Fidel and the fighter

The power of the punch

After a whole month of rum, salsa and close shaves I was heading back through a mid morning hang over to my Havana lair to pack my bags ready for a late night flight back home, having failed in my quest to track down perhaps the most famous of all Cuban boxers, and maybe even the most popular man in the whole country - Teofilo Stevenson, three time Olympic Heavyweight Champion.

Slumping down into my pit after an all night farewell rampage I figured 40 winks would be a sound idea. Glancing left I noticed the message light glimmering on my phone; “Steve, I am at Stevenson’s house, he is coming back especially to meet you, come here now!” It was my buddy Abel, a hustling Mr Fixit who could supply anything from mother daughter combos to back door cigars.

Bemused and nervous I grabbed my camera and a clean tee shirt and raced across Havana to the given address. I’d heard and read so much about this super hero of the ring; you only have to mention the name Stevenson in Cuba and expressions of pride and honour beam across everyone's faces, something that really has to be seen to be believed. This guy is not only one of Castro’s best mates, he’s his very own sporting hero - and probably the most popular man on this communist island stronghold.

Legend has it that Stevenson lives in a great mansion, presented to him by Castro many years ago, as was the case with many other of Cuba’s great boxers, though I was about to find out that that rumour wasn’t quite right. Sure enough by Cuban standards the house was something a cut above the average, but by British standards it was maybe equivalent to a 3 bed semi town house lingering on the burbs of Havana city, hardly a mansion.

Bumbling into the house I found a band of half a dozen rum drunk Cubanos, but there was no sign of the great man himself; “He is rushing back from the airport to meet you.” It was Cuban Olympic week. the biggest annual sporting fiesta in this sport mad country, and Teofilo had once again be invited along as patron. An immediate sense of panic set in, what the f**K was expected of me? Here I was about to meet one of my all time sporting idles, a man who they say could have been Ali if he had chosen so, and now little old me was about to deprive the nation of their great hero at their biggest sporting event. A glass of rum was thrust into my hand and I was presented with tattered copy of “The 100 Greatest Boxers” book, and shown the page with our man on it “He’s the only amateur boxer ever to make it to this book, and the only post revolution Cuban to make it to the Boxing Hall of Fame.”

Sweating even more still I dared to look around the living room; the entire front wall was made up of a near life size photo montage of Cubas greatest hitter flooring one of his opponents on his way to his first Olympic gold in the 72 Munich games, aptly the decked fighter was American. On the opposing wall was a picture ofMuhammad Ali himself, and a signed pair of his boxing gloves, while the far corner decor is finished off nicely with a poster of Stevo with FidelCastro, who is holding his champions arm aloft and grinning admirably at him.

A chicken jumps through the door as it swings open, and Stevenson walks in dressed in jeans and a T shirt, all six feet five of him, with a half empty bottle of rum in one hand. Humbled and nervous I edged towards him, without so much glance in my direction he reached out as he had done to floor his opponents on so many occasions before, and with a near crushing grip shook my hand.

“I want to speak English!” He uttered to me while heading for the TV, “Watch with me. I want$1000, my fee.” Thinking of that right hand with three inches more reach and more knockouts it had caused than Ails I stuttered and tried to straighten things out, I didn’t have that kind of dosh, if that was a problem then I was sorry and would leave; “Umm, ok. Sit.” After fiddling with a few cables he poured more rum into my glass and the show commenced.  Harry Carpenter was commenting, it was the 72 Games first up, followed by the other two, I’d never seen anything quite like it; his right blow just came out of nowhere, faster than a greased ferret, we had to replay the final blows just to catch a glimpse

The TV was on the blink, and the gang were trying to rustle up $5 for another bottle of rum. Here I was; sitting next to a man who was offered $5 million back in 72 to fight Ali, a man who they said was better than the greatest, a man who could now be one of the richest sporting stars on the planet - a man who didn’t have $5 dollars for a bottle of rum, and who’s car lay rusting on the porch because he couldn’t afford to run it, yet a man who was still perhaps the most loved of all Cubans, I couldn’t quite get my head around it.

“Why, why did you not take the Yankee dollar, you could be as rich as Ali now?” I questioned; “Watch..” He replied fiddling some more with the video. What followed was one of the most humbling videos I’ve ever seen; It was a National Day speech by Castro himself; the entire speech was dedicated to Stevenson. This guy epitomises every ideal that the regime stands for, he is the ultimate Cuban revolutionary roll model, and a man who refused the lure of the west for his beliefs and his people. “Professional boxing is corrupt. What is $5 million compared to the love of 5 million Cubans?” As he said these words he leant towards me and looked me straight in the eye, and I knew he meant it.  “Ali is rich, we are great friends - he comes here sometimes and we go out to drink and chase girls, maybe I wish I had a little more, but I am happy with the way things have worked out.”

Pouring another rum into my bottomless glass he informed me ”I like you. You will come with me today to the Olympics, you stay in my house and pay nothing and will be my guest of honour.” The room went silent, I didn’t know what to say; the other guys in the house could not believe it “Nobody ever gets such an opportunity...” The chance to spend a few days with Stevo on his home turf would be a bit like hanging out with the Pope in Rome, only with more frills along the way; “It’s a great honour. But i have a flight tonight, and I have waited weeks for a seat.” Before I’d even finished this sentence the big guy was on the phone; “Stevenson can arrange anything here in Cuba...” Panic set in some more, Cuba is not the best place to find yourself in a high profile roll as a western journo; “I send for a car, we go by your hotel and fetch your bags. You want to meet Fidel?”

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The potential different scenarios played through my mind; but with a pile of deadlines to meet back home, and the possibility of being put to hard labour for a while or lost without trace coming through on the headlines I finally wangled my way out of the trip, and persuaded the guys to take me back to the hotel, but not before another bottle of rum and a back street tour of most of Havana with the great man himself, what a day.