On the gold medal stand in the center of the Olympic boxing ring, after the last strains of the Cuban national anthem had faded away, Fèlix Savón raised his muscular arms in triumph. The statuesque Savón had just beaten Nigeria's David Izonritei 14-1 in the heavyweight final, and the symbolism of the scene was not lost on Teófilo Stevenson, the greatest Olympic boxer of all time.
"He is the Olympic champion!" said Stevenson, the graying eminence of Cuban boxing as he beamed at Savón from his ringside seat. "Three times I was the Olympic heavyweight champion. He fought very well, and now he is the best."
"As good as you were?" someone asked.
"Better," said Stevenson.
That may have been the most generous praise uttered all week at the boxing pavilion. In the Olympic heavyweight division, such as it was, Savón, 24, was surely the most formidable fighter, but only the mooniest dreamer would suggest that Savón is anywhere close to being Stevenson's equal. Stevenson won his three gold medals—in 1972 at Munich, in '76 at Montreal and in '80 at Moscow—behind a right hand that may have been as destructive as any ever seen in boxing, amateur or pro, and he brought to every match an almost tranquil sense of inevitability about its outcome. Savón was hailed as Stevenson's rightful heir—a 6'6", 201-pound marauder who had so dominated his division since he first won the world championship, in 1986, that his victory in Barcelona seemed a foregone conclusion.
However, if his bouts did anything, they exposed him as a sometimes awkward, at times inept, clubber whose reputation exceeds his prowess. In his lopsided 23-3 semifinal victory over 29-year-old Arnold van der Lijde of the Netherlands, Savón, pawing with his left and lunging with his right, looked as if he had strapped on gloves for the first time. And in his quarterfinal match, against the U.S.'s Danell Nicholson, who had had only one international match before the Games, Savón was losing 8-6 going into the third round. Only a desperate rally saved him from elimination.
"Go get him!" howled Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight champion of the world, as he urged Nicholson on from a seat near ringside. "Get on him! He don't like that."
He certainly did not on this day. Nicholson had rattled Savón with a right hand early in the fight, and Savón looked confused under attack. Forgetting to jab, he kept loading up with his right. "When Savón leads with his right hand, it's easy to step inside and hit him with your right," said Holyfield, as if giving Nicholson instructions from the corner. "He's right in your zone. Hit him with the right hand!"
As things turned out, Savón's fearsome reputation served him as well as his fists. No one in the pavilion was more surprised than Nicholson that he was winning the fight, and when Savón staggered him in the third round, Nicholson faded. "He could beat this guy," said Holyfield during the bout. "But he doesn't believe it. He has been waiting to get knocked out."
Savón had Nicholson in trouble in the middle of the third round but could not finish him. Savón finally prevailed on points, 13-11. "Savón is just average," said Holyfield. "He has a lot of talent, but he's raw."
In fact, Savón appeared considerably more adept in the final, boxing off a sharp, accurate jab, scoring with the right hand and looking more in command than he had in earlier bouts. As Stevenson's Cuban successor in the heavyweight division—this is the country's first Olympics since the Moscow Games—Savón engineered what turned out to be the crowning moment of the most extraordinary performance at the Games by a country in an individual sport. Nine Cubans qualified for the final 12 matches, and seven of them won. Over two weeks of competition Cuban boxers had a combined record of 46-5. Lightweight Oscar de la Hoya won the only gold medal for the U.S. and will of course shortly embark on a lucrative professional career.
Of course, none of the Cubans have expressed any such designs. Back in Stevenson's heyday, journalists regularly beset him with questions about his turning pro and fighting Muhammad Ali. Stevenson waved away such inquiries. Now, with Fidel Castro aging and ever more isolated, many boxing aficionados are clamoring for the day when Cuba's boxers are turned loose upon the world. So Holyfield was especially interested in seeing Savón—they met and shook hands after the fight—and Savón knew that Holyfield had watched him.
Yet Savón, who is a phys-ed student, cares not a peso for the idea of going pro. "At the Goodwill Games they offered me millions of dollars to turn professional," he said. "I wouldn't do it. I don't like professional boxing. I like boxing, but only as a pastime, as a sport, as leisure. That's the only reason I box."
Given the long way he has to go as a fighter—even with the lukewarm quality of today's pro heavyweights—he's surely better off.
The inexperienced Nicholson (far left) gave Savón a scare before losing 13-11.