It was the seventies, Latin American boxing’s golden age. Mexican Rubén “Púas” Olivares, Colombian Antonio Cervantes “Pambelé” and Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Durán from Panamá were already world champions in professional pugilism. In amateur boxing, Cuban Teófilo Stevenson had just won the second of his three Olympic golds at Montreal’s 1976 games. He was one of the best heavyweights around, and for many the only one who had a shot at dethroning The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. But that’s only if Stevenson would desert and turn professional – and there were certainly no lack of offers.
Boxing fans held their breath for almost a decade waiting for this fight to take place. There were two very close calls. The first one was in 1976, when Don King, King Midas of the boxing world, got the Cuban Federation, the World Boxing Council and Teófilo Stevenson aligned. The world heavyweight title would be on the line for a single combat. The only thing missing was Fidel Castro’s final approval. It eventually came, but Castro wanted Teófilo Stevenson to remain an amateur boxer and fight not one, but five three-round mini-fights in different US cities. It didn’t convince the Cuban Revolution and the case was closed.
Many believed that Stevenson could, in fact, beat Ali. Sports Illustrated magazine ran an article titled “He’d Rather Be Red Than Rich,” betting on Stevenson’s chances. Don King came charging once again. In 1978, during an amateur championship at Madison Square Garden, he offered Stevenson $5 million dollars to fight Ali (three million more than he’d offered two years before). It was the same amount that had been offered to Foreman. Stevenson declined. In retrospect, many say it was hard for an Olympian fighter to go all the way to 15 rounds, and most certainly the money would have wound up in someone else’s pockets in the end.
In fact, Teófilo Stevenson went on to become a propaganda figure for the Cuban regime. Even if no one knows quite when he said it, he was quoted saying “I would rather have the love of eight million Cubans than all the money in the world.” Boxing fans still debate who would have won the biggest non-fight of the century. Even President Obama regretted the missed opportunity on one of his recent visits to the island.