Director Peter Berg’s latest documentary, The People’s Fighters (which is available to stream on the Olympic Channel), opens with five Cuban boxing legends — including four Olympic gold medalists, and a two-time Olympic medalist — playing dominoes while discussing the greatness of Teofilo Stevenson and how he laid the foundation for Cuba’s great Olympic boxing tradition that Felix Savon later built upon. To them, Stevenson and Savon are legends. To you, however, they may be strangers.
Berg, who also narrates the film and tells the story of Cuba’s boxing traditions with the help of a number of interviews, focuses heavily on Stevenson and Savon, but it’s around those two individual stories that the complex history of Cuba’s boxing program is told. All through the lens of sport and the various socio-political factors at play.
Cuba’s long-held love for boxing was enhanced by the Cuban Revolution, with assistance from their ever-strengthening partnership with the Soviet Union in the ’70s and ’80s. The Soviets provided the model for Cuba’s sports development, and Cuban ruler Fidel Castro sunk significant resources into the program. However, after a number of pre-Revolution professional boxing champions from Cuba were chewed up and spit out by the seedy world of pro boxing at the time, amateurism became a defining characteristic that was in line with the virtues of socialism.
As noted in the film by Sebastian Arcos from the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, Castro saw sport and boxing in particular as a vehicle to show Cuba’s strength, but also to make his revolution more popular. Part of that shift was ending pro boxing in Cuba and pushing for it to be a “right of the people” by keeping all fighters as amateurs.
The first Cuban boxing gold medalists were Orlando Martinez and Emilio Correa at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, which set the stage for Stevenson’s run through the heavyweight division, which truly put Cuba on the map. Stevenson began his Games by dominating gold medal favorite Duane Bobick before cruising to his first gold medal, which he followed up with an equally strong performance in Montreal in 1976. Stevenson turned down offers to defect to the United States and fight professionally, insisting on remaining an amateur and fighting for Cuba. Among the opportunities that he turned down was a bout with Muhammad Ali in the late ’70s over a dispute over whether the fight would take place with amateur rules or professional rules in place.
Stevenson would win the 1980 gold in Moscow as well, becoming the first heavyweight to win three gold medals. Stevenson’s importance to Cuban boxing becoming what it was can’t be overstated. Not just due to his dominance, but because he stayed.
Savon matched Stevenson’s three Olympic gold medals in his career, winning in 1992, 1996, and 2000. Like Stevenson, Savon had opportunities to go pro and cash in, choosing to remain. A decision that, on the outside looking in, might seem confusing.
As noted in the film, boxing is the kind of sport that, provided an opportunity, can be picked up by any person from any walk of life, and, in all honesty, often produces the best fighters out of the worst conditions. It was a perfect fit as a passion pillar for a post-revolution Cuba and a stage that allowed Cuba the chance to show its sporting prowess while a lot of international focus remained on other, less favorable aspects of life on the island nation.
For Cuba, that meant everything and still does. The last chapter of The People’s Fighters examines how the Cuban sports program had a strong enough foundation that even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus the collapse of the main source of trade and industry for Cuba, they were still able to produce strong fighters — a point of pride for people during the tumult of the post-Soviet breakup.
The People’s Fighters tells a story that has, to this point, not been told in the United States in totality. One that offers an understanding of the mentality and sociopolitical climate that, while often considered disadvantageous to Cuba, was the catalyst for one of the greatest boxing programs in the world.
To learn more about Stevenson, Savon, and Cuba’s post-revolution Olympic boxing program, check out The People’s Fighters on the Olympic Channel.