Boxing: The three-time Olympic gold medalist legends
- Credit: PA
As we approach what would have been the 2020 Tokyo Olympics we have on record but three boxers who have won three gold medals at previous Games.
Sadly of those three, only Cuban Felix Savon is still with us, but the legacy of Hungarian Laszlo Papp and Cuban Teofilo Stevenson remain and always will.
I was but five-years-old when Papp strutted his Olympic stuff for the first time in London in the “Austerity Games” of 1948, but nine when he repeated his gold medal triumph in the Finnish capital of Helsinki, in 1952 and first, really, became aware of his great achievements in Melbourne in 1956.
The first of his gold medals was won at middleweight, the next two at light-middleweight. He also won seven Hungarian titles and two European titles in his amateur days and was, undoubtedly, eastern Europe’s premier boxing star during his long campaign.
Papp was born in Budapest on March 25, 1926 under a parliamentary democracy system with Admiral Horthy acting as Regent. The country came under the grip of the old Soviet Union after the fall of Nazi Germany and the Communist Party was installed and ruled throughout and beyond both Papp’s amateur and subsequent professional careers.
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He boxed in the early days of the “Cold War” between the Western and Eastern powers and success, particularly by those aligned with the then Soviet Union – as Hungary was then – was seen as a triumph for their political system over their would be adversaries.
It was important for those Eastern Bloc countries to have sporting success and no expense was spared to see their athletes and boxers had every opportunity to do so. It was a fine time for Hungarian sport with their “Magnificent Magyars” excelling far too often on the football field for many British fans liking!
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Papp was a southpaw and like all true champions, could box and punch, possessed a very potent left hook, moved well and also had a decent chin too, which helped make him the first and, so far, only European to win three Olympic gold medals.
Later on he became the first boxer from the old Soviet Bloc countries to punch for pay in the professional ring, but more of that later on.
He seemed to move between light-middleweight and middleweight, seamlessly, the true hallmark of a top class performer and entertainer.
Some have pointed to the inevitable statistical queries over Papp’s amateur record, but not too much difference exists overall between the various statistical scribes, who often tend to record 301 victories and 12 losses with six drawn contests as was possible in those far-off days.
Most agree that he recorded 55 first-round knockouts in his amateur days. So we shall leave it there.
In London in 1948, he had to box five times for middleweight gold and three of his victories came inside the distance, the two triumphs in the semi-final and final itself came via unanimous decisions.
In his opening bout, Papp knocked out Finland’s Valle Resko in round two, next up was Luxembourg’s Jean Welter who was stopped in the opening session, while in the quarter-final Spain’s Auguste Cavignac was knocked out in the first round.
In the semi-final. Italy’s Ivano Fontana went the distance, but Papp prevailed winning all three rounds. In the final, he met the host country’s Johnny Wright and it was a tough contest for both men.
Wright did very well, but the Hungarian maestro prevailed, taking all three rounds to gain his first Olympic title.
Helsinki provided the setting for the 1952 Games and it was where the Soviets and their Eastern Bloc satellite countries began to show their ring prowess in earnest.
Papp moved down to light-middleweight and won this Olympic crown with a similar menu of victories as four years previously.
Two North American boxers felt the force of his punches as in his opening bout Papp knocked out America’s Ellsworth “Spider” Webb in the second round and repeated this feat over Canadian Charlie Chase in the second round.
Bulgaria’s Peter Stankoff Spassoff went the distance only to lose all three rounds and in the semi-final Argentina’s Eladio Oscar Herrera was also around to hear the final bell, but dropped a decision to Papp, who again took all three sessions.
In the Olympic final, South Africa’s Theunis Jacobus Schalkwyk gave of his best, but suffered a similar fate to Spassoff and Herrera, losing all three rounds. So, Papp had done it again and won his second Olympic title.
Down Under in Melbourne in 1956, Papp made it three Olympic gold medals in a row when he successfully defended his light-middleweight crown, making him the first man to win three gold medals in succession in the Olympic boxing ring.
He started his defence at the quarter-final stage when Alberto Saenz of Argentina was knocked out in the third round, leaving Papp to box the fabulous Pole Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the semi-final, which he won, taking all three rounds.
The final against America’s tough Puerto Rican-born Jose Torres was arguably the hardest and closest of all of Papp’s Olympic contests.
Torres who later became WBC and WBA world light-heavyweight champion in the paid ranks ran Papp close to a split decision, the Hungarian taking two rounds to Torres’s one.
Torres couldn’t quite fathom out Papp’s southpaw style, but he became the only boxer ever to take a round off Papp in the latter’s Olympic exploits.
Papp won two bouts against Pietrzykowski to the Pole’s one, which curiously enough was Papp’s final bout before defending his crown in Melbourne, when the Pole stopped Papp in the second round of the Copa Varsovia in Poland – you see he was beatable after all!
But when it really mattered in the Olympic semi-final, a couple of months later, he beat the Pole on his way to his final Olympic glory.
What more could he do in the amateur code, people were asking? Papp sometimes mused that he would go to Rome in 1960 for “four in a row”, but he really wanted to earn some money from his considerable talent and who could blame him.
The Hungarian authorities let him become the first Soviet Bloc boxer to punch for pay; but as professional boxing was banned in Hungary, he would have to do it elsewhere in Europe which is actually what he did, usually basing himself in Vienna for his contests.
He made his professional debut in May 1957 and when he called it a day in late 1964, he had won the EBU middleweight title and defended it successfully six times. He finished his paid career undefeated with 27 victories (15 inside the distance) and two draws.
Sadly, those Communist authorities who had given him the “nod” to box professionally abroad, were eventually to deny him a visa to leave the country, when he was on the cusp of a world title shot with the American Joey Giardello.
So he never knew whether or not he could have finally cut it at the top of the professional tree as he had done so magnificently in his amateur days.
He made waves in amateur and professional codes alike, but could only meet and invariably beat those before him. He was a great boxer in his particular era and history will judge whether he was the greatest Olympian of all time.
I think he may well have been. In my eyes there is always something special about someone achieving a monumental feat for the first time in whatever field it may be, amateur boxing is no exception.
He died in October 2003, aged 77 and undoubtedly boxing was the poorer for his passing.
Teofilo Stevenson Lawrence (Teofilo Stevenson) was born in Cuba on March 29, 1952 and was but three months old when Papp won his second gold medal in Helsinki!
He was to become only the second amateur boxer to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals, a huge feat in any particular era and his place in Olympic boxing history is determined by his ring successes.
In fact he was the first boxer to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals in one weight division.
Stevenson, like Papp before him, was nurtured by the Communist regime, in Cuba’s case a Marxist-Leninist doctrine introduced by Fidel Castro in 1959.
Although professional sports were banned in Cuba, he became a “sportsman” whose role and work was to undertake success in amateur boxing, which he did to a remarkable effect. Sporting success gave credence to Communist ideology that their way was better and more successful than various types of western democracy.
He began his boxing career at the tender age of 14 in 1966 and his initial real international success came about with a bronze medal in the Pan American Games of 1971 in the heavyweight division.
By 1972, he had won his first gold medal in the Olympic games as the Cubans burst onto the Olympic boxing stage in Munich with three gold medals. In addition to his own, Stevenson was awarded the Val Barker trophy and was the first Cuban to receive this particularly coveted honour.
He had signalled his presence and was about to dominate Olympic and World Amateur championships for the foreseeable future.
He boxed three times for Olympic gold in Munich and had a walkover in the final, perhaps not the best way to become an Olympic champion, but nevertheless he had earned his initial slot in amateur boxing history.
Poland’s Ludik Denderys was stopped in the opening round in his first contest, then followed the American Duane Bobick, a hot favourite for the gold medal who had earlier beaten his Cuban rival in winning a Pan American Game gold medal.
Stevenson, had obviously learned from this loss and dominated the bout, outboxing, outpunching and finally stopping Bobick in the third round.
West Germany’s useful Peter Hussing was stopped in two rounds in the semi-final and a broken thumb ruled out Romania’s Ion Alexe to leave Teofilo as champion.
Two years later, in 1974, he confirmed his dominance of the heavyweight division, by winning a gold medal at the World Amateur Championships.
In 1975 he won gold for the first time at the Pan American Games then in 1976 it was on to Montreal to defend his Olympic heavyweight crown, which he did in some style.
Four stoppage victories was all he needed to bag gold medal number two.
The punishing left jab and the ferocious right hand ensured victory in Canada, with Senegal’s Mamadou Drame knocked out in the second round, Pekka Ruokola of Finland knocked out in the first round, while in the semi-final highly touted American John Tate was knocked out inside a round.
In the final, the very game and tough Romanian Mircea Simon was halted in the third round and Stevenson had retained his crown in awesome style. There was really nobody to touch him in those days, he was so good.
In 1978, he won gold at the World Amateur Championships in the heavyweight division (his second triumph) and a year later he collected another Pan American heavyweight gold (also his second triumph).
So he moved on to Moscow in 1980, where there was a considerable boycott from countries like the USA and a number of their western allies, but not by Team GB. He was 28 years of age then, but his destructive powers were still there, only if in the early stages of this tournament.
Nigeria’s Solomon Ataga was knocked out in the opening round, while Poland’s Gregorz Skrecz was halted in the third round of their bout. Some commentators then wondered if his ferocious power was beginning to desert him as the Cuban maestro needed the full nine minutes in each of his semi-final and final bouts over Hungary’s Istvan Levai (5-0) and the Soviet Union’s Piotr Zaev (4-1) respectively to end up a three-time Olympic heavyweight kingpin.
Could he have won a fourth title was the question on many fans lips? He was denied that opportunity courtesy of the boycott by the Soviet-led Bloc of the Los Angeles Games in 1984 as part of the tit-for–tat protests against some of the western countries boycotting the Moscow Games in 1980.
Perhaps he was denied becoming a four-time Olympic gold medallist, we shall never know, but in all truth it cannot easily be discounted.
He did win a third World Amateur Championship gold medal in 1986 at super-heavyweight as Savon was then occupying their domestic, international and world heavyweight berths.
Retirement followed in 1988 after the Seoul Olympics, which Cuba had boycotted. His work in the ring was done and happily, most scribes put his record as winning 302 contests and losing 22 and there seems to be reasonable enough agreement on this.
He did have those who could have the upper hand on him, notably a former one-time Soviet Union heavyweight champion Igor Vysotsky, woh had good enough credentials, but was not really a top ranking performer.
Vysotsky got a 3-2 decision over Stevenson in 1973 and three years later stopped the Cuban in the third round. The Cuban never avenged these two defeats.
Italy’s Francesco Damiani outscored Stevenson (5-0) at the World Amateur Championships in 1982 in the super-heavyweight category, so he was not infallible, but like all of the greatest champions he could do the business when it mattered most and you cannot ask for more.
Vysotsky was kind of a nemesis, but boxing fans will remember Stevenson for years to come. I doubt whether Vysotsky will remain in their vocabulary for very long.
A fabulous Olympic champion who stayed loyal to the amateur code and did not opt to punch for pay, despite many suggestions over the years that he might box professionally against the likes of Muhammad Ali and others besides.
They simply remained paper talk and in true Cuban traditions Teofilo resisted any temptations set by the dollar signs and remained a “true blue amateur” for the whole of his career.
Would I vote for him as the greatest amateur boxer, or amateur heavyweight boxer of all time? Maybe, but then along came Savon.
Sadly, Stevenson was taken from us at a mere 60 years of age in June 2012, from heart disease, far too soon in my view. We will never see his like again, but remember him fondly for all his many ring exploits in and out of the Olympic Games, in which he was so dominant in for so long.
In Felix Savon Fabre (Felix Savon), have we left the best to last?
Born in Cuba on September 22, 1967 he was around five-years-old when Stevenson began to first strut his Olympic stuff in Munich in 1972.
He won three consecutive Olympic heavyweight gold medals, six gold medals at heavyweight in World Amateur Championships, as well as a silver in the 1999 World Championships, but more of the implications of that later on.
He also won the Cuban National Championships 13 times between 1985-98 and during this time he defeated the following future professional world champions – Michael Bentt, Ray Mercer, Shannon Briggs, Lamon Brewster, Ruslan Chagaev and Sultan Ibragimov.
He also conquered fellow Olympic champions Ray Mercer and two of his Cuban contemporaries, namely Roberto Balado and Odlanier Solis. What a list of names to have on your boxing CV!
There were three golden triumphs in the World Amateur Championships in the heavyweight division in Reno (1986), Moscow (1989) and Sydney (1991), before his first assault on the Olympics in 1992 in Barcelona.
Qualifying tournaments were held for the Games in Barcelona to restrict the ever rising number of entrants, after there had been 432 for Seoul in 1988.
Had Cuba competed in Seoul, maybe Savon would have claimed his initial gold medal then. Cuba boycotted these Games, lining up with its ally North Korea and a few other countries friendly towards the relatively isolated regime.
In Barcelona, where headguards were now a permanent feature as were scoring machines, Savon boxed five times for the gold medal and only his opening bout ended early, with a second round stoppage of Poland’s Krysztof Rojek.
Germany’s Bert Teuchert was outscored 11-2, while in the quarter-final Danell Nicholson of the USA ran him very close, Savon eventually winning 13-11.
This was the closest contest in terms of a points decision in all of his Olympic exploits as the semi-final saw him triumph comfortably over Arnold Vanderlyde from the Netherlands 23-3 to set up a final clash with Nigerian, David Izonritei.
Savon cruised to victory and his first Olympic gold medal with a scoreline of 14-1.
Further World Amateur Championship gold medals were won at heavyweight in Tampere, Finland in 1993, and in Berlin in 1995 and also in 1997 in Budapest, but there is quite a tale to this one.
Savon made it to the final in 1997 where he boxed Ruslan Chagaev of Uzbekistan, who won 14-4, this leaving the Cuban with a silver medal.
However, Savon was later awarded the gold medal when Chagaev was subsequently disqualified for having boxed professionally before boxing in the tournament in Hungary. Where would amateur boxing be without a measure from time to time of such intrigue?!
Rewinding just a little and back to Athens in 1996, Savon retained his Olympic heavyweight title after four contests, plus a walkover in the semi-final.
In the first round he outscored Andrei Kurnyavka of Kyrgyzstan 9-3 to get his campaign off to a good start. Next up Sweden’s Kwamena Turkson was knocked out in the opening round and then Georgia’s Georgi Kandelaki was comfortably outpointed 20-4.
In the semi-final Savon received a walkover as Germany’s Luan Krasniqi suffered a cut under the eye in his previous bout and was advised not to box.
In the final, Canada’s David Defiagbon was beaten 20-2 and gold medal number two was hung around Savon’s neck
A silver medal was obtained in the 1999 World Amateur Championships in Houston and again there was another measure of intrigue, albeit of a different kind.
Reaching the final yet again, having outscored Chagaev 9-1 in a quarter-final bout, Savon didn’t show up for the final and forfeited the bout against America’s Michael Bennett, when he and the rest of the Cuban team walked out from the championships in protest at what they considered to be unjust refereeing and judging decisions.
What a huge price he paid, but as a loyal team member he considered it his duty to abide by and go along with the Cuban team officials’ decision and it left Bennett with a very hollow victory.
Who said poor decisions were a thing of the past? They seemed to be alive and kicking in 1999, at least in the eyes of the Cubans. We can only speculate what might have happened had Bennett and Savon boxed in the final. The two men were to meet again the following year, but more of that a little later.
Savon’s third and final tilt at another gold medal came in Sydney, Australia in 2000 where he boxed four times to land his third heavyweight crown.
First up was a second-round stoppage (outscored 18-3) against Nigeria’s Ojemaye Rasmus, then came a showdown with Bennett. Savon was really pumped up for this one, with Houston 1999 clearly still fresh in his memory as he “whupped” his rival with a third-round stoppage, outscored (23-8).
In Savon’s eyes, and Cuba’s too, justice had been done and he had been avenged. In the semi-final Germany’s plucky Sebastian Kober was outscored 14-8, to set up an interesting final clash with Russia’s tough and talented Sultan Ibragimov.
Their final was a very tough encounter, with Savon cut under the left eye, but able to outclass his opponent to win 21-13 and thus bag his third gold medal in the heavyweight division.
He announced his retirement after the Games aged 33 having also won three Pan American Games golds, four Central American and Caribbean golds and four World Cup gold medals. Was there anything else for him to win? Like Stevenson before him, he resisted mega-buck attempts to lure him into the world of professional boxing scene in America, as often suggestions were made for him to get into the ring with Mike Tyson, but to no avail.
He remained true to the headguard and vest, forsaking dollars for the honour and glory of winning many titles and the admiration of his President and countrymen.
Savon won 362 contests and lost 21, all of those defeats were subsequently avenged. Some record and some boxer he surely was. Today, his family name and ring tradition is being carried on by his nephew, Erislandy Savon who is making his own waves with the Cuban boxing team.
Now comes the hardest part for me, a former long time civil servant, to make a decision. Who was the greatest of those three Olympic greats?
Such decisions are a matter of opinion and I am sure readers will have their own reasons for their own individual choices. My decision is thus – 1 Felix Savon, 2 Laszlo Papp, 3 Teofilo Stevenson.
Savon had the most complete record of the three men in my view, Papp cut it in the amateur and professional worlds which is indeed very creditable and earned him second place.
Stevenson was outstanding in his particular era and deserves his place in amateur boxing history, even if I have put him in third place, which I hasten to add is in no way disrespectful to his overall achievements.
Will we ever see their like again? Probably not, but we can only hope that another boxing miracle might happen. Let’s hope that it does.