Feature | Boxing

From Felix Savon to Mary Kom, world champions who ruled the boxing ring

A look at some of the prominent amateur boxing champions and Olympic medallists from around the world.

By Naveen Peter ·

Be it Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather Jr or Anthony Joshua, the big names trace their roots to the gruelling amateur programme that tests the best.

With the Olympic Games being the holy grail for amateur boxers, there have been many who have stepped up to the task to establish themselves as the best in the boxing world.

Here’s a look at a few champions -- both men and women -- from the world of Olympic boxing.

Felix Savon

Considered to be the cradle of boxing, one of the most successful amateur boxers of all time, Felix Savon, came from Cuba.

Born in Guantánamo in 1980, Savon was inspired by Cuban great Teófilo Stevenson into taking up boxing.

The puncher who craved knockout wins in the amateur circuit, Felix Savon wasn’t the one to stay back and run down the clock after pocketing enough points for the win.

While this strategy ran him into trouble at times, the Cuban soon made a name for himself as one of the most feared pugilists in the heavyweight division.

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In a career that lasted about 20 years, Felix Savon won six world championships titles — a record matched only by MC Mary Kom — and is among the only three boxers who have managed a triple Olympic crown.

The Cuban’s Olympic glory came in 1992, 1996 and the 2000 Games where he romped through the competition to pocket gold medals in dominant fashion.

Teófilo Stevenson

Born into abject poverty to an immigrant father and a native mother, Teófilo Stevenson’s rise to prominence is nothing less than inspiring.

The Cuban great competed from 1966-86 and was a huge figure in his home country during his prime days.

Stevenson’s dominance went to an extent that BBC in one of its reports described him as ‘Cuba’s greatest boxer, once its most famous figure after Fidel Castro.’

While the heavyweight boxer in Teófilo Stevenson won three world championships titles and three consecutive Olympic gold medals at 1972, 1976 and the 1980 Games, it was his love for the Cuba revolution that pushed him to greater fame.

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In the 1970s, boxing promoters in the USA offered Teófilo Stevenson $5 million to turn professional and fight the then world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali.

But the boxer, who was honoured with the Olympic Order in 1987, stayed loyal to the Cuban revolution, which outlawed professional sports and refused the offer. “I prefer the affection of eight million Cubans,” Stevenson said

Zou Shiming

Regarded as the one who put China on the world boxing map, Zou Shiming is a bonafide legend back home.

From winning the nation’s first world title in 2005 to their first Olympic gold in boxing at their home Games in 2008, Shiming has been a pathbreaker for Chinese boxing. 

Having begun his boxing career as a 14-year-old in the Guizhou province of China, the young Zou Shiming had to keep his boxing ambitions hidden from family. 

“I dared not tell my parents when I began to learn boxing when I was 14 or 15 years old,” he told Shanghai’s Shine newspaper.

“My mother still objected to me making it a career even when I was selected for the provincial team in Guizhou. Not until I was to represent China in the Olympics for the first time, did my mother change her attitude.” 

The Chinese great went on to win his first Olympic medal at Athens 2004 and a year later pocketed his first world title in the light flyweight division. 

The following years saw him dominate his weight category as titles at the continental and international stage barely eluded him.

Zou Shiming won the Olympic gold at Beijing 2008, the first for China in the sport.

Zou Shiming’s second world title came in 2007 and then at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese hero went on to win the nation’s 50th gold medal on the final day of the events. 

Another world and Olympic title followed Zou Shiming in 2011 and 2012 respectively before he chose to turn pro. 

His professional boxing career too was nothing short of extraordinary as he won the WBO light flyweight title in 2014 and held onto the belt till 2017 before an eye injury cut his career short.

Other notable world boxing champions in the amateur circuit include Cuban stars Juan Hernández Sierra, Julio César La Cruz and Vasyl Lomachenko of Ukraine.

Sierra won four world titles in the welterweight division, along with his two silver medals at the Olympics in 1992 and 1996. 

La Cruz, meanwhile, is the undisputed light heavyweight champion, having held on to the world title from 2011-19. He also won the Olympic gold in his weight division at Rio 2016.

Vasyl Lomachenko is among the few who have successfully negotiated two weight divisions in his career.

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Having won the Olympic and the world title in the featherweight division in 2008 and 2009, the Ukrainian moved to the lightweight division and took home the world and the Olympic crowns in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

MC Mary Kom

Undoubtedly the most decorated boxer in the world, Indian legend MC Mary Kom has not only been a trailblazer for the sport in India but has also been one of the reasons behind the rise of Indian women’s boxing.

Born to tenant farmers in rural Manipur, Mary Kom had to overcome the objections from her family and the villagers when she moved to Imphal to follow her dream.

She took up boxing after being persuaded by a local coach and worked her way up to becoming a champion.

The Indian great has since won a medal at all eight AIBA World Boxing Championships since its inception in 2001 (six golds, a silver and a bronze, most recently in 2019),

She rose to No. 1 in the world rankings for a flyweight in 2012, and competed inaugural women's competition at the London 2012 Olympics, winning a bronze medal after being beaten by eventual champion Nicola Adams.

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The Indian ace will be looking for the elusive Olympic gold when she takes the ring in the Tokyo Games next year.

Katie Taylor

Arguably the best European boxer to ever take the ring, Katie Taylor has dominated the sport in a way a very few have.

A lightweight boxer who banked on her attacking might, the Irish ace is blessed with quick hands and deceptive movements that often helps her catch her challengers off guard.

Hailing from a boxing family — her father is former Irish champion and her mother a referee — it was no surprise that Katie Taylor too picked up the gloves at a very early age.

Trained by her dad, Katie Taylor took some time to establish herself at the international stage. But once there, there was no looking back.

Her first significant title came at the 2005 European championships, where she won the gold in the lightweight division.

A year later, Katie Taylor was a world champion and went on to hold on to her world lightweight title till 2014.

However, her crowning moment came at the London 2012 Olympics where she went on to capture the gold medal in her weight division.

Though the Irish ace returned for the Rio Games in 2016, she couldn’t progress beyond the quarter-finals and soon after chose to turn pro.

Katie Taylor’s professional run too has been nothing short of epic. Winning all of her 16 bouts so far, which includes six knock-outs, the boxing star holds the WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, and The Ring female lightweight titles. 

Sofya Ochigava

If Cuba has dominated men’s amateur boxing, Russia has led the charge among women. 

With as many as 24 gold medals at the world championships ever since its inception in 2001, the Russian boxers have ruled the roost at the international stage. 

And helping them maintain their supremacy has been a two-time world champion Sofya Ochigava.

Ochigava started with kickboxing and was the national kickboxing champion in 2001. But the lack of a proper system saw her switch to boxing. 

She soon won her first world championships gold medal in the 2005 light bantamweight category.

Two years later, Sofya Ochigava jumped weight classes but showed tremendous courage to wade past the challenge to win her second world title — this time in the bantamweight division.

Sofya Ochigava won her Olympic medal at London 2012, a silver in the lightweight division.

With the bantamweight division not included in the Olympic programme, the Russian had to move to the lightweight category where Katie Taylor proved to be handy for her in the final.