I first heard the name Teófilo Stevenson in 1972 when I was a sophomore at Lehman College in the Bronx. That was the year of the Munich Olympics and many Puerto Rican's who loved sports were constantly checking to see how many medals Puerto Rico had won?
If there were a chance for Puerto Rico to win, or even appear in any major standing it would be in boxing. In fact it was boxing that gave Puerto Rico its first international champion. The year was 1934 when Sixto Escobar knocked out Baby Casanova in the ninth round in a title fight held in Canada.
It was also in boxing that gave Puerto Rico its first Olympic Gold medal. Puerto Rico first participated in the Olympics as an island nation in 1948 and in that first Olympic game for Puerto Rico, Juan Evangelista Venegas won the Bronze medal for Puerto Rico, thus boxing has been in our blood for years.
Fast-forward to 1972 when the world was going through major liberation struggles, major student activities and actions against the war in Vietnam abroad and against police brutality and community control here at home. That year I was an active member of a political organization, El Comate - MINP (Movement de Izquierda National Puertorriqueño).
El Comité was involved in workers struggles as well as many community and student issues. As a predominantly Puerto Rican organization we supported the liberation of Puerto Rico. Watching the Olympics meant watching the boxing matches, as it was in that sport that we might get to see a Puerto Rican. However, being heavily involved in national liberation movements I was content to see any Latin country represented.
It was then that I heard the name Teofilo Stevenson for the first time. He was a perfect specimen of a man and I swore he looked just like my favorite athlete, Muhammad Ali. Teofilo was a wrecking machine. He had one of the most powerful right hand punches I have ever seen. His opponents rarely lasted the three rounds of Olympic Boxing, thus I became an immediate Teofilo Stevenson fan.
I got to meet Teofilo twice after he retired from boxing. Once during the 1998 NYC Goodwill Games when Stevenson accompanied the Cuban delegation and again in 1996 in Cuba when he was an official of INDER (Cuba's Sports Ministry) and we were both at one of the Cuban baseball championship games. Both times I still remember that shaking his hand was like shaking a steel vice. His hands might have been as hard as steel, but his demeanor was as gentle and humble as can be. Both times he was genuinely attentive and kind.
Stevenson was loved in Cuba and though he was offered many lucrative contracts to defect and leave his humble home for the riches of millions of dollars and fame in the USA he never thought twice. He was once asked why would he not want to make millions and drive a Cadillac and he answered, "Why would I want that when I have all I need in Cuba? I would not trade the love of 8 million Cubans for those millions."
As hard as it was for many to understand that back then, it was refreshing to see that some people just can't be bought, especially when we hear of many Cuban baseball players who defect today. There were and still are great athletes that money cannot buy.
Thank You Teofilo Stevenson for the great boxing memories and pride you gave so many young Latinos that were thrilled every time you knocked out an opponent, or got the Cuban flag raised when you won a Gold medal. You gave us the feeling that we too were strong at a time when we had very few Latino role models. Every time you won a gold medal, somehow we felt that you also won for us Latinos struggling in the South Bronx and elsewhere.
For additional information on Teófilio Stevenson visit: www.Latinosports.com
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