The Professional Potential of the Cubans

By Cain Bradley on August 7, 2014
The Professional Potential of the Cubans
How would the four brightest stars of Cuban boxing have performed at a professional level?

Teofilo Stevenson would have likely just missed the greatest heavyweight era of all time with his prime emerging in the years from 1978-1982…

What could have been?

Cuba is generally regarded as one of the best nations at producing amateur boxers. A major reason for this is the ban on professional sports that began in 1961. A major talking point is how the stars of Cuban boxing would have done at a professional level. I will take the four brightest stars and evaluate how I feel they would have performed. Although a futile exercise as the switch in codes is a major change and the experience is hard to replace, it will certainly fuel some interesting debate.

Teofilo Stevenson
One of only three men to win three Olympic gold medals, Teofilo Stevenson is often regarded as one of the greatest amateur boxers ever. Stevenson would win his first gold at 20, at the 1972 Munich Olympics overcoming heavily favored Duane Bobick and Peter Hussing. He would follow this up with victories in ‘76 and ‘80 before having the chance to win a fourth taking away by the Soviet Union boycott of the 1984 Olympics. He won three of the four World Championships he entered, only losing to Francesco Damiani, a WBO world champion who would only lose twice as a pro. Stevenson was 6’5” and used his length as a counterpuncher with a flicking, long jab. Unlike some recent heavyweight champions, he would follow this up with a thunderous right hand capable of stopping many of his opponents. His ring skills were exquisite and he floated around the ring in a similar way to Muhammad Ali. He had a textbook guard, with a bouncy, upright style and a seemingly granite chin.

Stevenson would have likely just missed the greatest heavyweight era of all time with his prime emerging in the years from 1978-1982. The major heavyweights in this time were a declining Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Ken Norton, John Tate, Mike Weaver and Leon Spinks. Against an aging Muhammad Ali, the movement and power of Stevenson would have been too much. Another aging fighter at the time was Ken Norton and Stevenson would find a questionable chin with his big right hand. Leon Spinks would aggressively swarm after Stevenson whose reach would keep him away before his accuracy began to tell and he hurt Spinks in later rounds. John Tate, stopped in the ‘76 Olympics, would still find Stevenson too strong. Weaver would also find Stevenson too accurate and would be unlikely to last all twelve rounds. The real challenge would be Larry Holmes who would be able to stay away from the big shots of Stevenson and pop back with his own quality work. His iron chin and will would take him through any bad moments and his boxing skills were enough to overcome Stevenson. Stevenson is probably the fighter on this list that we came closest to discovering how he would get on as a professional. American fight promoters reportedly offered him $1 million for a fight with Muhammad Ali in 1974 but Stevenson refused asking “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”

Overall: Missing an era containing a peak Ali, Foreman and Frazier would be good for Stevenson as he can dominate the majority of fighters in his time, building up an impressive collection of wins. His right hand would be a major weapon and would stop the likes of Norton and Tate while wins over Ali and Spinks would be impressive victories. He would do enough to earn himself a share of the title but would never become the dominant force at the weight with Larry Holmes being the undisputed title holder.

Felix Savon
Another man who captured three Olympic gold medals in the heavyweight division was Felix Savon. He would dominate the division winning the Olympics in ‘92 and ‘96 and 00’, missing out on a likely Olympic title in ‘88 thanks to the Cuban boycott. As well as this, Savon would win six consecutive World Championships and claim a silver in 1999, a tournament where he did not fight in the final as a form of protest for a Cuban boxer who the team considered to have been robbed. Savon was a huge fighter, standing at 6’5” with an incredible 82” inch reach. He was very athletic and knew how to use his long jab. An impressive physical specimen, Savon was an aggressive puncher with power who put his punches together in combinations. He combined this with good movement and a strong work ethic. His timing and counterpunching ability was most evident is his first round stoppage of David Tua. However Savon had a poor chin in the amateurs, being stopped 18 times. Moving up to the professional ranks, his chin would have been the biggest question mark.

Savon would likely be enjoying his prime between 1992 and 1996, as his skills were seemingly in decline in the lead up to the turn of the century. The division was arguably enjoying another period of strong fighters with the likes of Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, and a post-jail Mike Tyson all competing. The chin of Savon is the wildcard in most of these fights. Bowe would likely be quite intimidated by Savon. Savon would use his long jab and movement to stay away from Bowe but I think Bowe has a big enough punch to send Savon to sleep. The Lewis fight is intriguing as both are similar with Lewis arguably being a bigger version of Savon. A tricky opponent for Savon, Savon would have to rely on his power. I could see these two fighting an intriguing trilogy with Savon winning two to one. Holyfield would, in my opinion, have the speed to match Savon and I think Savon struggles with being beaten to the punch. Foreman and Tyson are similar for me as I believe Savon could out box them both, but would not last twelve rounds with them both landing a knockout shot.

Overall: Savon would have been such an exciting heavyweight but in a period of time where the heavyweight division was strong and full of guys with big punches, he would have struggled. He may have been able to get his hands on an alphabet title and provide some excitement but would struggle against the cream of the crop.

Ariel Hernandez
Despite the dominance of Savon in the heavyweight division, he generally wasn’t rated the best Cuban boxer at the time. That honor tended to go to middleweight Ariel Hernandez. He won his first Olympics at 21 in 1992 and followed it up in 1996. Such was his dominance in the 1992 Olympics he won by an average 8.6 point margin. As well as that, he took two gold medals in World Championships before only taking a silver in the 1997 World Championships, losing to future WBC cruiserweight champion Zsolt Erdei. He stopped boxing remarkably early due to an eye injury when three or four Olympic gold medals were possible. Hernandez had fast hands with lightning reflexes and quick feet. At 6’0” he was a lanky southpaw, who used his long overhand left to great effect. He used in and out movement and controlled the center of the ring allowing him to measure his distance and pick and shots. Hernandez was not particularly powerful but had an incredible defense which allowed him to hit without being hit.

Hernandez’s prime probably came between the years of 1994 and 1998. Being an amateur middleweight, he weighed in five pounds over the professional middleweight limit and would probably have found a home in the super-middleweight division. At that time in that division he was likely to come up against Roy Jones Jr. who was soon to move up, Joe Calzaghe, Nigel Benn, Sven Ottke and Frankie Liles. Roy Jones Jr. was a super middleweight until the back end of 1996 and would likely have defeated anyone on the planet at the time with his extraordinary speed and athleticism. Joe Calzaghe was a similar fighter to Hernandez with perhaps more power and an exceptional work ethic. Nigel Benn was a monstrous puncher and a bully in the ring, but a tall, awkward southpaw with quick feet and a good defense is a nightmare for Benn. Ottke was defeated by Hernandez four times as an amateur and it seems unlikely that that would change in the professional ranks, despite the propensity of Sven Ottke to be gifted decisions at home. Frankie Liles was another rangy, counterpunching southpaw who would be awkward for anyone to take on and like Hernandez had an incredible amateur pedigree.

Overall: Another fighter who was entering a special division. You’ll be hard pushed to find anyone who gives him a win over Roy Jones Jr. I think Joe Calzaghe, who proved himself one of the best boxers around, has too much in the gas tank for him. Ottke and Benn looked like the kind of opponents Hernandez would defeat. The Liles fight is certainly interesting but Hernandez probably has too much. Hernandez would surely have won an alphabet belt, possibly two without dominating the division. Given his size a move up to light heavyweight could be possible with a potential title.

Mario Kindelan
Another two-time Olympic gold medalist. The lightweight won his gold medals in 2000 and 2004 to go with his three World Championships medals won between 1999 and 2003. He recorded an impeccable record of 358 wins with only 22 losses. The wins included victories over top professionals including Amir Khan twice, Andreas Kotelnik, Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto. Like Ariel Hernandez, Kindelan was also a southpaw and he used his southpaw stance effectively to make life difficult for his opponents by getting into a safe zone away from his opponents straight right. Despite this, his movement could be characterized as unique. He is a master of passive-aggressive boxing who lures his opponents in with balance and short movements to the edge of range before coming back with excellent counter punching. He is superb at making his opponents miss and punish them, especially with his long hooks that he likes to throw. He does not throw particularly hard and his chin never seemed especially vulnerable.

The Olympic lightweight limit was just over 132 pounds which lay directly in-between super-featherweight and lightweight. His height is given as 5’5” although when stood next to Khan he does not seem to be given away such height. I feel he would have dropped down to the super-featherweight division at least for the early bit of his career. Considering his international titles I think his prime comes between 1999 and 2003. With a potential move up to lightweight included the top boxers around that time are Floyd Mayweather Jr., Joel Casamayor, Diego Corrales, Jose Luis Castillo and Acelino Freitas. Floyd Mayweather is one of the best fighters of the current generation, an incredible defensive fighter with speed and movement. Casamayor was slick with good power. At times though he faded in fights, seemed to lack interest and didn’t always take shots well. Corrales similarly struggled with his chin but was very tall with big punches and a huge heart. Mayweather pulled him apart with his movement and speed and Kindelan had similar abilities. Castillo was a forward moving fighter who loved to get on the inside with his smart footwork. Acelino Freitas was awkward and aggressive, throwing punches from different angles but his defense was his weakness as he tired which he has a tendency to do he became liable to counters.

Overall: Kindelan would have been in a top class division with some brilliant fighters around him. I think he would have been a title holder, probably a two-weight champion with some big wins. However the major problem for Kindelan would have been Mayweather who it is so hard to pick against. A fight with Casamayor is also interesting as three of the things we question about his move to the professionals would be his chin, drive and power. I think it is very likely Casamayor can overcome him. Corrales would likely have been pulled apart by Kindelan. A Castillo fight is another intriguing one as playing counter-puncher to Castillo played into his hands but Kindelan would probably be able to keep him at bay in enough rounds to take a decision. Freitas would likely give Kindelan trouble in the early rounds but as he slowed down and Kindelan began to work him out he would land his counters at will. Without Mayweather, Kindelan could have become a dominant, undisputed champion at more than one weight.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Axel Grefberg 12:41pm, 08/14/2014

    Many of the cubans would have dominated at a professional level, its a known fact but unfortunately politics got in the way.

  2. nicolas 06:59pm, 08/12/2014

    Fight film collector, I sure wish there was more info about this Peter Sommer, who you say beat Stevenson twice. I think he was in Czechoslovakia. Also I don’t think it was Vladimir Volkov, but Igor Vstontsky who beat Stevenson twice.

  3. Darrell 07:06pm, 08/09/2014

    With all the vagaries and variables of superimposing these amateur greats into the corresponding professional ranks, I still can’t see the fairly robotic, if physically imposing, Felix Savon even getting over in one fight against the most dominant professional heavyweight champion of his era, Lennox Lewis.  Only with a supremely overconfident Lewis taking Savon lightly, a la Hasim Rahman-like, would Savon have a chance of winning.

    To my eye Savon wasn’t as good a boxer as Stevenson, whose mythical pro career would’ve likely turned out as has been described in this article, as one of Holmes’s strongest challengers and a probable belt holder.

  4. The Fight Film Collector 08:04am, 08/08/2014

    I agree with Eric.  I’ve always believed that Stevenson caught something of a lucky break when Bobick and the Russian Yuri Nestero, both the Olympic favorites in 72, were drawn to fight each other in the opening round.  I watched that fight live and it was an exhausting slugfest.  With only one days rest between, Bobick was matched next with Stevenson, who had breezed through his opening fight.  Duane was certainly not 100%, and underestimated Stevenson whom he had defeated (by 5-0) a year earlier - What a video that would be to see now.  I’m not implying that Bobick would have won, just that Stevenson had a big advantage going in.  By the 76’ and thereafter, Stevenson was a mature adult who was fighting young adults and teenagers.  Yet he still lost on several occasions, twice to Peter Sommer and to Valdimir Volkov both who apparently had his number.  Stevenson had great skills, he was a great fighter, but his height was is biggest asset.  And only needing 3 rounds to work helped too.

  5. Cain Bradley 03:38pm, 08/07/2014

    Jethro’s Flute: I don’t think Lennox can dominate with his jab against Savon. Savon is so long and quick that I think he outboxes Lennox. Both could probably stop each other and overall I’d just about give the edge to Savon

    Eric: I know it’s an impossible task but it’s so much fun!

    Matt: I haven’t actually seen it but it does not surprise me. A lot of Cubans have wasted a lot of potential. Lara and Rigondeaux are probably the only two to have fulfilled their potential. Gamboa, Solis, Despaigne are the notable examples of fighters who failed to be as good as they could have. You often hear reports of laziness, especially from Solis. A Cuban boxer’s journey is a very good book and highlights the difference in lifestyles, which proves so distracting for Cubans. And in terms of calling Holmes the undisputed belt holder it was more saying he would be if Stevenson was around as I feel he would try and unify the belts.

  6. Jethro's Flute 11:33am, 08/07/2014

    ” A tricky opponent for Savon, Savon would have to rely on his power. I could see these two fighting an intriguing trilogy with Savon winning two to one. “

    On the basis of what do you claim this?

    2 out of 3 against Lennox Lewis?

  7. Eric 11:26am, 08/07/2014

    I used to think that Stevenson would’ve done quite well had he entered the pro ranks. Stevenson was too young to have entered the fray in the Ali-Frazier-Foreman era. If Stevenson had entered the pro ranks in ‘76 or as you suggested in ‘78, Ali was overweight, aging fast and Foreman and Frazier were gone. Larry Holmes wasn’t highly regarded at the time even after the title fight with Norton. From 1978-1982, the years you mentioned as Stevenson’s prime years was one of the most lackluster times in heavyweight history. People talk about this era being full of non-talented heavyweights, well the late 70’s and early 80’s wasn’t any better. However, as bad as the heavyweights were back then, and despite the huge Cuban’s size and physical talent, you can never judge how good an outstanding amateur will do in the pro ranks. Great examples are Pete Rademacher, Howard Davis Jr, Sugar Ray Seales, Mark Breland, Alex Ramos, just to name a few. Sure, Breland won a world title but he only held it for a short spell. Howard Davis Jr. was thought to be even more talented than Sugar Ray Leonard, and the best bet of the famed ‘76 Olympic team to make it big in the pro ranks. Then you have people like Dwight Qawi who had no amateur experience at all go on to win two world titles. How many amateur fights did Marciano have? Hell, Duane Bobick beat Holmes in the amateurs. Pro ranks is an entirely different world.

  8. Matt McGrain 10:44am, 08/07/2014

    Fascinating stuff, especially Mario. Did you happen to see the mauling Cuban boxers going professional got in Ring this month Cain?  What did you think? One note - Holmes was hardly the “undisputed beltholder” even without Teo to contend with.  I think there’s a trilogy there.

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