Publish date:

A case of setting them up for the kill

Hospitable old Havana opened its heart to the fighters in town for the first world amateur championships—feted them, fed them well, and then the Cubans danced off with most of the gold medals, cha-cha-cha

When an international gang of boxers came to Havana two weeks ago the Cubans greeted them warmly. They were pleasant hosts, considerate and thoughtful companions—and if it had not been for one small item, a smashing good time would have been had by all: in the boxing ring the Cubans pretty much beat the stuffing out of everybody.

At the conclusion of the first World Amateur Boxing Championship last Friday night, Cuba had won five of the 11 gold medals and one silver. The Russians, always formidable in the amateur ring, collected only two golds and two silvers. And the U.S. team, missing four or five of its best boxers, did surprisingly well with one gold and two silvers.

For all their friendliness, the 17,000 spectators didn't overdo the considerate host bit, especially when the U.S. was involved. For example, even though Russia came into the finals with a chance of beating Cuba in the team standings—and the Cubans could therefore be excused for rooting against them—there were only tepid cheers when New York's Howard Davis, a 17-year-old 125-pounder, won a split decision over Soviet favorite Boris Kuznetsov. A chorus of derisory whistles greeted Welterweight Clinton Jackson when he stepped up to face Emilio Correa, a popular hometown veteran. And the same sort of welcome was afforded U.S. Heavyweight Marvin Stinson, who took on Teofilo Stevenson, Cuba's Olympic champion.

Unaffected by his reception, Davis personally dashed any hope that Russia might have held for the team title by pecking Kuznetsov to pieces with a flickering left hand mixed with an occasional countering right. Davis' appearance was as bristling as his style: he fights with his Afro done up in pigtails, which bounced wildly in the bright ring lights, giving him the look of an enraged porcupine.

Kuznetsov had been cut over the left eye in a semifinal bout two days before, and one of Davis' countering rights knocked the packing out of the cut. It stood out grotesquely for a few moments before Davis belted it loose and the cut began to bleed again. It bled off and on throughout the fight but did not impair the Russian's vision and had nothing to do with the outcome.

Jackson, the 21-year-old Tennessean, elected to stand up and slug with Correa. He had some luck with this tactic in the first round, but fighting on the inside with the tough, battle-hardened Cuban was a mistake. Correa began catching Jackson with heavy right hands as the third round began; he knocked him down in the middle of the round and knocked him out just before it ended.

This outcome prompted happy delirium in the stands. Even the guards, who had been standing immobile and serious, howled with glee, and one of them, overcome by the glory of it all, staggered around in imitation of Jackson's plight, evoking a fresh storm of laughter.

But no one laughed at Stinson. The mighty Stevenson came into the fight under a bit of a cloud: he had been unable to knock out a 37-year-old Nigerian in an earlier bout. And while he tried to make up for it in the Friday final he failed to even discomfort Stinson, although he won a predictable decision.

Stinson is a small heavyweight with an uncanny resemblance to Floyd Patterson in size, build, peek-a-boo style and features. Unhappily he lacks the quick hands and punching power that marked Patterson at his peak. Still, he forced the fight against Stevenson, making the 6'3", 220-pound Cuban miss again and again. Stinson moved and jabbed and ducked under Stevenson's fearsome right hooks, and occasionally tagged Stevenson with a right hook of his own. Stinson looked like a small dog plaguing a mastiff and he got away with it. In one round Stevenson hit him a glancing blow with a right and caught him a few times with left hooks, but Stinson was never in danger and Stevenson was never very impressive.

This was the first world amateur championship outside the Olympics, and the Cubans handled the presentation superbly. The fights were staged in the Sports City Coliseum, a bright, air-conditioned arena decorated with a billboard-size painting of Che Guevara and dozens of giant photographs showing Stevenson battering Duane Bobick into submission at the Munich Olympics. Indeed, Bobick may be the most widely recognized U.S. athlete in all Cuba, since he appears in his unenviable role as a punching bag in pictures all over the city.

The teams stayed at the Havana Libre, once the luxurious Havana Hilton. Unfortunately, the hotel is no longer palatial: the hot-water taps emit a lukewarm stream at best (at worst, they emit nothing) and the air conditioning in some of the rooms fights a feeble and often losing battle against the heat and humidity of the Cuban summer.

But the food was edible, the water potable and the service—considering the fact that tipping is outlawed—remarkably prompt and sometimes cheerful. Since the hotel was crammed with athletes, judges, officials and journalists from 56 countries, this was a considerable feat.

The U.S. team did not bring any special food or water and seemed none the worse for it, though Stinson lost about seven pounds and might have made the light heavyweight division if he had stayed another week. By the time he faced Stevenson he weighed 184 pounds.

All the teams trained in the Prado, a beautiful old marble building that was the social center of Havana in the days of Spanish colonialism. It looks like a castle, with sweeping marble stairways climbing three stories around a patio.

The teams were ferried back and forth in new Italian mini-buses through lovely, tree-lined streets upon which rolled a peculiar mélange of ancient, finned American cars and small, new European imports. As the U.S. team climbed the stairs at the Prado for their workouts, they were greeted with the inevitable photograph of Stevenson clobbering Bobick with everything but a machete.

This was not the best of U.S. teams, although it is doubtful if the best would have done much better against the well-trained Cubans and Russians. "Our problem is that a lot of our best fighters turned pro right after our nationals," explained Chico Segura, one of the U.S. coaches. Segura is small, sandy-haired and freckled with a faint, scrubby mustache and a penchant for adding "sir" to every sentence.

"We are not making excuses, sir," he said, "but Sugar Ray Leonard, a light welterweight, probably the best amateur boxer of any weight in the country (SI, June 24), injured his right hand. And Miguel Ayala, who had a good shot at gold in the 119-pound class, needed a rest. Leonard would probably have won a gold in the 139-pound division, sir."

As it was, the U.S. team did well to put three men into the finals. Only Cuba, with six, and Russia, with four, had more. Premier Fidel Castro, talking to Bob Surkein, one of the U.S. referees, pointed out the principal reason. "We cannot have professionalism here in Cuba and we never will have," Castro said. "I think that is the trouble with U.S. teams. Your boxers turn professional too young, before they are fully trained."

Certainly, the U.S. boxers are much younger than their Iron Curtain counterparts, many of whom would be at the end of their pro careers in the States. "Age and maturity helps them, sir," Segura said. "But most of them fight in the same style: high left hand, right hand protecting the jaw. They move ahead in a straight line, trying to crowd you into the ropes. They throw the right straight, and if you let them move you back you are in trouble. You have to keep them in the center of the ring, move in fast, move out to one side or the other, not straight back. You watch our Howard Davis."

Davis carried out the U.S. strategy perfectly. In the semifinals on Wednesday afternoon he met Mariano Alvarez, a compact, hard-hitting fighter who exemplifies the Cuban-Russian style. Davis, taller and faster on his feet, moved in and out and circled, flicking the Cuban time and again with a good left jab, sometimes meeting his rushes with a short right hand to the head. He was being tagged himself with strong rights in close, but he did not often stay in close. By the third round he had Alvarez going out of his style a bit, sometimes lowering his high left to get leverage for hooks. Alvarez seemed to be the more punishing fighter and the outcome was in doubt. But Davis had an edge that came out in the scoring.

One of the five judges was a Russian. Normally, in a fight as close as this, the Russian vote would automatically have gone to the Cuban. But Russia and Cuba were in their tight contest for the team championship, and the Russian voted for Davis, giving him a 3-2 decision over Alvarez to the whistled dismay of the crowd. Although the judging by and large was good, it was sometimes more political than even-handed.

Meanwhile, Stevenson, who is considered to be the best amateur heavyweight in the world, won his semifinal easily. But Fatai Ayinla, a 37-year-old Nigerian heavyweight who has been fighting for 22 years and is one of the coaches of his national team, lasted the entire three rounds and at times made Stevenson look confused and uncertain.

Ayinla is a square, rather pudgy lefthander who moves around the ring about as gracefully as a dancing bear. But he has had more than 200 amateur bouts and has never been knocked off his feet.

Stevenson boxed him almost contemptuously in the first round, then spent the second and third doing his utmost to knock Ayinla out. The ungainly-looking Nigerian, lumbering as fast as he could and retaliating at times with a slow, swinging charge of his own, took an occasional hard right to the head, but none of them made him blink. He was carried out of the arena in triumph by his countrymen after the decision, grinning broadly and waving. Later, at his delayed dinner, he was still smiling. "Never, at no time, was I hurt," he said. "But now it is done, now I am through with the fighting. Now I am coach."

When the fighting was all over, one could not help but be impressed with the Cuban team. They were easily the best-conditioned athletes at the meet, and they fought with patriotic fervor. Castro sat at ringside to congratulate each of the Cuban winners personally, and he even put his arms around Jorge Romero, a Cuban loser, to console him.

The Russians had expected to win the tournament but, ironically, they encountered a revolution. Certainly they could have seen it coming: outside the coliseum entrance, in three-foot-high neon letters, is a sign that reads, "Revolutions, in this moment of history, on this continent, are inevitable."