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Félix Savón and Mike Tyson were contemporaries. In Tyson’s prime there were probably few people outside Cuba who could understand why Félix Savón continued to refuse grand offers to leave Cuba, turn professional and take on the fearsome American in a matchup that would have generated a huge purse. With the benefit of hindsight, the attractions of fighting for Don King were perhaps overrated and many years into retirement, Félix Savón remains a much loved and legendary Cuban fighter who maintains a deep admiration for Fidel Castro as his spiritual father and source of inspiration.
Today Savón participates in discovering and training new Cuban boxers. He has been a regular feature in Cuba’s bouts in the World Series of Boxing at the Ciudad Deportiva where his nephew Erislandy Savón Cotilla has been one of the leading lights of the Domadores team in the super heavyweight division as they have progressed to the finals to the held on June 6-7 in Azerbaijan.
With 342 victories and 17 defeats (all avenged), the three-time Olympic and six-time world champion is a legendary figure not only in Cuban sport but on a world level. For me, my abiding memory is seeing him mesmerize the crowd (and demolish his opponents) at the Kid Chocolate Arena during the Havana 1991 Pan-American Games.
Now 23 years later, I meet him for the first time at his modest home in Fontanar, Boyeros (an outlying suburb of Havana). Surrounded by his five spirited children, he recounts some of his life story. It is a story told simply and without pretension. He is dressed casually in light blue. We made ourselves comfortable in a small living room that houses all his memorabilia: medals, trophies, photos, boxing gloves, shoes and other prized items related to the sport.
He talks about his humble childhood spent in a remote part of Guantanamo province where there was no electricity. The neighborhood kids would go to watch TV at the house of a neighbor who had a generator. At night, he and his friends spent hours gazing at the lights of the US Naval Base of Guantanamo, fearful that the Americans would arrive.
Back in those days, before boxing he practiced rowing. Always talented and with incredible physical prowess, once he found his way to a boxing ring there was no looking back. He remembers the first time he knocked out his opponent that scared him. He was to get used to it as his left straight punch followed by a powerful right hook in a spectacular combination knocked down all comers.
One of his greatest friends once he joined the national team was another great champion, Teófilo Stevenson, who taught him and showed great solidarity. They shared quarters at many competitions and training sessions. Another important name that comes up is that of Alcides Sagarra, Cuba’s principal boxing trainer. It was Sagarra’s rigor and mastery of ring strategy that Savón still acknowledges as a great debt.
At just 18 years of age, in 1985, Savón had already been crowned as the world youth champ. If Cuba had taken part in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 91-kg fighter would have had a good chance to walk away with his first Olympic title. But he had to wait another four years. In Barcelona in 1992, we heard the emotion in his voice after winning the medal. He has intense memories of listening to the national anthem and feeling the weight of the gold on his chest. Patriotism is deeply rooted in him; he is a man with solid connections to the fate of his people and an athlete who craves the love of his fellow citizens.
In 1990, he married Maria Dranguet from Guantanamo; they have five children (the twins María Félix and Félix Mario born in 1997, Raicelis born in 1999, and then twins Félix Humberto and Félix Javier born in 2000).
Among his other awards, the fighter has also received the Olympic Order from Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former president of the IOC. Savón has also been included on the list of the 100 best athletes of the twentieth century. In 2012 at the London Olympic Games, the underground stations were temporarily named after important sports figures. One of the names chosen was that of Félix Savón. I am sure that Cubans in London would have been tempted to take the train to Félix Savón underground station wherever their journey ended up.
June 2014 This article formed part of the june 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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