Who have been the top ten Cuban sportsmen in History? This question is hard to answer and, in the early 21st Century, it aroused huge controversy in the country. In a moment when everybody was trying to identify their great idols of the last 100 years, Cuba lacked consensus on what criteria should be had to elaborate such a list. Then, a ‘Solomonic’ idea came out: to choose, instead of 10, the 100 best athletes of the past century.
For this selection, media made a public poll; and, through the votes of fans, athletes and managers a comprehensive listing that included almost every sportsmen was organized. Many essential figures of professional sports, nevertheless, were left behind.
In PanamericanWorld we now suggest you the following wayward top ten. To elaborate it, we based our choice on diverse parameters, statistical mainly, although we have also opted to make a list in which all areas are included; and it was imperative for us to value the impact of each sportsman on their speciality, not only their medals or records. This can be seen, for example, in the chess player José Raúl Capablanca., who passed away in 1942; but who remains until today as one of greatest world icons of the analytical pastime.
Do you agree with this listing? Who else should be in and who should be out? Polemic is welcome.
Stevenson is known as one of the most spectacular amateur boxers in History. He got all the titles in the International Boxing Association (AIBA); and among them, three Olympic golds stand out: Munich 1972, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980. Only him, Felix Savón and Hungarian Lazslo Papp have made it to the top of the Olympic podium on three occasions. In addition, ”Pirolo”, as he was called by his friends, won three world titles: Havana (1974), Belgrade (1978) and Reno (1986).
In 1978, the possibility to confront Stevenson with Muhammed Ali in a series of combats was analysed. By then, Ali was a heavyweight champion. Nevertheless, these duels were never materialized; but the two fighters were close friends until Stevenson’s sudden death in 2013. For two decades in the ring, Stevenson’s strong hit made him an invincible boxer, and he lost only 20 combats of the 321 he officially fought.
Dihigo is considered the best Cuban baseball player of all times. In Mexico, he was called ‘The Master’ while in Cuba he has always been ‘The Immortal’. He had a natural talent that allowed him to play – and do it well- in every position. For three decades, he shone in different professional competitions in Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and the United States. He was never able to play in the Major Leagues, because when he was at his very best, the racial barrier ruled in America – and it did not disappeared until 1947.
Not only he was an excellent batter, Dihigo was an outstanding pitcher as well. His biographers state that the player, originally from Matanzas, won between 260 and 270 games. His extraordinary achievements in the Negro Leagues took him to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York, 1977. This, sadly, was a post-mortem honour, since ‘The Immortal’ had died in 1971.
Dihigo is the only baseball player that has been tributed in the sport’s Halls of Fame in Mexico, Venezuela, United States and Cuba – although the Hall is not operating in this country anymore.
The International Volleyball Federation called her ‘the best player in the world of the 20th Century’. For more than a decade, she was one of the fundamental figures in ‘Morenas del Caribe’, an extraordinary Cuban team that won all the main events since 1992. Her slim shape, her blocking effectiveness and her attack precision made her a superstar.
In her twelve years as a team leader, Torres won three consecutive Olympic titles: Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. She also obtained two World Championships: in Brazil, 1994, where she was acknowledged as the best blocker, and Japan 1998, where she was named Most Valuable Player. Torres also conquered two titles in the Pan-American Games and two other in the CentralAmerican and Caribbean Games. Torres is inducted in the Volleyball Hall of Fame, located in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
PEDRO LUIS LAZO
He is considered one of the most complete Cuban pitchers of all times. He won 257 matches in the National Series (leading the ranking) and he was the second best strike-out maker in the history if these tournaments, with a score of 2426. ‘Skyscraper’ Lazo, as he was called for his superlative height of almost 2 metres, remained active in Cuban baseball for nearly two decades. His speed, superior to 90 miles and his effective slider were his favourite trademarks.
In Cuba, he conquered the National Series title in both, 1997 and 1998, with the team ‘Pinar del Río’. In the meanwhile, and with the uniform of the National Selection, he got the title in the Olympic Games of Atlanta, 1996, and the silver medal in Sydney, 2000. He was also a World Champion in Italy, 1998, Chinese Taipei 2001, Havana 2003 and Netherlands 2005. One of his most memorable performances was in the first World Classic, in 2006, with two excellent acts against Venezuela and Dominican Republic (teams that had taken many of their Major Leagues stars) that allowed Cuba to play the finals against Japan – they lost 10 – 6.
After his official retirement, Lazo went to Mexico, where he has pitched with many professional teams of the country.
Savón and Stevenson are the best- known Cuban boxers after 1959. Savón shone in the 91 kilograms, category in which he remained unbeatable for almost twenty years. His title list is impressive: Olympic champion on three occasions (Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000); he got the World Championship six times and he conquered four World Cups.
Many were thrown to the ring by his right hit, even in an era where amateur boxing was taking different measures to protect players – such as headgears.
In year 2000, after Sydney Olympic Games and due to an age limit imposed by the AIBA, Savón had to retire. His departure meant the end of a time where Cuban amateur fighters of the highest divisions ruled widely and convincingly in all the international tournaments.
Cuba has had great athletes when it comes to long-jumping, but in the list of the essentials, it is mandatory to mention Iván Pedroso, known as ‘the grasshopper’ for his formidable race-speed and his capacity to stretch in the air to cover even more metres.
In his successful career, he conquered the Olympic title in Sydney 2000 and was a World Champion on nine occasions; four of them in open air (Gothenburg 1995, Athens 1997, Seville 1999 and Edmonton 2001) and five of them in indoor track (Toronto 1993, Barcelona 1995, Paris 1997, Maebashi 1999 and Lisbon 2001). He also got to the top of the Pan- American Games podium three times (Mar del Plata 1995, Winnipeg 1999 and Santo Domingo 2003).
In 1996, in Sestriere, Italy, Pedroso jumped 8.96 metres, beating the world record since 1991 Mike Powell by one centimetre; however, the Italian Athletics Federation did not forward the result to the International Association of Athletics Federations, because a judge stood in front of the anemometer, probably intercepting the correct wind measurement. He did win, nevertheless, all major championships from 1997 to 2001.
He was fairly dubbed ‘The Prince of Heights’. Javier Sotomayor is still in possession of two of the oldest records in Athletics: the 2.45 metres that he exceeded in 1993, in an open air track in Salamanca, Spain, and the 2.43 metres he reached in indoor track in Budapest. His great mastery in high-jumping for more than a decade made him the best in History of this category.
In his prolonged career, in which he suffered many injuries, Sotomayor won an olympic title, in Barcelona 1992 and a silver medal in Sydney 2000; he also got two world titles in open air, in Stuttgart 1993 and Athens 1997; and four in the indoor category, Budapest 1989, Toronto 1993, Barcelona 1995 and Maebashi 1999. He also got to the top of the podium in three Pan- American Games.
In 1993 he received the Príncipe de Asturias Sports Award. His farewell to sports wasn’t the best; he had problems with forbidden substances, although the athlete has always denied any kind of connection with drugs.
He is considered the best Cuban wrestler in History. He is a double Olympic champion (Beijing 2008 and London 2012) and has won the World Championship four times (Budapest 2005, Baku 2007, Herning 2009 and St. Petersburg 2010).
His impressive physique – 1.98 metres tall and a weight of 120 kilograms- and refined technique in the Greco-Roman discipline have made of him a legend in this sport.
He is the athlete with more medals in the History of Pan- American Games; a total of 22: 18 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze. He was the first Latin- American medal winner in World Championships in his area.
His debut was in the Pan- American Games of Havana, 1991, when he was only 17 years old. He also shone in Mar del Plata 1995, Winnipeg 1999 and Santo Domingo 2003. He won all these events by conquering all possible scores.
In 2001 he got the silver medal in parallel bars in the World Championship celebrated in Gante, Belgium. This has been the best result for a Cuban gymnast in world tournaments. He has never made it to the Olympic Podium, but he was very close to it in Sydney 2000.
JOSÉ RAÚL CAPABLANCA
He is the best Latin – American chess players of all times. Capablanca won the world title in 1921 when he beat the German Enmanuel Lasker, in a match celebrated in Havana. For three years, until 1924 he remained undefeated. The great surprise came in 1927, when the Russian -nationalized French- Alexander Alekhine, beat him in a match played in Argentina. And thus was how the Cuban reign came to an end. Alekhine always refused to the idea of a rematch.
On March 7th, 1942, while he was watching a match in the Manhattan Chess Club in New York, he had a heart attack. He died on the next day, when he still hadn’t reached the age of 54. In his outstanding career, he got 302 victories, signed 246 boards and only leaned his King on 35 occasions, what makes him the world champion with less lost matches.
Garry Kasparov, wrote about Capablanca in his books My Great Predecessors: ”he barely knew theory and he lived – at least in his everyday existence- outside chess. He rarely did something and he worked much less than other players, but this wasn’t an obstacle to win tournaments and other important encounters, remaining undefeated for years”.