by Fox Doucette
Teofilo Stevenson was born in Puerto Padre, Cuba on March 29, 1952. He would go on to become one of only three boxers to win three Olympic gold medals (in 1972, ’76, and ’80) and might very well have won more had not the Cuban team boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Games in Los Angeles and Seoul. Stevenson is regarded as the greatest amateur boxer of all time by a fair few of the people who comment on such things.
Sadly, the Cuban regime never allowed him the opportunity to turn pro. But What If…
January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro Takes Over Cuba, Teofilo Stevenson Sr. Relocates Family to Miami
Plenty of Cubans, whether they were loyal to the Batista regime, or because the political grand plans of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and their ragtag band of jolly Spanish-speaking Robin Hood-wannabe outlaws scared them off the idea of staying the course in their homeland, took to the sea and hightailed it to Florida in 1959. While in the prime timeline Teofilo Stevenson Patterson was not one such man, neither he, a native of St. Vincent, nor his wife Dolores Lawrence, an English-speaking native daughter of St. Kitts, had any particular ancestral ties to Cuba—it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which they join the first wave of emigrés from Castro’s Communist fever dream.
It is in this setting that seven-year-old Teofilo junior finds himself, on the mean streets of Miami, where a combination of the Machiavellian machinations of the schoolyard and the boy’s own natural athletic gifts, would need to be redirected somewhere. The obvious answer was the boxing gym, plenty of which cropped up in Miami with all those Cubans around.
How we get there isn’t important. What is important is the result, and…
April 18, 1970: Teofilo Stevenson (debut) KO1 Jose Rondon (0-4-1, 0 KOs)
The Stevenson family had a decent go of things in Miami, and Teofilo the elder became successful in Miami business, which allowed him to get to know people around the Caribbean. As such, he was able to get his son his first pro fight on the undercard of a fight night that featured Vicente Rondon, who would later reign in the early 1970s as light heavyweight champion of the world.
Stevenson showed the dynamite in his fists that earned him such acclaim in the prime-timeline amateurs, blasting Jose Rondon (not to be confused with and of unknown relation to the man in the main event) out of the ring to eye-popping reaction from the crowd in attendance. Many a Caribbean fight writer, there for the main event, figured out that something special lay in the 18-year-old making his debut in the opener.
1970-73: Stevenson Tears Through the Ranks, Rises to Title Contention
If there was a fighter in the Caribbean or in Florida for Stevenson to destroy in those first three formative years of his career after fighting on the amateur junior circuit throughout his teens, someone found that fighter and put him in front of the Cuban expat—over those three years, Stevenson fought an average of every six weeks, compiling a record of 27-0 in the process and stopping all but two of the guys in front of him. Only a couple of rough customers with a penchant for going rounds were able to ugly it up enough to last the distance; Randy Stevens (6-15-1 at the time of the fight in May 1971, including a stoppage loss to the previously-mentioned Vicente Rondon in 1969) took young Teofilo six rounds to a shutout decision for the up-and-comer, and gritty club fighter Vernon McIntosh (who had been offered as a human sacrifice for Bob Foster in August of 1971) managed to last a full ten rounds, though looking as though he’d been used for batting practice by the 1927 Yankees, in a step-up fight of sorts (McIntosh was 9-5 and had been in against some top-notch competition en route to his gatekeeper role) in December of that same year.
All of the above was by way of setting up Teofilo Stevenson to fight for something greater and to finally start upsetting some apple carts among the big names in 1970s heavyweight boxing. Was the guy all fluff and weak commissions? We found out in Philadelphia, cradle of liberty, on the weekend of the Fourth of July. Negotiations with Joe Bugner had broken down over his opponent’s willingness to travel to London for a fight, and that left one of Philadelphia’s legends with an open fight date. What better time to light up the old Spectrum than with…
July 2, 1973: Teofilo Stevenson TKO2 Joe Frazier
Smokin’ Joe had, in his last fight, been slaughtered by George Foreman in the “Down Goes Frazier Fight”, and there were a lot of questions about whether Frazier had the chin to handle a big puncher. Teofilo Stevenson had some questions about his own power—ritual demolitions of tomato cans aside, there was a certain prime-timeline Deontay Wilder quality about him. The knock was that he hadn’t beaten anyone, and that he was being thrown into the fire in his opponent’s hometown.
None of that mattered when Stevenson’s left hook smashed into the face of Smokin’ Joe two minutes in. Down goes Frazier…again. A similar barrage throughout the remainder of the first and into the beginning moments of the second led to this fight looking an awful lot like that fight with George Foreman.
Teofilo Stevenson won no title by the beatdown; Frazier had no belt to contest. There was talk that Stevenson might even replace Frazier in what had to that point been a proposed rematch with Muhammad Ali. The Greatest would have none of it, at least not in 1973; he was still out for blood against the man who handed him his first pro loss (Ali had since lost to Ken Norton and was contracted for a rematch in September ahead of that would-be Frazier fight). Teofilo Stevenson needed an opponent. George Foreman was also contracted; he would smash Jose Roman live at Budokan in Tokyo in September. So who was there for Stevenson to fight?
September 5, 1973: Teofilo Stevenson UD10 Oscar Bonavena
Oscar Bonavena was on the downside of a career that had seen him fight for a world title, losing a shot at the New York State Athletic Commission’s still-recognized world heavyweight championship to Joe Frazier in 1968. Bonavena had since lost to Muhammad Ali and a shopworn Floyd Patterson, and by 1973, the Argentine fighter was down to fighting card-fillers (his three opponents in 1973 before the Stevenson fight were a combined 47-69-9, and in the prime timeline, the next guy he fought was a 6-19-1 Terry Sorrell…which set up a beatdown at the hands of Ron Lyle in 1974 that permanently ended Bonavena’s days as a serious contender.)
Point of the matter is that Bonavena was one tough hombre despite his shortcomings, having been stopped only once in his career and that having been by Muhammad Ali. Bonavena gave Stevenson rounds, but the Cuban got the better end of just about all of the exchanges, winning on the three judges’ cards in Miami by a 9-1, 8-2 (twice) count of rounds. It wasn’t Ali, and it wasn’t Foreman, but it was a solid win for Teofilo Stevenson, who proved that his victory over Joe Frazier wasn’t just a flash in the pan against a possibly shot fighter.
January 28, 1974: Teofilo Stevenson KO5 Ron Lyle
This was the fight where the Cuban really earned his comparison to George Foreman. Just like Stevenson had smashed Frazier in two rounds, he outfought Ron Lyle (who at 26-1-1 was still considered among the rising stars rather than the veterans, giving this a whiff of a who’s-next match.) The fight was the co-feature playing lead-in to the second Ali-Frazier fight, so there were plenty of eyes on the Cuban and his Dayton, Ohio-native foe. The big question on the minds of most observers here wasn’t so much Stevenson’s legitimacy as Lyle’s; Ron Lyle had just returned from a fight in November in which he took 98-9-8 Gregorio Peralta to a draw result in Germany.
All questions were answered for Stevenson and new questions asked of Lyle after the fight itself. For the first three rounds it was as straightforward as you like it, but when Stevenson caught Lyle coming in with a counter right hand over the top, staggering the American and setting up the four knockdowns in two rounds that would put the fight to an end in five, Lyle looked less like a rising star and more like just another guy with a glass jaw at the hands of the heavy-hitting Teofilo Stevenson.
Someone in attendance got the bright idea that maybe the next thing for Stevenson to do would be to step in against a guy who was to all practical purposes George Foreman Lite, at least in terms of boxing skill; what followed should have been the 1974 Fight of the Year, sometimes called the “Fun While It Lasted Fight”, other times known as the Day The Earth Shook:
May 16, 1974: Earnie Shavers KO8 Teofilo Stevenson
One of the hardest punchers the world has ever seen, but with one of the most suspect chins, Earnie Shavers was offered up as Stevenson’s next opponent. The promoters knew what they were getting—this was going to be the kind of fight that had very little downside, since plenty of people were coming to know who Teofilo Stevenson was, but he didn’t have enough name recognition quite yet to move the needle on fan interest against the Ali-Foreman set (speaking of whom, they were setting up the Rumble in the Jungle as all of this was going on.)
Enter Wide World of Sports and the inimitable Howard Cosell. Stevenson and Shavers abandoned all pretense of boxing skill from the get-go, each man knowing his best shot at victory was to bring the pain against the other one. Stevenson wanted to exploit a chin that had already been dented to the tune of two knockout defeats (one by who-dat club fighter Ron Stander in 1970, the other and perhaps more worrisome one coming in a single round against Jerry Quarry in December of 1973.) Shavers wanted to use his own power to test the chin of the man in front of him. It was kill or be killed.
Indeed, it looked every bit like it was going to be as potentially fatal as that moniker implied. Shavers went down in the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth. Stevenson got dropped for the first time in his career on a flash knockdown in round one when he ate a left hook; he got dropped with far worse consequence in the seventh by a devastating combination of the hook up top followed by an uppercut that split the guard and caught the Cuban right on the point of the chin. How Stevenson even rose at all, much less in dramatic fashion at the count of nine, remains a mystery.
It was all for naught, however; sure, Stevenson dropped Shavers yet again to start the eighth round, but with a combination of heart, grit, and good old-fashioned fistic dynamite, Earnie Shavers landed another nuclear weapons-grade uppercut in the same spot as the one had landed a round prior, managing in the process to break the jaw of Teofilo Stevenson. There was no getting up from that one, and referee Arthur Mercante reached the count of ten to put an end to a fight that would have been Fight of the Year if it hadn’t come in the same year as two of the most legendary fights of the most talked-about fighter of all time, including that eight-round classic in Zaire.
Fact remained, though, even in defeat, Teofilo Stevenson had shown he could be entertaining, and by looking vulnerable for the first time, it may very well have opened doors for guys not ducking him. All of this was faint comfort to a man who was on the soup diet for the entire summer of 1974 with his jaw wired shut.
January 17, 1975: Teofilo Stevenson KO2 Jose Roman
All the threads of the story in seem to tie together, don’t they? Jose Roman was the guy George Foreman smacked around when Stevenson wanted a shot at him in 1973. Not only that, but this was the same Jose Roman who fought a winless Puerto Rican fighter twice…remember Jose Rondon? Roman fought him twice…and decisioned him over ten rounds twice.
It’s not a good sign when you’ve got two decision wins over a winless opponent whom your opponent beat into pudding in his pro debut at age 18. It suggests a certain…inability to intimidate, let’s say, like being cursed with the dick of a five-year-old boy at a porn audition.
Well, in this game of cock fencing, Teofilo Stevenson was somewhere in between Long Dong Silver and a dildo the size of a baseball bat with which he cockslapped Jose Roman over two rounds and five knockdowns.
Groucho Marx once said that “any fool can tell a dirty joke and get a laugh.” This fight was a laugher.
July 19, 1975: George Foreman KO4 Teofilo Stevenson
George Foreman was, in the prime timeline, out of boxing for over a year after that clobbering he took at the hands of Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa in October of 1974. This time around, however, he was persuaded by the big bucks of Don King to make his comeback fight against an up-and-coming Cuban with a big punch and a questionable chin.
Foreman knew what his fight plan needed to be. Everything that didn’t work against Ali would work just fine against the guy whose fight plan throughout his own career had been “throw big punches and hope like hell the other guy falls down.”
Foreman was a smart guy, smarter than his dumb-muscle reputation in the Seventies ever gave him credit for; he spent the first three rounds playing rope-a-dope, going outright Mega Man in learning the techniques of his opponents (though unlike the video game character in question, Foreman didn’t need to beat Ali to steal his power.)
Stevenson, frustrated and increasingly determined to impose his will no matter what, started getting wide, leaving himself open coming in…and in round four, Foreman went from turtle to mamba, striking with a counter right hand that made an audible crack like a nutcracker getting after a lobster claw. Lightning strikes twice sometimes…and so, apparently, do broken jaws. Foreman may have been the guy who went on to a life as a grilled-food pitchman; Stevenson looked like he was set to do his commercials for Campbell’s Chicken Noodle after he had his jaw wired shut again.
February 20, 1976: Muhammad Ali KO5 Teofilo Stevenson
Muhammad Ali had just gotten through with Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila in October 1975. He needed something of a breather fight, and a guy who was coming off two broken jaws in three fights, a guy who was proving to be a bit less than ideally adaptable to strategy, a guy who had the name but was very much beatable…that’s who Ali fought next.
The result was the same in the end. Stevenson came after the champ; the champ went rope-a-dope, and Ali was a hell of a lot better at it than George Foreman was, the difference between a basketball player who’s been shooting 3-pointers since he was in the eighth-grader rec league at the Y vs. an NBA big man who introduces a 3-point shot out of nowhere and only worked on it in the gym for a month. Sure, plenty of NBA bigs can learn to shoot from long range, but there’s a reason Steph Curry and Ray Allen have their reputations.
Point of the matter is that Stevenson got knocked out again. At least this time his jaw didn’t break. If he was eating soup this time around, it was only as a dip for a sandwich.
In the midst of all this, it’s easy to forget that Teofilo Stevenson turned 24 only a month after the Ali fight, but Stevenson had lost some of his taste for the sport during his struggles. Stevenson would retire…but like George Foreman, it’s not in a fighter’s mindset to leave something on the table when he can still find the eye of the tiger. So…
What, you thought we were going to miss out on the chance to get Teofilo Stevenson in against Mike Tyson? As if…like, totally, for surrrre.
You want ’80s? You got ’80s. Next week, same Zack Morris time, same Zack Morris channel. It’s gonna be totally radical.
Fox Doucette covers Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune and writes the weekly What If alternate-history series for this publication. This was only supposed to be a one-parter, but when it started making threatening gestures at 3,000 words, well…
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