs) on Saturday July 13, at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. ESPN+ will stream the Top Rank boxing card.

Its Kazakhstan versus Russia as Alimkhanuly continues the middleweight tradition established by his countryman Gennady “GGG” Golovkin. Can he continue to dominate?

Alimkhanuly, 31, is a southpaw slugger and still learning how to corral a moving target. But he has power and shouldn’t have a problem finding Mikhailovich who packs power too.

Mikhailovich, 26, fights out of New Zealand but has never had a professional fight outside of the island nation. Will he be able to ignore the glitter of Las Vegas?

Also, Southern California’s Ray Muratalla (20-0, 16 KOs) faces former super featherweight champion Tevin Farmer (33-5-1, 8 KOs) in a lightweight clash set for 10 rounds.

It’s another step-up fight for Muratalla who had a four-fight knockout streak snapped in his last fight against South Africa’s Xolisani Ndongeni this past March. It won’t get any easier against speedy Farmer.

Golden Boy and 360 Promotions

Tickets are available for the super welterweight showdown between Vergil Ortiz and Serhii Bohachuk that takes place on Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas.

A press conference was held today at the Golden Boy headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Both fighters were present to kick off the promotion that will feature the two fighters with almost 100 percent knockout rate.

Ortiz has won every fight by knockout. Bohachuk’s last fight ended in a win and was the first time he didn’t obtain a victory by knockout. But the Ukrainian fighter did pick up the interim WBC title with the win over Brian Mendoza who previously had knocked out current champion Sebastian Fundora.

Both Bohachuk and Ortiz train in Southern California.

Fights to Watch

Thurs. ESPN+ 11 a.m. Nelson Hysa (17-0) vs Thorsten Fuchs (13-1).

Sat. DAZN 5 p.m. Jaron Ennis (31-0) vs David Avanesyan (30-4-1); Skye Nicolson (10-0) vs Dyana Vargas (19-1).

Sat. ESPN+ 8 p.m. Zhanibek Alimkhanuly (15-0) vs Andrei Mikhailovich (21-0); Ray Muratalla (20-0) vs Tevin Farmer (33-5-1).

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Trevor McCumby Fell Off the Map and Now He’s Back with a Big Fight on the Horizon

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Trevor McCumby Fell Off the Map and Now He’s Back with a Big Fight on the Horizon

There’s a church in Arizona that has its own motto: “A church that cares where you’re going and not where you’ve been.” It’s the catchline of The Rock, a non-denominational Christian church in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria.

That phrase undoubtedly resonates with Trevor McCumby, a member of the congregation. “I’ve been to some dark places,” says McCumby who was working at a 7-11-style convenience store a few years ago and now finds himself on the cusp of some big paydays in the sweet science.

If McCumby’s name rings a bell, it likely relates to something that had its genesis on Nov. 26, 2016, when he knocked out Donovan George in the opening round on a card in Las Vegas.

The result was changed to “no contest” when traces of two banned substances were discovered in McCumby’s pre-fight urine specimen. Also, McCumby acknowledged receiving an intravenous infusion to rehydrate after the weigh-in which was against the rules of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

It wasn’t until July of the following year when McCumby learned his fate. The boxing commission suspended him for 18 months, retroactive to Nov. 26, 2016, and fined him $3,750.

He maintains that he never knowingly took a PED. He pointed the blame at a multi-vitamin supplement allegedly contaminated with anabolic agents. (Trevor’s advice to his fellow boxers: If using a supplement, save the receipt and keep the empty container; it may come in useful someday.)

McCumby quit boxing at this juncture but returned in 2018 and recorded two more wins, pushing his record to 25-0 with 17 knockouts. Eleven of those kayos came in the opening round and that doesn’t include his demolition of Donovan George which effectively never happened.

And then, Trevor McCumby fell off the map. Four-and-a-half years would elapse before he returned to the ring, his comeback stalled by a knee injury suffered in sparring.

A light heavyweight during his run to 25-0, he returned as a super middleweight. Two wins in Phoenix prefaced his ProBox debut on Jan. 31 of this year when he won a lopsided 10-round decision over 17-3-1 Christopher Pearson. Up next is former IBF world super middleweight champion Caleb Plant who has been in with the top dogs in the division. It’s not official yet, but it’s an open secret that McCumby and Plant have agreed to touch gloves on August 17, likely in Florida.

Trevor McCumby, now 31 years old, was introduced to boxing by his father, a police officer in Niles, Illinois, and former Marine who once served as a presidential honor guard. The minimum age for an amateur boxer in Illinois was eight, but the elder McCumby lied about his son’s age and Trevor started competing with oversized gloves at the age of seven. (Trevor McCumby and his dad are pictured in a story about amateur boxing in the Windy City that ran in the Chicago Tribune in April of 1999. At the time, little Trevor would have been six years old.)

The McCumbys then lived in Yorkville, Illinois, a town roughly 50 miles southwest of Chicago. Trevor recalls traveling almost every day after school to the gritty south side of Chicago for training. Sweating side-by-side with inner city kids couldn’t help but speed up his development. He had a fine amateur record (127-11 by his count) and, at age 17, with the Olympics yet two years away, was ready to say “yes” when he got a surprise call from Cameron Dunkin who wanted to manage him. Renowned for his keen eye as a talent scout, the late Mr. Dunkin had one of the foremost stables in boxing.

McCumby was then living in Phoenix. He would finish high school in Las Vegas before making his pro debut in Los Angeles at age 18.

Looking back, Trevor says, “I didn’t take boxing as seriously as I should have. After each win, it was time to go out and party.” His hiatus from boxing was sobering on many levels. Working in a convenience store was humbling and his priorities changed when he met Kenzie (short for McKenzie), a member of the worship committee at The Rock and his future wife. Trevor is now the father of a 3-year-old son, a 1 ½-year-old daughter and there’s another girl on the way, due in November. As for the knee injury, a torn ACL, Trevor says, “it took about a whole year of rehab but feels better now than it ever did.”

McCumby opened his camp for the Plant fight during the week of July 4 at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas. His training is being coordinated by Brandon Woods, a protégé of Hall of Fame trainer Kenny Adams.

He and Caleb Plant have a common opponent in a manner of speaking. Plant went 12 rounds with David Benavidez in his last outing, losing a unanimous but relatively close decision. The “strength of schedule factor” in Plant’s favor will weigh heavily in setting the odds for McCumby vs. Plant. But McCumby has also shared the ring with Phoenix-native Benavidez, and on many occasions. “We gave each other great work,” he says. “You could have sold tickets to those sparring sessions.”

There was a time when it seemed that Trevor McCumby would be remembered mostly for putting his hand in the cookie jar and failing to maximize his talent. But hold the phone. His boxing journey is far from finished and this is a story that may ultimately prove uplifting.

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Fernando Martinez Ratches Up the Heat in the Hot Super Flyweight Division

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On Sunday in Tokyo, Fernando Martinez picked up a second piece of the world super flyweight title with a mild upset of Kazuto Ioka. Martinez owned the IBF belt and added Ioka’s WBA scalp to his bedpost. That gives the Argentinian globetrotter one more belt than Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez if you are keeping score.

Of course, there isn’t a little man on this planet who would be favored over “Bam” at the moment, excepting Naoya Inoue who competes two divisions up at 122. The San Antonio southpaw was so impressive in dismantling Juan Francisco Estrada on July 29 that he stifled all talk of whether he belongs on the pound-for-pound list. The debate now is about his placement; how high should it be? But despite Bam’s towering presence in the 115-pound division, there are some good fights out there for him beginning with Martinez.

Kazuto Ioka brought quite a resume. The first fighter from Japan to win world titles in four weight divisions, he was 31-2-1 heading in with both losses by split decision and was appearing in his twenty-fifth world title fight. But Martinez showed no fear of him. He took the fight to Ioka and closed strong, winning by scores of 120-108, 117-111, and 116-112. (The 120-108 tally by California judge Edward Hernandez Sr was assailed as ludicrous; the fight was much closer than that…but there was no disputing the verdict, the right guy won.)

A fight with Bam Rodriguez, who was in attendance, would be the most lucrative for Fernando Martinez, but he has other options. WBO belt-holder Kosei Tanaka is out there as is former pound-for-pound king Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez. Both are in action this month. Chocolatito (51-4, 41 KOs) fights this coming Friday on his home turf in Managua against Colombian journeyman Rober Barrera (27-5). Tanaka (20-1, 11 KOs) defends his belt on July 20 in Tokyo against Mexico’s Jonathan Rodriguez (25-2-1). Tanaka has won four straight since getting dominated and stopped by Ioka in 2020.

The outcome of the Ioka-Martinez bout was no surprise to Matt McGrain who previewed the contest in these pages. And, as McGain noted, Martinez doesn’t have much time left to build up his fan base outside South America and the Orient. His current record (17-0, 9 KOs) betrays the fact he turns 33 next week.

The smaller weight divisions have never attracted a large following in the United States, but that has something to do with a historical dearth of American-born fighters at the pinnacles. Bam Rodriguez is making even casual fans stand up and take notice and his ascent comes at a time when his division is percolating.

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