by Fox Doucette
When last we left Cuban sensation Teofilo Stevenson, he’d just taken his third knockout loss, falling first to Earnie Shavers and George Foreman before Muhammad Ali stopped Stevenson, still only 23 years old, on February 20, 1976. Stevenson lost the eye of the tiger after that fight; he’d been in with world championship-caliber fighters, but never sniffing the title himself—with a solid record of 31-3 and 28 stoppage wins, it looked like he was going to call it a career.
Still, George Foreman said the same thing when he was still in his prime, and that for Big George set up a comeback for the ages after a decade away. The man who had been most often compared to Foreman as he came up through the ranks was about to make his best effort to match his superior as well.
February 22, 1986: Teofilo Stevenson (32-3, 29 KOs) KO2 Mike White (15-7-1, 12 KOs)
We begin our march to respectability with a club fighter out of Bay City, Michigan, whose greatest accomplishment in his career was pulling a KO win over Buster Douglas completely out of his ass in a fight he was losing by shutout on two of the three cards and by a 7-1 count of rounds on the third before he stopped the man who would conquer Mike Tyson in the 9th.
That’s about all Mike White could say for himself. He was coming off a knockout loss to Larry Alexander, had been inactive for nine months, and took the fight on nine days’ notice, flying all the way to Miami and showing up 20 pounds heavier than he’d been in his last fight. It was a mismatch, plain and simple, a patsy put in front of the Cuban to sharpen his skills and shake off the ring rust.
The first round was a feeling out process; the second round had White feeling out, alright, out on his feet, that is. Referee Max Parker Jr. stopped the contest at 1:19 of the second round without a knockdown having been scored but with White slumped against the ropes with a glazed-over look in his eyes.
Teofilo Stevenson was back.
1986-87: Stevenson Marches Back to Prominence, Wins 8 Fights, All By KO
The newly-formed IBF had just started crowning champions in 1984, when Larry Holmes won the inaugural IBF World Heavyweight Championship on November 30 by twelfth round stoppage. It was Holmes who established that the IBF would actually carry the title lineage; he had held that lineage since grabbing it from Muhammad Ali, and when Michael Spinks beat Larry Holmes, Spinks became the man who beat the man who beat the Greatest of All Time.
The funny thing is, Michael Spinks vacated the IBF belt just as that organization tried to position a bout with Stevenson as being for its world title belt. Just as in the prime timeline, Don King won the purse bid at $711,000, and just as in the prime timeline, Spinks took his recognized lineal championship (touted as such by Ring magazine long before their own reinstatement of title belts) into a $4 million payday to beat the snot out of Gerry Cooney.
Stevenson was left holding the bag, but he’d also do what he’d never done as a younger man, when…
May 30, 1987: Teofilo Stevenson UD15 James “Buster” Douglas
Stevenson got his name into the history books in two ways. One, he became a world champion, winning the IBF’s version of the heavyweight title. Two, he became a bar trivia answer—what’s the last heavyweight title fight to go the full 15-round distance? (in the prime timeline, the answer to this is Michael Spinks-Larry Holmes II, on April 19, 1986, with the last three scheduled 15-rounders in heavyweight title history all ending in knockouts. Mike Tyson and Tyrell Biggs were the last men in history to fight for boxing’s greatest prize at a 15-round scheduled distance; Tyson starched Biggs in seven.)
That’s not to say this was a competitive fight. There was a certain kid from Catskill, New York, and he held the other two belts (the WBO did not yet exist in 1987), and guys like Quick Tillis and Bonecrusher Smith set the blueprint for fighting a fight that took the advantage away from a heavy hitter—or, if you’re being less charitable, they uglied it up until the fans were ready to beat the guys up themselves in support of the young champion.
Buster Douglas followed this formula against Stevenson, or at least he did after he got dropped for a seven count before rising from the canvas in the first round. He was hurt, but he survived; the last fourteen rounds of the fight were not competitive, but Douglas, like Rocky Balboa in the annals of cinema from Teofilo Stevenson’s first run at a belt, scored the moral victory of at least going the distance.
At the end of the fight, the scores were announced, 150-134 (twice), 149-135 for your winner, and NEW IBF heavyweight champion of the world, Teofilo “El Cubano” Stevenson.
August 10, 1987: Teofilo Stevenson KO2 Marvis Frazier
Step 1 for Stevenson as heavyweight champ: Duck. Mike. Tyson. The very first thing the IBF did was allow Stevenson an optional defense; he chose the son of the man he’d knocked out to make his first splash on the world stage fourteen years before. Marvis, for his part, was pretty much finished as a contender when Mike Tyson whipped him like a stubborn horse in 1986; after this fight he would not be seen or heard from again.
Marv Albert, calling this fight live, used Howard Cosell’s legendary “Down goes Frazier!” call in the most mocking, utterly disdainful tone with which one can quote a phrase in a different context. This was a farce, but it was a useful farce, because Stevenson could now at least say he’d not only won but defended a heavyweight title. The Hall of Fame would notice, or at least one would think so.
October 16, 1987: Mike Tyson KO1 Michael Spinks
If Teofilo Stevenson wouldn’t play ball, Tyson would go get the lineal title and sit on it, baiting the IBF into irrelevance. Who needed Tyrell Biggs (Tyson’s prime-timeline opponent on this night in history—video game buffs should note that the 31-0, 27 KO record Tyson took into that fight was the record with which he was credited on the Nintendo game that bears his name) anyway?
Tyson won in 91 seconds. You’ve seen the fight before, albeit on June 27, 1988 if you’re looking online for it. The IBF, fearing becoming a minor title without the “real” champion having had the chance to fight for the belt, immediately ordered a purse bid and told Stevenson they’d strip him if he didn’t fight the unification bout.
March 21, 1988: Mike Tyson KO1 Teofilo Stevenson
Show 1988 Mike Tyson a fighter who had it in his head that he could trade shots with Iron Mike early, and you may as well just wave a red cape in front of him. Stevenson had a five-inch height advantage, but he sure didn’t use it; he gave up his height almost instantly and let Iron Mike work on the inside.
We all have that image in our heads of the left hook or the straight right to the head that did so much damage to so many guys when Mike Tyson threw it that fans were actually surprised—stunned, even—by just how effectively Mike Tyson worked the long, lean body of the guy in front of him. Tyson knew something, or maybe he just saw Stevenson coming in with his guard too high and just took what the defense gave him, but it was a devastating left hook right on the liver of Stevenson only 44 seconds into the fight that left the Cuban doubled over clutching his torso and looking at the canvas like he expected his lunch to be there.
Who knew Mike Tyson was a body puncher? Hang onto this, folks, it’s going to come up again. But first…
December 9, 1988: Teofilo Stevenson KO5 Michael Dokes
Michael Dokes had been a world champion at one point, holding the WBA belt in 1983 and defending it in a controversial 15-round draw against Mike Weaver in one of the most underrated fights of the decade, and certainly the most enjoyable title fight of the heavyweight division’s dark ages between the reigns of Ali and Tyson.
By 1988, he was fighting for something called the WBC Continental Americas belt, an early example of the same phenomenon by which sanctioning bodies take three percent for the “Not Named Klitschko Champion” fights today. So what if it was “not named Tyson?” Same story, different time slot on TV.
Stevenson was a better fighter than this fight, and he took the fight to the enemy, breaking Dokes down slowly at first and then with increasing ferocity before uncorking a left hook right onto the point of the chin of the man in front of him, and sure enough there were shades of two of El Cubano’s own stoppage losses when it was Dokes who ended up with the broken jaw and the soup-and-juice diet.
April 25, 1989: Teofilo Stevenson KO6 Leon Spinks
Nobody seriously believed that Leon Spinks was anything like the man who won a fluke of a split decision over Muhammad Ali to gain 15 minutes of fame as the champ in 1978. Spinks was already 18-12-3 by this point, an opponent chosen to fill a fight card because a rumored fight with Evander Holyfield never came together.
Spinks was no better off than Michael Dokes. More noise came around as Stevenson called out Holyfield in a hoped-for rematch with Mike Tyson, but instead Stevenson had to fight guys like Orlin Norris (whom he beat in an ugly 12-round unanimous decision) and what was left of Greg Page (who was completely washed up when Stevenson stopped him in three in November.) Holyfield had designs of his own on Iron Mike, which may have foundered on the rocks of prime-timeline history in 1990, but…
February 11, 1990: Mike Tyson KO8 James “Buster” Douglas
So what changed here? Well, after Tyson knocked out Teofilo Stevenson, everybody noticed how devastating Tyson could be working the inside not just to set up those lethal head shots of his, but to become a volume puncher to the midsection. Tyson’s strategy started to change as he would come in behind his jab before, as he would so often say in post-fight interviews “I want my opponents to not want to eat food for a month. I want ’em to starve to death ’cause I killed their appetite.”
Oh, Iron Mike…boxing writers the world over have thanked your crazy for all these years, because it makes any line of dialogue plausible. Tyson was no less of a sound bite machine here.
The point is that all that body punching so thoroughly drained Buster Douglas that when Tyson uncorked a hook that landed clean on the head of Douglas and knocked him down in the eighth, rather than rise to pull the upset, Douglas was just simply too badly hurt, too lost for an answer to what had come at him, that he could not stand and beat the count.
A 38-year-old Teofilo Stevenson and his people called out Tyson after the fight, but it is here that the sanctioning bodies got together and insisted not only on a unified champion…but on a unified number one contender. So it came to pass that our story ends, as…
June 16, 1990: Evander Holyfield W12 Teofilo Stevenson
Remember the Ali-Trevor Berbick fight? Somewhere in the mists of time and in the cumulative damage of four stoppage losses, Teofilo Stevenson got old overnight. Evander Holyfield outboxed, outpunched, just plain outfought the man who was a decade his senior, looking fresher and much more worthy of a fight with the champion than the pretender who tried to make noise on a name that was never any greater than fighting less than the best in the division just to wrap a belt around his waist.
The scores were 118-110, 117-111 (twice), all for Holyfield, who would go on to his own championship reign when the title went vacant after a little dust-up between the champion and a beauty pageant contestant in a hotel in Indiana. But that is another story for another time.
Teofilo Stevenson retired with a professional record of 45 victories, 5 defeats, with 41 wins coming by way of knockout, a world champion with a title defense to his name…but when the time came for the BWAA to consider his Hall of Fame candidacy, most saw him as the homeless man’s George Foreman, a paper champion, a good but never great fighter who ultimately fell short of Hall of Fame consideration, never inducted at Canastota.
It’s probably for the best he ended up remembered as an amateur.
It’s Pacquiao-Mayweather fight week, and your columnist will be on the front lines of the preview coverage…but that doesn’t mean we’re forgetting about What If. We’re taking the opportunity to take the piss a little on everyone who said Pacquiao-Mayweather would never happen…by time-shifting it 60 years and letting (of all people) Rocky Marciano and Ezzard Charles stand in for Mayweather and Pacquiao. Who better to illustrate the unbeaten record as pointless bargaining chip, right? You’ll see what I mean next week. Fans of the more comedic style in this column will have a lot to love.
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 at over 5,000 words, we didn’t want anyone running out of paper in the printer before taking this column to the bathroom with them. Fan mail, hate mail, and the strains of “Damn, it feels good to be a gangster” played over the demise of that printer can be sent to email@example.com.