- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia. Cuban heavyweight great Felix Savon had a bone stuck in his throat since July 1999, when he had to watch as Michael Bennett was handed over the world championship while the Cuban team walked out of the tournament in protest over the judging.
Yesterday, Savon cleared his throat.
The 6-foot-6 Savon left no doubt yesterday who would have walked away the winner on that hot summer day in Houston. It was billed as the biggest fight in the Olympic tournament, but that appeared to be only wishful thinking.
It wasn't even close, stopped ultimately because of the slaughter rule when a fighter is 15 points ahead in the scoring, the bout is automatically halted. With three seconds left in the third round, Savon went ahead 23-8, but was ahead the minute he walked into the ring, with his customary style of just stepping over the top rope.
If you tested Felix Savon for arrogance, his positive reading would be right off the charts.
He is Cuban royalty, a six-time amateur world champion, and perhaps the last true king of the Castro communist sports machine. Castro viewed the boxing ring as a field of battle against the free world and built up a boxing program starting in the 1960s that would come to dominate the sport.
Despite the crumbling of the island, that hasn't changed much, based on how they have performed here in Sydney. But the government is hanging on by its fingernails to try to keep its prize athletes in the country.
That was evident in the arena yesterday. The entire Cuban team sat in the stands to watch Savon, and had used crime scene tape to block off a seating area, leaving several rows of seats empty all around it, to keep everyone away from its athletes. It was a lost cause, as witnessed by the way security tore down the tape right in front of the eyes of the team.
But unlike the others the many baseball players and boxers who have fled the country for the promise of big bucks in America Savon has remained steadfastly loyal to Cuba.
In an interview published in the communist newspaper in Cuba last month, Savon made it clear where his loyalties stand. "The nation where I was born gives me happiness," Savon said. "When you abandon that, then you are never really happy in life."
Who knows if those are truly Savon's words. He refused to meet with reporters after defeating Bennett yesterday. But he has been offered millions of dollars to defect and turn professional. Perhaps he took a long look at boxing promoters Bob Arum and Don King, and figured he was better off with the devil he knew.
Bennett, 29, who spent seven years in a Chicago prison for armed robbery and didn't have his first amateur fight until he was released in 1999, admired Savon's loyalty. "It's just about patriotism to his country and he's just going to be a warrior for Cuba," Bennett said. "Some people do take it upon themselves to defect, but he has stayed fast and stayed true to the country and that's OK."
It was clear from the time Savon walked into the ring that he had been waiting for this fight for a long time. He had heard all the stories about how Bennett, who with less than 50 amateur fights, had the power and determination to give Savon a tough fight perhaps even stop this man who had hundreds of amateur fights and had won gold medals in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996.
Savon, 33, seemed to take it as an insult, and used his superior reach and boxing skills to pick Bennett apart. The smaller (6-foot-1) American heavyweight tried to get inside and create more of a brawl, and appeared to shake Savon with a right hand in the third round. But this is not professional boxing, where a fighter can lose the fight but win the war with one punch. Scoring, and doing it quickly in four two-minute rounds in Sydney, is the name of the game, and it is Savon's game.
Bennett wasn't intimidated, as many others have been when facing Savon, who packs a devastating right hand. "A lot of others with more experience would have backed down," said American boxing coach Tom Mustin. "Michael did the best that he could."
Savon's legacy won't be complete until he wins the gold here in Sydney. He next fights tomorrow against Sebestian Kober of Germany.
Another gold medal would put Savon on equal footing with the great Cuban heavyweight who preceded him, Teofilo Stevenson, the only other heavyweight to win three gold medals (Lazlo Papp of Hungary won gold medals in 1948, 1952 and 1956, at 156 and 165 pounds). Savon could have been going for four gold medals, but Cuba boycotted the 1988 Games in Seoul.
Of course, Savon could have defected and gone pro, too. He didn't.
"He is a warrior," Bennett said, describing Savon.
He also may be a relic of a way of life that will someday no longer exist, despite all the tape they might put around the island. This is the last stand of the warrior.

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