How the Cuban style of boxing conquered the Olympics

Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba (right) focusses intently on his opponent during a heavy weight bout at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games held in Moscow, USSR.  Stevenson was victourious throughout the tournament winning his third consecutive gold medal in the heavy weight division.
Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba (right) focusses intently on his opponent during a heavy weight bout at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games held in Moscow, USSR. Stevenson was victourious throughout the tournament winning his third consecutive gold medal in the heavy weight division.

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we bring you the story of the Cuban boxing team who shone at three consecutive Olympic Games.

How it started

Boxing has been a traditional pastime in Cuba for over 100 years. It gained popularity in the 1930s and over the next couple of decades interest in the sport grew as Cuban boxers began winning professional world boxing titles abroad. The likes of Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo and Gerardo González won world championship belts and opened the doors for the younger generation.

Eventually, the excellence of Cuban boxers was seen in amateur boxing, with the event included in the Olympic programme. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, boxing further developed as sports training programmes were introduced across the Caribbean island.

Cuba cemented their Olympic status at Mexico 1968 when Enrique Regüeiferos and Rolando Garbey won the country's first medals in Olympic boxing. But these trailblazers only managed to win silver medals and not gold.

However, their medal wins inspired Teófilo Stevenson, a 16-year-old Cuban boxer who was already training hard for the next Olympics, which would take place in Munich, Germany.

The biggest wins

Cuba landed in Europe for the Munich 1972 Games with a strong team led by Alcides Sagarra Carón, who trained the national boxing team.

Together they were about to make history.

The first victory belonged to the bantamweight fighter Orlando Martínez, who became Cuba's first Olympic champion.

A few hours later, Teófilo Stevenson - who up that point had won every bout by knockout - was about to compete in the heavyweight final. But in a turn of events, his Romanian opponent had to forfeit. And so Stevenson won his first Olympic gold without lifting a glove. It would mark the beginning of a gold-medal-winning run that lasted three Games (Munich 1972, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980).

At the same Olympics, the Cuban boxing team won another gold medal, a silver and a bronze.

At Montreal 1976, Cuba won another three golds, along with another three silver and two bronze medals.

However, the Moscow 1980 Games were the apogee of Cuban boxing. With their biggest rivals, the United States, boycotting the Games, Cuba went on to win six golds, two silvers and two bronzes.

The People’s Fighters | Five Rings Films
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The powerful story of how a revolutionary boxing experiment produced Teofilo Stevenson and a legacy of Cuban success at the Olympic Games.

Beyond the impressive amount of titles Cuban boxers won from 1972 to 1980, their boxing style left an indelible mark on the Olympics forever. The Cuban boxing technique was often compared to a dance, as the focus was not on power but precision, tactics and movement.

Even if Stevenson was known for his impressive right hand that led to a series of knockouts, he also had a signature move where he used his right to counter at the moment his opponent let his guard down while attempting to hit him.

This style was made possible by Alcides Sagarra Carón, who is considered the father of Cuban boxing.

"He was the father of Cuban boxing. The man who made us Olympic champions," Moscow 1980 Olympic gold medallist Armando Martinez said in the Olympic Channel documentary The People's Fighters: Teofilo Stevenson and the Legend of Cuban Boxing.

He wanted all his boxers to have the rhythm to move well and react quickly in the ring. He was so demanding that knockout victories were not enough for him.

"He was a great professor," said double Olympic champion Ariel Hernandez Azcuy (1992, 1996). "He was very rough, but it does explain the results we gained in this boxing generation. He was not satisfied when you put your opponent to KO.

"If we would win by KO within the first 35 seconds in the 1st round, he would be saying, 'you are not done yet, go to the gym to train for 6 minutes," Azcuy added.

Teofilio Stevenson (left) of Cuba takes on Pawel Skrzecz of Poland during the Heavyweight event at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia. Stevenson won the gold medal.
Teofilio Stevenson (left) of Cuba takes on Pawel Skrzecz of Poland during the Heavyweight event at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia. Stevenson won the gold medal.
Photo by Allsport UK/Allsport

What happened next?

After Moscow 1980, Cuba boycotted the next two Olympics. But their boxing tradition didn't end. When they returned to the Olympics at Barcelona 1992, the country won seven gold and two silver medals. The Barcelona Games also saw the rise of Stevenson's successor, Félix Savón, who would also win three consecutive Olympic golds (Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000). He was trained by Alcides Sagarra Carón.

At Atlanta 1996, Cuba won four gold and three silver medals.

The team maintained the medal-winning pace until Beijing 2008, where they failed to win a gold medal - the first time they came home empty-handed since Munich 1972.

Even if many Cuban boxers now compete in the international professional boxing world, the local style of boxing still lives on.

"My role models are now boxers out of Cuba, [because] we know that they are Cuban," said Rio 2016 Olympic champion Julio César de La Cruz. "Guillermo Rigondeaux, Odlanier Solis… Boxers that embody the philosophy of the father of Cuban boxing, Professor Alcides Sagarra Carón. The art of hitting and dodging. The [Cuban style] of boxing."