After performing dismally for the first 2½ rounds, Teofilo Stevenson, the illustrious Cuban heavyweight, hit Jimmy Clark on the chin with a right hand, which, as it turned out, was a kindness. While the blow crossed Clark's eyes and left him standing senseless, a loser by a knockout with just 23 seconds to go in the third round, at least it did spare the U.S. fighter from being robbed of the decision.
Although Stevenson had done little more than survive, slowly and awkwardly, while trying to hold the swarming Clark at bay, a check of the scoring showed that Stevenson had been leading two rounds to none in the eyes of one judge and was no worse than 1-1 on the card of another. And it is not without coincidence that those judges were both Cuban.
The third judge at Madison Square Garden last Friday night, Paul Konnor of the U.S., had Clark winning both rounds, which is the way everyone else had it, except for the two gentlemen from Havana.
Until the final minute, when he first dropped Clark with a hook and then destroyed him with the tremendous right, the best that could be said of the 6' 5" Stevenson was that he was having an off night. He was ponderously slow, often confused, and he certainly little resembled the legend who twice won Olympic and world titles.
"There is a fear in Cuba that Stevenson has lost something," said one Cuban later. "This is not the first fight lately that he has not looked like himself."
There was that, plus Clark, a 6'2½", 204-pound, 24-year-old senior at West Chester (Pa.) State College, who had fought and lost to Stevenson once before, but had found his weakness. To be effective, the Cuban needs a lot of room; in close, he is almost helpless. Stevenson's only response to infighting is to put his giant hands on his opponent's shoulders and to shove very hard. It works, but by amateur rules it also costs the shover points, a fact seemingly ignored by Romelio Santiago and Arturo Rodriguez, the two Cuban judges.
Throughout the first two rounds, and for most of the third, Clark kept Stevenson badly flustered with crisp jabs, jolting hooks to the body and darting moves to close quarters, from where he was free to do just about anything he wanted.
"He jabs too much," Stevenson complained later.
Until the end, the fight had gone exactly as Clark had planned it. And it was nearly a carbon copy of his fight with Stevenson in Havana's Sports Palace last February. There Clark had lost on a split decision: two Cuban judges gave it to Stevenson, both by 60-59; the American judge had scored it for Clark, 59-57.
"That decision was completely absurd," Clark had said before Friday's matches against the Cuban team, which the U.S. lost 8-3. "The decision was very unjust and I am looking forward to fighting Stevenson again. He doesn't intimidate me. That doesn't mean I don't respect him. I do. To tell the truth, it's an honor to box him. After all, he's the Olympic and world champion and he's got stature. He is supposed to be a puncher, but he never had me down, or even near it, in the last fight. I don't know about his right hand because it never landed. He kept missing with it; I could hear it going past my ear. Nevertheless, I am aware of it and I'll try to avoid it."
As it turned out, it was his acute awareness of Stevenson's right hand that proved to be Clark's undoing. As the fight moved into its final minute, Clark was certain that the decision was his. Or, rather, that it should have been his. He thought the only way he could lose would be by being on his back. And so he concentrated on Stevenson's right hand.
"And that's when he hit me with the left hook," Clark said later. "I never saw it coming."
It was a good hook, short and crisp, but hardly a destroyer. All of Stevenson's power is packed in the right side. But there is a boxing axiom: It's the punch you don't see coming that knocks you out. Or, at least, down. This hook knocked Clark down.
More surprised than hurt, Clark popped up at the count of two. Quickly, Stevenson moved toward him.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't think too much of the knockdown," said Santiago, the Cuban judge who had scored the fight even going into the last round. He was sitting by that part of the ring where Clark landed.
As Clark got to his feet, Santiago glanced down at his scoresheet. "If what happened next had not happened," he said, "we would have had to spend a very long time analyzing the last round. To me, at that point the fight was even."
No matter. Whatever soul-searching Santiago anticipated was moot, because Stevenson drilled home a fierce right to the point of Clark's chin.
"He hit him just as I looked up from my paper," Santiago said. "I was stunned. I thought that Clark would be up doing his thing. Then the right hit him. I looked at his eyes and all I saw was an emptiness. I said se acabo. It's over."
Referee Bob Surkein, of the U.S., knew it was over, too. He moved in quickly, wrapping his arms around Clark before he could fall. Or before Stevenson could hit him again.
Five minutes after the fight, Surkein, a retired Army major who is both the AAU's and the United States Olympic Committee's boxing chairman, was still shaking his head over the force of the final blow.
"When that horrible right landed," Surkein said, "Clark's eyes turned into his head. I'd never seen that happen before. I grabbed him and helped him over to his corner. He didn't even know I had stopped the fight."
Outside the ring, Clark has his head together at all times. He is an honor student in criminal justice who is so devoted to his studies that he was unable to attend the world boxing championships in Belgrade last May because of a schedule conflict. "I don't know yet about the Olympics," he says, "because I don't know what I'll be doing." Among the things that Clark hopes to be doing someday is running for public office. "I'm at a point in my life when I don't leave anything up to chance," he says. "I know that boxing gets into your blood and it gets hard to put down your gloves. I try to calculate and design every part of my life." Obviously, that doesn't hold for left hooks thrown by large Cubans.
Dual international boxing matches are officiated by four men, two from each country. They alternate so that, for example, for one bout there are two Cuban judges and one American and for the next, two American judges and one Cuban. The fourth official becomes the non-scoring referee. But, as one Cuban said, smiling slightly, "If the fight is not totally one-sided, we vote correctly." Sad to say, U.S. judges do the same thing. As one Cuban official said Friday night, 'It was a fair exchange. Sometimes the Americans had two judges, and sometimes we had two judges."
The only thing that can throw the whole system out of whack is a knockout. If it weren't for that possibility or that of a fight being stopped because of cuts, they could hold the matches by mail.
Which may be one of the many things that wreck Bob Arum's visionary scheme to have Stevenson and Muhammad Ali meet in a series of five three-round bouts.
The Association of International Boxing of Amateurs has approved the proposed series, providing, of course, that Stevenson doesn't get paid. That presents no problem. While Ali would get $2.4 million, Stevenson's $1.1 million is to go to the Cuban Boxing Federation. The Cubans will also get expenses for 50 people, plus the use of a chartered plane.
At first Arum wanted the series to begin next February at Madison Square Garden, move to Philadelphia and Houston, and then on to Las Vegas before winding up at the Forum in Los Angeles. In addition, he had hoped to stage a world-championship fight (say, Carlos Palomino and Wilfredo Benitez for the welterweight title, or Mike Rossman against either Eddie Gregory or Victor Galindez for the light heavyweight championship) in conjunction with each bout in the Ali-Stevenson series. But that posed another problem. The title matches were an added starter and don't have AIBA approval. There was some question that Stevenson's amateur standing might be affected. The AIBA said it will consider the matter at a meeting in Madrid in November.
The Cubans have now said they would like two of the matches in Havana, and neither Ali nor Arum objects. CBS said it was very interested, but it is still very much uncommitted.
Although the Cubans also insisted on having the bouts scored according to international rules to protect Stevenson's amateur standing, that aspect of the series has yet to be determined. "We're still discussing the judging," Arum said after Friday's fights, "but I think eventually we'll agree to using one referee, mutually consented to by both sides, and then have a newspaper decision, leaving the result up to the journalists on hand."
Although journalists have been known to be jingoistic, too, it is doubtful that they would be any more so than the four judges who worked the bouts at the Garden Friday night. All of the first five fights were relatively close, and all of the winners just happened to be of the same nationality as the majority of the judges.
Of the five decisions, only one was unanimous. In that one, Surkein sided with the Cubans in declaring Hector Ramirez, a 106-pound southpaw from Guantanamo, the winner over Richard Sandoval of the U.S.
In the next four fights, the judges voted in blocs: the Americans for the Americans, the Cubans for the Cubans.
Consider these discrepancies in two of the bouts:
Bout 3: Santiago (59-58) and Rodriguez (60-57) for Cuban 119-pounder Adolfo Horta; Konnor for Jackie Beard, 60-57. ("I refereed that bout," said Surkein, "and Beard won it 60-57.")
Bout 4: Konnor and Surkein, both 60-57, for the U.S. 125-pounder Bernard Taylor; Santiago, 60-57, for Angel Herrera.
The pattern was finally broken in the sixth fight, mostly because Cuba's 139-pound Jose Aguilar so easily outclassed Don Curry that not even Jesse James would have voted for the American. Both Konnor and Surkein, as well as Rodriguez, who just couldn't seem to bring himself to give an American even one round, cast their votes for Aguilar.
No one got to cast even a first-round ballot in the seventh fight. Clint Jackson, one of three Nashville deputy sheriffs on the U.S. team, was stopped early on a cut by welterweight Andres Aldama, a silver medalist at Montreal. With Jackson blinded by blood pouring from a cut on his right eyelid, Surkein moved in quickly, and wisely, to stop the fight.
Apparently Surkein's act of humanity made little impression on Rodriguez, who refereed the following 156-pound bout between Luis Martinez and Jeff Stoudemire. With 40 seconds to go in the second round, Stoudemire ripped open a deep cut over Martinez' right eye, bathing the Cuban's hair, face and chest with blood. Rodriguez never even looked at the cut.
Then in the third round, Martinez came out without a mouthpiece, apparently to help him breathe. If Rodriguez noticed the obvious rules infraction, he never let on.
No matter. The two U.S. judges and Santiago, who displayed more than a modicum of integrity throughout the night, all voted for Stoudemire.
That was the last victory for the U.S.
Josè Gomez, 165, with two Cuban judges working in his behalf, decisioned Alex Ramos, and Sixto Soria, with only one Cuban judge going for him, said to hell with it and stopped Rick Jester in the second round.
After catching an eye-crossing right hand in the third round, Clark was not allowed to continue and Stevenson saluted one of his compatriots.