The Cuban Ali
Boxing Legend Teofilo Stevenson Spurned Millions for the Island He Loves
The man who could have fought Muhammad Ali –no, more than that: who could have been Muhammad Ali, famous throughout the world and rich beyond imagining– was fully awake after a drowsy morning. He said he'd be ready to go to lunch as soon as he washed up and changed his clothes. Here's what Teofilo Stevenson did next: he took a big galvanized bucket out to the front yard, filled it with water from the garden tap, lugged the bucket inside, hoisted it on top of the kitchen range and turned on the flame.
He went back out to sit in the shade with an old friend who had dropped by, Oscar Torres, who used to be one of the doctors for the Cuban national boxing team. As is often the case with men who have known each other for decades, there was more silence between them than conversation. Across the street –a quiet suburban lane of fairly new houses, one of the better addresses in greater Havana– music poured from a neighbor's radio. It was salsa, hot and sweet like Cuban coffee.
The men sipped glasses of fresh coconut milk mixed with splashes of rum from a bottle the doctor had brought, a combination called saoco. It was early for rum, but this was a quiet celebration: The day before, in a full-dress ceremony attended by Fidel Castro himself, Stevenson had been honored as one of the top 100 Cuban athletes of the century. His ovation had been the loudest of all, and the warmest.
Stevenson went inside twice to check the water on the stove. When it was hot, he carried it to the bathroom and poured it into the tub. Now he could take a bath. There's no hot water from the tap at the house of the man who could have been Muhammad Ali, just cold.
Everyone else was ready to go, but Stevenson refused to hurry. He shaved, dressed neatly, combed his salt-and-pepper hair, and took his time pulling on a pair of Italian-style black boots -- then abruptly walked out to the car, with an air of impatience. On the drive to his favorite restaurant, as slowly as he had zipped up those well-worn boots, Stevenson slipped into his public persona.
He became more animated, more voluble; he smiled more frequently, and a light came into his eyes. Now he wanted to talk, especially about Ali -- their friendship, and their unconsummated rivalry. He recalled Ali's last visit to Cuba, three years ago: "Someone asked Ali what would have happened if we had fought, and he said it would be a draw. I think that's right. It would have been a draw."
By the time he stepped out of the car he was fully alive. He suffered backslaps from the parking attendants. He signed autographs. He shadowboxed with the bartender and flirted with the waitresses. He posed for pictures. He shook a dozen hands. He remembered everyone's name. It took him 15 minutes to get from the door to his table, and when he finally sat down he was wearing an enormous, satisfied grin.
Thus did Teofilo Stevenson begin another day on the job.
Officially he is vice president of the Cuban Boxing Federation, but whether he bothers to show up at his office is largely irrelevant. His real work -- his role in today's Cuba, his mission, his life -- consists of something much more important: being a hero. No, more than that: being The Hero.
In 1972, at the age of 20, Teofilo Stevenson went to Munich and won the Olympic gold medal in boxing, heavyweight division. In 1976, he went to Montreal and did it again. In 1980, he went to Moscow and did it again. Three straight Olympic Games, three straight gold medals. But that doesn't begin to tell why he's such a hero. He was heir to the great traditions of Cuban boxing, stretching back to the dazzling featherweight champion Eligio Sardinas -- better known as "Kid Chocolate" -- in the 1930s. Stevenson was tall and graceful, and he fought elegantly, keeping opponents at bay with his long jab, wearing them down, and then finishing them off with a right hand like clenched thunder. Only two of his many Olympic bouts even went the full three rounds. But that, too, is just part of the story.
The rest is crisply told in a 1974 headline from Sports Illustrated: "He'd Rather Be Red Than Rich."
"Given two, maybe three more years, he probably could become the professional heavyweight champion of the world," the magazine article said. "But he most assuredly will not."
After his Olympic victory in 1972, Stevenson was offered $1 million by American fight promoters to defect, come to the United States and turn professional. They offered more money throughout the next decade as his victories mounted. Stevenson was handsome, he spoke English, he was a great fighter with a legitimate shot at becoming champion, and he had bankable charisma, the same kind of charisma that Ali had. He even looked like Ali, enough that the two men could be brothers.
That was the fight promoters dreamed of, the money fight: Stevenson vs. Ali. "Everybody wanted Teofilo," recalls Angelo Dundee, Ali's legendary manager, who at 80 is still hard at work in South Florida, cruising the gyms, looking for the next Mike Tyson, the next Larry Holmes. (There will never be a "next" Ali.) "I mean, I never went after him because I had the champ, I had Ali. I had the guy who was gonna beat him, see? But everybody else wanted Teofilo, and I mean everybody. They were gonna give him a million dollars. And a million dollars then was money!"
And Stevenson turned it down.
He turned all the offers down, despite having every chance to defect during his frequent trips abroad. He stayed in Cuba, where boxing is all-amateur, where there's no Don King, no Vegas bling-bling, no pay- per-view. He stayed to write a grander legend, and to revel in the love of his compatriots and the praise of his government, especially its Maximum Leader.
In a post-Olympics speech at the Plaza de la Revolucion, where he gathers the multitudes, Fidel Castro praised Stevenson for rejecting the "traffickers of bodies and of souls" who were trying to tempt him with riches. Not for the last time, he spoke of Stevenson as an example for others to follow.
On the wall of his sitting room Stevenson displays a photograph of himself with Castro following one of his early triumphs. Castro wears a boyish look of uncomplicated joy as he raises Stevenson's hand like a referee signaling the winner of a fight. The meaning of the image couldn't be clearer: Whenever Stevenson stretched some lug out on the canvas, it was as if Castro himself had KO'ed one of his many enemies.
In 1972, Castro's revolution was just 13 years old, barely in its adolescence. Teofilo Stevenson became the revolution's first great sports hero -- not just because he won, but because he stayed. And because he believed. Today both the boxer and the revolution have made it into restless middle age. Both have endured blows, bruises, setbacks and wrong turns. Cuba is a nation that does state-of-the-art biotechnology but struggles to produce basics like paper and soap, a one-party state that provides both universal literacy and universal hard times. Stevenson is a garlanded Hero of the State who has to heat his bath water on the stove.
And who still believes.
The name is pronounced tay-OH-fee-lo, with the stress on the second syllable. That sleepy morning, before he heated his bath water and got ready to go out, he was shaking a hangover. The night before, after the ceremony for the top 100 athletes, he'd done some not-so-quiet celebrating. Now it was almost noon and The Hero was back among the living, but barely.
At 49, he is shockingly unchanged from the Apollonian giant who used to frighten his opponents half into submission before pounding them the rest of the way. The big muscles are diminished but he's kept in shape, and he still carries himself like a king, chin up and shoulders thrown back. He stands 6-5 but looks taller. His face is unlined; if he dyed his hair, he could pass for 35. "You must be hungry," he said. "I'll bring you some fish that I prepared myself. It's very good, you'll see. I'm a very good cook." But instead of getting up and going into the kitchen, he yelled the magic word: "Fraymaris!"
Fraymaris, a petite woman with skin the color of winter wheat, is Stevenson's wife. As is the case in most Cuban homes, she is expected to act as an extension of her husband's arms and legs, meaning that she had to drop whatever she was doing and go get the plate of fish that he just as easily could have fetched. The couple have a young son, David, who took my presence as an excuse to misbehave. Fraymaris had to be in three places at once -- helping her husband, tending to a guest and running after a 6-year-old who was betting he wouldn't be punished in front of company.
She is Stevenson's fourth wife. He has the fame and status to spend the rest of his life choosing and losing trophy wives, but this time, his friends say hopefully, he seems to have met his match. Fraymaris is trophy-beautiful and also fiercely intelligent -- she works as a lawyer, and doesn't hesitate to subject her famous husband to a little cross-examination when necessary.
I had arrived unannounced at 10 that Saturday morning. I had no phone number for Stevenson, but a friend of mine who lives in Havana knew he lived in a development called Reparto Nautica several miles west of downtown. It's an upscale neighborhood where most of the homes are well-kept and most people have cars. Stevenson's four-bedroom house, occupying most of a tiny lot, is protected by a chain-link fence. A red Mitsubishi sedan sat in the driveway.
Shirtless and in sandals, Stevenson came to the gate, unlocked it and mumbled pleasantries, then issued three instructions: Come in. Sit. Wait.
The house is far from sumptuous, but comfortable -- spotless linoleum floors, casement windows framed by floral curtains, utilitarian furniture. There is even a small swimming pool filling the little back yard, though it contains just a couple of feet of black, brackish water. Stevenson explained that it was far too expensive to fill and maintain the thing. (Stevenson has a second house as well -- a country home, in the little eastern town where he grew up. He keeps a second car out there, a Russian-made Lada. Both houses, and both cars, were gifts from the government. (Another retired boxer, a former member of the national team, told me that every Cuban athlete who wins Olympic gold has the same first reaction: "There, that's my house.")
The walls of one sunny little room were covered with memories: The photo of Stevenson with Castro. An autographed photograph of Ali, and a set of Ali's boxing gloves, also signed. An engraved plaque from actor and martial artist Chuck Norris, of all people. Pictures of Stevenson in the ring, including a wall-size collage from one of his biggest fights, the destruction of highly touted American boxer Duane Bobick in the quarterfinals of the 1972 Olympics. Bobick had actually defeated Stevenson once before, and was favored to win the gold medal. The photos on his wall chronicle Stevenson's revenge: The biggest picture shows Bobick, one of boxing's occasional Great White Hopes, hugging the canvas and clearly not about to get up.
Stevenson's fights were amazing to witness, but you had to watch carefully because the endings were sudden. Typical was his win over the Romanian heavyweight Mircea Simon in the 1976 Olympics. ABC covered the games that year; Howard Cosell called the fight, with George Foreman, the gold medalist eight years earlier, sitting in as color commentator. Cosell began by stating flatly that Stevenson would be the heavyweight champion if he defected and turned professional. Foreman, who was thinner then and had much more hair, agreed.
From the opening bell Stevenson stalks the Romanian, and the Romanian ducks and covers and runs away. Stevenson keeps throwing long jabs with his left, and occasionally one gets through, but the first round ends with few blows having landed. The second round is a repeat of the first -- Stevenson advances, Simon retreats, Cosell laments the "disgraceful" lack of action. Foreman decides that although Stevenson clearly is winning, the Romanian is making him look bad. He revises his opinion: Stevenson is too patient, he says, and might not be able to win in the professional ranks after all.
Then, early in the third round, the Romanian starts to fight back. He actually lands a couple of blows. It is clear that his was a survival strategy, and having survived to the last round, he hopes to get lucky. Stevenson is still implacable, but he's getting hit. This could be an upset in the making . . .It's over. Only in the slow-motion replay is it clear what happens. Simon gets confident enough to come within range, just for an instant, and Stevenson hits him flush in the jaw with an overhand right. The Romanian goes down faster than the Nasdaq on a bad day, and when he struggles to his feet his legs have turned to rubber. The referee stops the contest.
After the fight, Foreman changes his opinion yet again: Stevenson would have to "pay his dues" as a professional, but "I still say he would be champion of the world." "Everybody says I always did the damage with my right. But really it was my left. People don't understand that. Pum, pum, pum, with the left. That's what hurt them. Pum, pum, pum. And then the right."
Stevenson was commanding attention at the restaurant table, giving a graphic tutorial on his fighting style. Every time he said "pum" he demonstrated by hitting my shoulder, and it hurt like hell. On meeting him I had noticed that he has soft hands, as many boxers do. His fingers are relatively short, given his height, but the fist they make is huge, as if he's wearing brass knuckles under the skin. His arm span, almost 84 inches from fingertip to fingertip, is freakishly long. "I compared my arm with Ali's, and his only came to there," Stevenson said, pegging Ali's reach with either arm at three inches shy of his own. "Pum."
He has visited his friend Ali in the States, and Ali has been to Cuba twice, most recently in 1998. "I sat with him at this same table," Stevenson said. "He's doing okay. He doesn't like to talk in public, because of the Parkinson's, but he can talk. He's all there. People who don't like boxing always say, 'Look at Ali, he boxed all that time and he's got Parkinson's.' I tell them, 'Hey, look at the pope. He's got Parkinson's, too, and as far as I know, he didn't box.' "
We were at one of the best-known restaurants in Havana, a venerable institution called El Aljibe, where everybody who's anybody eventually shows up. Fraymaris was there, along with little David. Torres, the doctor, had dropped by as well. A Mexican businessman who spied Stevenson across the room sent over a bottle of three-year-old rum, with his compliments, and then came to join the party. A woman who had been sitting at another table approached with apologies and asked for an autograph -- her son would never forgive her if she didn't, she said. Stevenson put her at ease with a smile, then asked her son's name and wrote him a personal message.
Stevenson seemed relaxed and in his element, so I asked the questions I had come to ask: Why didn't you go for it? Why didn't you leave? "What is a million dollars," he said, "compared to the love of my people?"
It was a pat answer, the one he'd been giving for at least 25 years, according to newspaper clippings. I tried a different angle: Quite a few Cuban baseball players, such as the Yankees' Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, have defected over the years, but not many boxers. Why is that? Stevenson insisted on answering in the English he had learned as a child, rather than in Spanish. "Because they don't have to," he said. "Because in Cuba, everyone goes to school. School is the light, because when you go to school, you can see. They don't have to resort to boxing to earn money. It's not your eyes that you see with, it's your mind."
The vocabulary was rusty, but the thrust of what he had said was clear enough. Time and again he has spoken of his admiration for Cuba's socialist system and his appreciation of the revolution's accomplishments, particularly in wiping out illiteracy, providing an impressive level of medical care and making sure everyone has a roof over his head, even if sometimes it's a leaky one. One could point out the failings and misdeeds of the Cuban regime, but there was no reason to doubt his sincerity. Still, the answer seemed incomplete.
We spent more than two hours in the restaurant, eating chicken and steak, talking and laughing, drinking rum. Stevenson told war stories. His classical style in the ring, he said, was as much Russian as Cuban, learned from the Soviet trainers sent over by Moscow to further the glory of world socialism. "He had a Russian name," Stevenson said of one of his teachers, "but he was really a Kazakh."
At one point, Stevenson went over to the bar and came back with a huge, custom-rolled cigar, one of the finest you could buy in the country that makes the best cigars in the world. It would have cost $25, even in Cuba –and I knew that Stevenson didn't have $25 on him and couldn't possibly have bought the thing. Watching the interaction from across the room, I was sure that he had somehow muscled, cajoled or embarrassed the management into giving it to him. He didn't light it; he just put it in his shirt pocket. I made a note and put a star next to it: This was a different side of Stevenson. Celebrity, I supposed, had its privileges.
A few minutes later, the woman who had obtained the autograph for her son came back over to our table. "We're leaving now, but I just wanted to thank you for being so generous," she said to Stevenson. "You were so kind, even though I interrupted your meal. This is something that my son will always treasure." Stevenson offered to pose for a picture, but the woman didn't have a camera.
We finished eating at El Aljibe, and 15 minutes of hugging and hand-shaking later we were back out on the street. Torres, the doctor, had gone off to pick up his daughter from a soccer game, and Fraymaris had taken David back to the house to do his homework. Stevenson was on the loose, which is how he likes it. He gave directions to the house of Alcides Sagarra, trainer of the national team that won four boxing gold medals in Sydney. Sagarra wasn't home but we spent half an hour there anyway, as Stevenson flirted with the women of the household, roughhoused with teenagers, hugged little girls and playfully cuffed little boys. Most of the kids were from somewhere in the neighborhood –they had rushed over when word spread that Stevenson was there.
"Now I'm taking you someplace else," Stevenson said, when we made it back out to the car. "I'm taking you to meet a woman who is like an aunt to me." We drove a few blocks and parked in front of an apartment complex. The usual crowd gathered when Stevenson got out of the car. This time, in addition to the neighbors and passersby who stopped to greet him, people were shouting down from balconies.
Stevenson stopped at one door, positioning himself so that he would be out of the line of sight of whoever answered it. "Go ahead and knock," he whispered. "Ask her if she knows where Teofilo is. Ask if she's seen him around." The door opened, and there stood a dark, handsome woman with a million-dollar smile. The joke didn't work; she was onto him already. "I'm not sure where Teofilo is, but I know he's around here somewhere," she said. "I was upstairs, on the balcony, and I saw him get out of the car. Teo, where are you?" Stevenson popped out, and they fell into each other's arms. "This is Aracelis," he said, beaming. "My family." I made a note, with a star: This was another side of Stevenson. Suddenly, he was 13 years old.
Teofilo Stevenson Lawrens was born March 29, 1952, and grew up in Las Tunas Province in a little town on the north coast called Puerto Padre. His father was an immigrant from St. Vincent; his mother, though born in Cuba, was the daughter of immigrants from St. Kitts. (Hence Stevenson's childhood English.) In those years, Cuba's eastern provinces were full of impoverished guest workers from other Caribbean islands who had come, like Stevenson's parents, for jobs in the cane fields and sugar mills.
According to the story he has told over the years, his potential as a boxer was discovered when a male teacher humiliated him at school one day and he decked the man. Stevenson didn't repeat that story to me. What he said was that his favorite sport, the one he hoped to play at a high level some day, was basketball. Boxing was something he did because he seemed to be good at it.
In 1959 Castro's revolution triumphed and the schools were transformed. Students with special talents were separated out for special training. At age 13, Teofilo Stevenson was asked to leave his home and come to Havana to train as a boxer at the national sports complex. "I lost 14 of my first 20 fights," he said. "I hated getting hit. What happened was that I decided I hated losing even more." Stevenson's mother decided not to accompany her son. Instead, she left him in the care of a friend who had moved to Havana several years earlier. "You take care of him," Stevenson's mother had told her. "You're the one who understands him." That woman was Miss Aracelis, in whose apartment we now sat. She swore that she was 75 but seemed much younger; she had no wrinkles, her muscles were firm and toned, and she moved with the quickness and bounce of a woman in her forties. The room where we sat was tiny, typical of Havana apartments, crammed with chairs, a sofa, knicknacks, a little dining table. In a corner sat a small refrigerator; there was no room for it in the closet-size kitchen.
She and Stevenson reminisced about old times, when he had been an unsophisticated country boy plunged into the big city, with all its temptations. He would train during the week, and on weekends he'd come to Miss Aracelis's apartment –it was the closest thing to a home that he knew throughout his teen years, until he won his first Olympic gold medal and Castro gave him a house.
As we sipped more rum, Miss Aracelis laughed out loud at the memory of those weekend visits. "You have to remember that he was a champion at a very young age, a champion in Cuba before he won the Olympics," she said. "He was famous, and the girls loved that. Hah! I swear that one year he came every weekend, and over the course of that year he brought 49 different girls here to meet me. Every time he would come, there would be another girl. He'd say, 'Aracelis, I'd like to introduce my girlfriend,' and I'd have to pretend and say, 'Oh, I'm so glad to meet you, I'm so happy for the two of you.' Oh, Teo, you were terrible." She wagged her finger at Stevenson, and he grinned like a little boy. Teofilo Stevenson, Hero of Cuba, had vanished. In his place sat young Teo, child of the revolution.
On January 1, 1959, when Castro took power, Stevenson was a young black boy from the provinces, at a time when young black boys from the provinces looked forward to lives of backbreaking work and soul-sapping poverty. The revolution promised bounteous fruits –care for the body, development of the mind, relief from material want, pride in self and country, a tomorrow without horizons. I have met very few Cubans who feel the revolution has given them all of these things in full measure, but Teofilo Stevenson is one of them. He got the whole package.
He paid for it, though. He surrendered much of his youth to the revolution, and in his role as hero he never found -- at least until now -- a stable family life. He drinks more rum than he should, and he knows it. He's working on his fourth marriage. "That one he has now, Fraymaris, I have to say that she's the only one who ever seemed to know how to handle him," Miss Aracelis told me, clapping Stevenson with a big hug. "Because our man here is not easy. No, he is not easy."
After a while Miss Aracelis started tidying up and checking the time, and it became apparent to me that as happy as she was to see Stevenson, she had something else to do. I suggested it was time for us to go. "Five more minutes," Stevenson said. "We'll just stay for five more minutes." Half an hour later, he finally stood to leave. "No, not home," he said, when we were back in the car. "Turn right here. Now left. We're going one more place."
We ended up at the modest home of Luis Octavio Samada, a retired air force general. Stevenson and Samada are friends –how they met never became clear, and it was difficult to see just what they had in common. Samada is in his seventies, a grand old man who soldiered with Castro's brother Raul during the revolution and then went on to have a long and illustrious military career. After pouring us a bit of rum –rare is the Cuban house where a bottle of rum is not quickly produced for visitors– he drew diagrams on the coffee table of the defensive preparations that thwarted the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. That time, Samada manned a post that saw no action.
We chatted for a while about nothing in particular –sports, beautiful women, the indignities of advanced age. Samada's 99-year-old mother-in-law sat on a bench in the corner, watching television, rocking slowly back and forth. At one point the electricity went out for a brief while, and Samada's wife had to fetch candles, but the mother-in-law kept staring at the blank screen, kept rocking; she never missed a beat. As Samada and Stevenson talked about his wives, about his old girlfriends, about the nights he had slept on the Samadas' couch, the nature of the relationship gradually became clearer, even if its genesis remained obscure.
This was something very much like father-son. The old general was very proud of the young boxer, and loved him very much. All of Cuba was very proud of the young boxer, and loved him very much.
Before we left, Stevenson reached into his pocket, took out the cigar he had gotten at El Aljibe and gave it to Samada. "Teo is so good to me," Samada said to me. "He knows that I like cigars, and he knows that I can't afford them. Every time he comes to see me, every time, he brings me a cigar."
It was getting late. Time to go. "Five more minutes," Stevenson said. "Five more minutes." It was an hour later when I finally had him back at his house and safely in the care of Fraymaris. "There is really nobody like Teofilo. He is such a good person, very humble, very easy-going. He occupies a special place in Cuba." The speaker was Alberto Juantorena, the Cuban track star -- he was so strong and so swift in the 400-meter and 800-meter runs that they called him El Caballo, The Horse -- who now serves as deputy chief of Cuba's entire sports apparatus, and, indirectly, Stevenson's boss. But those words could have come from almost any Cuban official, or for that matter any of Stevenson's friends. Mention Stevenson's name and you get a smile, and kind words, and abundant praise. But often there's a slightly patronizing tone, a hint of indulgence.
Because, in truth, there are things to allow for. There's the rum. During the course of an average day, Stevenson consumes a lot of it. He's a big man with big appetites and big capacities, and he never seems drunk, never stumbles or slurs. His aim seems to be to pace himself; he alternates sips of rum with sips of water, and somehow manages to achieve a kind of equilibrium. He says he has a technique: "You have to dominate the rum. You don't let the rum dominate you."
His friend Oscar Torres told me several times that Stevenson recently had been given a complete physical, which showed him in excellent health. "Don't forget to note that," he said. "He's really in very good shape. There's nothing wrong with him." But I also heard Torres tell Stevenson flatly: "Teo. Too much rum. Too much."
Then there's his driving. Stevenson is always crashing his cars. Mostly he gets into fender-benders, but in 1987 he was driving his Lada, on a dark spring night, and collided with a motorcyclist who was killed instantly. Stevenson was taken into custody and held for several days. He told authorities that the biker was "driving in the middle of the road without his lights on," and that he never saw him. Eventually he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
He has had off-road mishaps as well (not counting his marriages). In 1977, one of the dangerous alcohol-fueled stoves that are found in so many Cuban homes exploded in his face. Stevenson suffered burns severe enough for some commentators to worry that he would have to give up his boxing career. The injuries turned out not to be so severe, though, and Stevenson went on to win his third Olympic gold medal three years later. Today he bears no apparent scars. His most recent tangle came in October 1999, at the Miami airport. He was returning from a charity event in Washington organized by Ali. A United Airlines agent named Pedro de Leon demanded to see his ticket, and Stevenson –who, like most loyal supporters of the Castro government, is deeply suspicious of the entire city of Miami– felt he was being hassled and refused to cooperate. Words were exchanged; something of a scuffle ensued. The ticket fell to the floor, Stevenson bent to retrieve it, and when he stood up again de Leon received a head-butt that left him with a cut lip and a chipped tooth. The police were called, but Stevenson was allowed to post bond and board his plane for Havana.
Stevenson said later that de Leon had provoked him. "He starts to spout insults against the commander-in-chief, against our government, against all of us," Stevenson told the Havana weekly Trabajadores. "I tried to ignore him at first, but when he went after Fidel, I had to say to him, 'Don't screw around with me, because I'll kill you right here.' " Where the two Cuban metropolises, Havana and Miami, are concerned, bygones can never be bygones. Assault charges are still pending against Stevenson, and until some sort of deal is worked out, he risks arrest if he sets foot on U.S. soil.
A few days later, I got to see Stevenson work his hero magic in a much larger room. The Rafael Trejo Gymnasium, a venerated boxing arena tucked down one of the narrow streets of Old Havana, was hosting an afternoon of official competition for young boxers. Stevenson decided to drop by. The Trejo gym is to Cuban boxing what certain playgrounds in New York City are to basketball -- source, sanctuary, shrine. Every day, after school, boys as young as 9 come to the Trejo to learn how to box. The instructors are former boxers, sometimes former members of the national team. The gym is run by the state now, like most institutions in Cuba, but it far predates Castro's revolution; the great Kid Chocolate himself taught at the Trejo in the 1940s, after he retired from the professional ring.
The entrance is on Calle Cuba. You walk through a doorway and beneath a set of bleachers, and emerge into an open-air quadrangle in the middle of the block, walled in by more bleachers and the back sides of apartment buildings. At the center of the enclosure is an elevated boxing ring, its precious canvas protected from Havana's sudden rainstorms by a canopy. There's nothing deluxe about the Trejo. Most of the equipment is old and worn, and the rest is newly donated by foreign tourists who wandered in and became enchanted by the place. Usually, on a given afternoon, about two dozen boys come in to train. Some will be skipping rope, some bashing the tattered heavy bags, some doing calisthenics, some shadowboxing. A pair of boys might be in the ring wearing gloves and headgear, sparring, working, making their moves but putting no force behind their punches. A couple of cigar-chomping old guys from the neighborhood, boxers themselves once, drop by most days to provide running commentary.
Sparring was one thing; a real competition, like the one that Stevenson had come to watch, was something else. These were purposeful encounters, with punches meant to hurt. Theoretical concepts like footwork and hand speed suddenly became quite practical, determining who would be a giver of humiliation and pain, and who a receiver. Two evenly-matched teenaged opponents were in the ring when Stevenson arrived, a clumsy slugger and a punchless dancer. It didn't take long for the distracted crowd to notice the tall, familiar figure who strode toward the ring and then stopped, right in the open where he could hardly be missed.
Trainers, many of them old friends, came over to greet him. Kids pointed at him but didn't quite know whether it was okay to approach. At the next break, the announcer boomed over the PA system that "the great champion" Teofilo Stevenson had arrived. Then, in a flash, he was out of sight. I found him sitting on a bench beneath the bleachers. He was smoking a cigarette –in his fighting years he would quit a few days before a bout, to let his lungs clear out, and then pick up the habit again afterward. He was hiding, he said, because he didn't want all the kids to see his bad example.
But the kids spotted him, and they quickly had him cornered. They wanted autographs. Most didn't have anything for the champion to write on, so they asked me for sheets of paper from my reporter's notebook. Stevenson sat there for more than half an hour, signing his name for the boys who scrambled down out of the bleachers in seemingly endless numbers. The interesting thing was the way he changed the event. There was a buzz in the bleachers that hadn't been there before. The trainers ramped up their intensity, yelling louder into their fighters' ears. The boys in the ring stood taller and tried to remember to move the right way, the way a boxer moves, pushing off with the right foot to move left and the left foot to move right.
They remembered to jab. The winners didn't look first for Mom and Dad in the stands; they looked for the champ. Now this was real boxing. Stevenson's being there made it so. When he left he could light another cigarette –the kids wouldn't see him. Out on Calle Cuba, he (of course) drew another crowd. The street is always busy –just across the way is an old colonial Catholic church popular with devotees of Santeria. Everyone knew who he was, and he was mobbed with handshakes and hugs. Old Havana is a poor neighborhood, and Cubans are not immune to feelings of envy or resentment. Here was a man who everyone knew owned two big houses and two functioning cars, who though not rich was free from want, who would never get hassled on the street by a cop with an attitude or run in circles by a tyrannical bureaucrat, who could travel abroad whenever he wanted –a man who had advantages and opportunities the people of Old Havana could only dream of, and yet no one confronted him with anything but love.
Maybe he could have come to the United States and had all the love and a bank vault full of money, too. He'll never know. And not knowing doesn't seem to bother The Hero one bit.
Eugene Robinson is the Washington Post's assistant managing editor for the Style section.