WATCH - Teofilo Stevenson and Cuba's unparalleled success in Olympic boxing

Olympic Channel original production 'The People's Fighters' shows how the Caribbean island became the sport's leading nation for decades at the Games

By Rory Jiwani ·

Teofilo Stevenson is the greatest boxer you've never heard of.

When George Foreman was asked at the 1976 Olympics: 'What would happen if Teofilo Stevenson came to the United States to turn pro?'

Foreman answered: "Stevenson would undoubtedly become champion of the world."

So why did he say no to fame, glory, and millions of dollars?

For Cuba.

He wanted to fight for his country and brought joy to Cubans by winning Olympic heavyweight gold medals at Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, and Moscow 1980.

You can watch his incredible story right here on Olympic Channel in the free-to-air, feature-length, award-winning documentary that will knock you out: 'The People's Fighters'.

Just press play below to watch the trailer!

Five Rings Films | The People’s Fighters (Official Trailer)

The legend of Teofilo Stevenson, Cuba’s revolutionary boxing experiment, an...

Cuba's boxing brilliance

But Stevenson wasn't Cuba's only star, he was inspired by many who came before him , and inspired many more after him.

Cuba lies second on the all-time medal table for boxing at the Olympic Games with 37 gold, 19 silver and 17 bronze medals.

Only the United States has more golds with 50, seven of those in an all-American competition sweep at the sport's Olympic debut at St Louis 1904 with seven more coming in the period up to and including 1932 in Los Angeles.

Cuba's first medals in boxing came at Mexico City 1968, heralding five decades of dominance interrupted only by boycotts of the 1984 and 1988 Games and defections of top fighters to compete professionally.

In that time, Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon rejected multiple approaches to turn pro and claimed three Olympic titles apiece.

Young boxers training in the Cuban capital Havana in May 2015

Roots in war and revolution

The Spanish-American War of 1898 saw the United States take control of Cuba as well as Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain.

Boxing was introduced to Cuba largely via American soldiers, but it did not really take off until Havana's Oriental Park Racetrack hosted Jack Johnson's unsuccessful world heavyweight title defence against Jess Willard in April 1915.

Close to 30,000 spectators, the vast majority locals, saw 'Great White Hope' Willard knock out Johnson in round 26 of a scheduled 45.

Jess Willard (L) defeats Jack Johnson for the world heavyweight title at Havana's Oriental Park Racetrack in April 1915

That was the springboard for the sport's growth in popularity with Eligio Sardinas becoming Cuba's first world champion in 1931 aged just 21.

Better known as 'Kid Chocolaté', Sardinas' elegant and entertaining style made him an inspiration for future greats including Sugar Ray Robinson.

Cuba's first world boxing champion, Kid Chocolaté, pictured in 1933

Gerardo 'Kid Gavilan' Gonzalez was the next great Cuban fighter, just failing to claim Robinson's world welterweight title in 1948 before taking the title in 1951 after the American had moved up in weight.

Two years later came the start of the Cuban Revolution with Fidel Castro eventually assuming power in 1959.

Fidel Castro addresses a crowd after the overthrow of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista on 1 January 1959

Professional boxing was at odds with Castro's communist philosophy and banned in 1962 with athletes told they could leave to pursue their careers, or stay and be looked after by the government.

Luis Rodriguez was one who left, the future Hall of Famer becoming world welterweight champion in 1963 before an epic unsuccessful challenge for the world middleweight crown in 1969 against Nino Benvenuti, a gold medallist from Rome 1960.

For those that stayed, the Olympic Games would become the ultimate stage for their sporting achievements.

Why sports is the right of the people in Cuba | Arriba Cuba

After the Revolution banned professional sports in Cuba, a new state-sponso...

With a number of established boxers opting to head abroad, many ending up in Miami, Cuba had to effectively start afresh.

Esteban Aguilera was Cuba's first Olympic boxer, his nation's sole representative in the discipline at the 1960 Games.

The 18-year-old went out in the round of 32 in Rome, and four compatriots returned empty-handed from Tokyo 1964 with light-welterweight Felix Betancourt losing his quarter-final to Tunisia's Habib Galhia.

But under the regimented stewardship of Alcides 'El Maestro' Sagarra, with input from Soviet coach Andrei Chervonenko and financial support from Castro – who saw sport as a powerful medium of his message - Cuba set about building the system which would result in domination in the ring.

Cuba head coach Alcides Sagarra with Mario Kindelan at the 1999 World Championships in Houston, USA

Its first Olympic medals came at Mexico City 1968 with Rolando Garbey and Enrique Regueiferos both taking home silver.

Four years later saw the emergence of the Caribbean island as a world leader in the ring, topping the medal table at Munich 1972 with three golds, a silver and a bronze.

Orlando Martinez took bantamweight gold with Emilio Correa securing the welterweight title and Teofilo Stevenson winning heavyweight gold.

Three more golds followed at Montreal 1976 as Stevenson successfully defended his crown with light-flyweight Jorge Hernandez and featherweight Angel Herrera also victorious.

Cuba's Stevenson knocks out USA's Tate | Montreal 1976

Cuban Teofilo Stevenson competes with American John Tate, and knocks him ou...

With the United States boycotting Moscow 1980, both Herrera and Stevenson retained their titles with the latter joining Hungarian Laszlo Papp as a three-time Olympic boxing champion.

Cuba won a total of six boxing golds in the Soviet capital with bantamweight Juan Hernandez, welterweight Andres Aldama, light-middleweight Armando Martinez and middleweight Jose Gomez also topping the podium.

Garbey, Correa, Hernandez, Gomez and Armando Martinez all reflect on Stevenson and the history of Cuban boxing in the 'The People's Fighters'.

The People’s Fighters | Five Rings Films

The powerful story of how a revolutionary boxing experiment produced Teofil...

Olympic exile

Cuba missed the 1984 Los Angeles Games in step with the Soviet Union's retaliatory boycott following Moscow, denying Stevenson the chance to win an unprecedented fourth Olympic title.

The United States won no fewer than nine golds on home soil, but they were put in their place at the 1986 World Championships staged in Reno, Nevada.

Cuba won seven golds out of a possible 12 with the hosts taking three and the Soviet Union and Republic of Korea securing one apiece.

Stevenson claimed his third world title in Reno, taking his first super-heavyweight crown after a shock defeat to Italy's Francesco Damiani in 1982.

But he would again be frustrated in his bid for Olympic history as Cuba boycotted Seoul 1988, this time in solidarity with its ally the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and retired soon after.

Over the years, Stevenson rebuffed several offers to turn professional and go in the ring with professional heavyweight king, and 1960 Olympic champion, Muhammad Ali.

When asked why, he famously replied, “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?”

Muhammad Ali and Teofilo Stevenson pretend to spar in Havana in January 1996

Back with a bang in Barcelona

As Stevenson approached the twilight of his career, heavyweight Felix Savon was just starting out on his road to boxing greatness.

Like his idol, Savon won gold at the 1986 World Championships before being denied the opportunity to compete in Seoul.

And after retaining his world crown in 1989, he outboxed Nigeria's David Izonritei in the final to claim his first Olympic title in Barcelona.

After 12 years away from the Games, Cuba showed the world what it was missing as their stars dominated the competition with seven golds and two silvers out of 12 weight classes.

Cuba was the only country to win multiple boxing golds in Atlanta four years later, claiming four including second titles for Savon, light-welterweight Hector Vinent and middleweight Ariel Hernandez.

Cuban Savon takes heavyweight gold | Atlanta 1996

Cuba's Felix Savon beats Canada's David Defiagbon in the men's heavyweight ...

A detached retina ended Vinent's hopes of a hat-trick of golds at Sydney 2000, but there were no such issues for Savon who joined Papp and Stevenson as three-time Olympic boxing champions with victory over Russian southpaw Sultan Ibragimov.

His country again topped the medal table with four golds with bantamweight Guillermo Rigondeaux and lightweight Mario Kindelan and middleweight Jorge Gutierrez also triumphant.

This was the last Olympics for 'El Maestro' Sagarra, but the Cuban system was in safe hands.

Athens 2004 witnessed further dominance as Rigondeaux and Kindelan retained their titles, the latter beating British teenager and future world professional champion Amir Khan.

For the seventh consecutive Games in which they appeared, Cuban boxers finished atop the medals table with five golds, two silver and one bronze.

Khan v Kindelan - Boxing Men's Lightweight - Gold Medal Bout | Athens 2004

Great Britain's Amir Khan and Cuba's Mario Kindelan go head-to-head for box...

While Kindelan retired in May 2005 after losing his rematch with Khan in Bolton, England, Cuba's other four gold medallists from Athens chose a different path as the country's economy deteriorated.

Light flyweight Yan Bartelemi, flyweight Yuriorkis Gamboa and heavyweight Odlanier Solis all defected from the national squad training camp in December 2006 while training ahead of the Pan American Games.

Rigondeaux also tried to defect at the Games themselves in Rio de Janeiro, but was arrested in Brazil and returned to Cuba with Fidel Castro saying he could no longer represent the national team.

In early 2009, Rigondeaux made it to Miami on the second attempt and only last month (February 2020) became a two-weight world champion in the pro ranks.

Two-time Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux preparing for a super-bantamweight bout in June 2019

Beijing blip

Those incidents left the undisputed boxing powerhouse nation in turmoil with Cuba opting not to send a team to the 2007 World Championships in Chicago for fear of further defections.

At Beijing 2008, the country claimed eight boxing medals – more than anyone else - but none of them gold.

There has been something of a revival since with flyweight Robeisy Ramirez and light-welterweight Roniel Iglesias winning gold at London 2012.

Four years later in Rio, Ramirez won the bantamweight title with middleweight Arlen Lopez and Julio Cesar La Cruz taking light-heavyweight gold.

Ramirez wins gold in Men's Bantam Final

Robeisy Ramirez defeats American teenager Shakur Stevenson to win gold for ...

The building blocks to success

So, what is the Cuban secret?

One big factor is the system with physically talented youngsters picked out at an early age to take up boxing.

As discussed in 'The People's Fighters', Castro was keen to use sport as a way to show the world that his leadership and philosophy was a success.

That prompted relatively generous financial assistance from the government with the 'Soviet work ethic' instilled by Sagarra and Chervonenko laying the foundations for continued success.

While the top boxers from the United States and elsewhere usually turn professional in their early 20s, Cuba has the advantage of calling upon athletes at their physical peak.

As former world professional heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs, who lost to Savon at the 1991 Pan American Games, told the International Boxing Hall of Fame, "They're 28, 29, 30 fighting kids, 19, 20, 21. That's a big advantage physically and mentally."

Cuba headed the medal table at the 2017 men's World Championships, although only lightweight Andy Cruz was victorious at last year's event in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

With the clock ticking towards Tokyo 2020, Cuban boxers will again be expected to deliver for their proud nation.