Teofilo Stevenson the pride of Fidel Castros revolution, the three-time Olympic boxing champ who turned down millions of dollars to defect to the United States and turn pro didnt know the camera was rolling. Tell this guy he has to pay, or there is no interview, he said in Spanish to his pal who had agreed to act as translator for the gringo director.
But how much do we ask for? replied the translator, keeping the conversation in Spanish.
You tell me, Stevenson shrugged. You have experience in this. Give him a number.
I say we ask for $80, maybe $100, the translator said, hopefully. Im broke.
OK, but Im worse than you, Stevenson reminds him. And if he says no, theres no interview.
The director, New York-based Brin-Jonathan Butler, forked over the money and the interview continued. But nothing in it matched the candor or irony of those first furtive comments by the man who once breezily dismissed a contract to fight Muhammad Ali with the question, Whats a million dollars for the love of eight million Cubans?
The interview, the last one known to have been given by the 60-year-old Stevenson before he died this summer, can be seen in Butlers forthcoming film Split Decision, which probes the paradox of a country that produces some of the most talented boxers in the world but doesnt permit them to fight professionally: Should they stay on the island, fighting for the glory of the revolution and the appreciation of friends and family? Or bolt for the bling-and-babes life of champs in the rest of the world?
Its not an easy choice, and not everybody comes down the same way, says Butler, who has just finished a rough cut of the movie and expects to screen it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Thats why the film is called Split Decision. How can anybody make a choice like that? It requires more wisdom and more courage than I can imagine.
NOT JUST BOXERS WHO MUST CHOOSE
The choice isnt unique to the islands boxers. Thats a Rubicon that all Cuban athletes have to choose to cross, or not, says Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price, author of Pitching Around Fidel, a 2000 book about sports under Castro. Some athletes decide to stay, even though theyre critical of the regime, but they wont leave their families it isnt a political decision. There are some who leave for economic reasons, some who leave because they want to get away from the government, and some who leave because they want to get away from their families.
And there are certainly those who stay because they want to show support for the government.
But the skill of Cuban boxers (theyve won 34 Olympic medals over the past four decades) combined with the numbers whove fled the island in recent years (at least 54 are known to be fighting professionally, more than double the number of Cuban baseball players under contract in the United States) makes them a unique case.
Cuba is becoming a significant force in professional boxing, says Enrique Encinosa, a longtime Miami broadcaster and an editor at the online boxing encyclopedia Boxrec.com. Cubans have won 13 world championships and the vast majority have come in the last 15 or 20 years.