How Mike Tyson Was Denied Historic Super Fight Against One Of Amateur Boxing’S Greatest Ever Champions


Upon Mike Tyson’s release from prison in 1995 – after serving three of the six years he was sentenced to when convicted of raping Desiree Washington – he remained so widely respected as a fighter that even Holyfield and Lewis were considered incapable of rivalling him as the world’s leading heavyweight.

The heavy-handed Savon had by then already won the first of what would be his three gold medals from three successive Olympic Games and, not unlike his revered compatriot, was considered potentially Tyson’s greatest threat.

Similarly to “Iron Mike”, who aged 20 had become the world’s youngest ever heavyweight champion, Savon, at 19, had established himself as a precocious talent when dominating the heavyweight division at the world championships in 1986. Also like Tyson, in his infancy he far from cut a natural fighter – he was a runner, and a rower, and when he told his mother that officials wanted him to box he was told by her not to come home.

Had Cuba not boycotted the ‘88 Games in Seoul he may well have won his first Olympic gold even earlier, but at a time when the tension and relationship between Cuba and the US remained delicate, the prospect of their leading fighter confronting America’s was too tempting a marketing opportunity to resist.


Savon, as patriotic as his right hand was potent, supported his country’s socialist regime, and to the extent that he rejected a reported $20million offer made by King to – against his country’s rules – defect and fight as a professional. Frank Warren, however – having seen Tyson retire Frank Bruno and Lewis sign with Panos Eliades – had been convinced that Tyson vs Savon remained possible, and sanctioned an associate to travel to Cuba to infiltrate Savon’s inner circle, and ultimately to finally tempt him into a professional ring.

“Tyson was a strong brand, and Cuba was its own strong brand of rebels, revolutionaries and mischief makers, which appealed,” John Duncan, then a sports writer and Warren’s associate, told “Savon was the unchallenged heavyweight champion with all the echoes of Stevenson, and Tyson was the unchallenged professional champion with all the echoes of Ali. Their status was such that there was a compelling idea to get something that should have happened 20 years before.

“Tyson vs Holyfield I was just before I left [for Cuba]. He’d lost the title but everyone thought, ‘He’ll win it back’. It wasn’t hard to sell Frank Warren on the idea. Frank’s a mischief maker himself, and also has a keen sense of the history of boxing. He’d just gone into that doomed partnership with Don King, so had access to Tyson. There wasn’t the same appeal [around Lewis] at that point.

“Savon worked quite hard to be a symbol of what Cuba wanted to present itself as, and Tyson didn’t try too hard to avoid being what people saw America as – arrogant, violent, unyielding, and terrifying. The issue was whether or not you could ever get near enough to the Cubans to suggest it without getting arrested.”


Savon, a two-time Olympic champion by the time of Tyson’s shock defeat by Evander Holyfield, would win the amateur world championships a remarkable six successive times. His run ended in 1999 when Cuba walked out in protest at alleged refereeing injustices, by when, as the world’s leading amateur fighter, he had recorded victories over, among others, the respected George Kandelaki, Ruslan Chagaev, Kirk Johnson, David Tua, Shannon Briggs and Odlanier Solis.


“I got closer to the boxing authorities; invited to their training camp, and got to know the boxers quite well,” Duncan, the writer of In The Red Corner, recalls. “I eventually got to meet Felix Savon. He’d been given a car as reward for being an Olympic boxer, but it didn’t have a starter motor. His garage was on a hill, so he could do a rolling start from his own house, but it was a problem if he stopped somewhere.

“He clicked his fingers, and 20 kids emerged out of the bushes and gave him a jump start. Wherever he was, a group of people would emerge to get him started. That was a peculiarly Cuban form of celebrity. But he was very decent. Not a leader, but warm and friendly, and genuine.

“Who could genuinely think that they wouldn’t want to go to the USA and earn millions if you got a chance? But I genuinely think he liked Cuba – he liked being there, and he enjoyed the people he was with, and being the hero he was, and I don’t think he wanted to give that up for money. And he didn’t have any power over his career, so although that was useful, it didn’t really get me anywhere with the objective.

“At one point, when I was walking down the street, I dropped my lighter, and a guy came from nowhere, picked my lighter up, and said, ‘You dropped this, John’. Clearly I was being tracked, and followed. Somebody wanted to let me know that I wasn’t invisible.

“[Eventually] I was in a position where I could have asked that question, but everything had changed with Tyson [who was disqualified in the rematch with Holyfield, and banned], and with Frank [because of the separation with King]. There wasn’t anyone on whose behalf I was going to ask. It would have been a fragile conversation.



“[It’d have paid Savon] eight figures. It would have been a global fight that even people who aren’t interested in boxing would take a look at.

“He had size going for him [he was 6ft 5ins]. He had great technique; he could take a punch, and he was relentless. Relentlessly, technically crushing, and brilliant to watch.”

Savon’s iconic status endures largely because, like Stevenson, he remained loyal to his country and resisted the riches on offer from America. His final fight, a victory over future WBO champion Sultan Ibragimov at Sydney 2000, earned him his third and final Olympic gold.

He celebrated by raising a national flag – given to him personally by Fidel Castro – above his head in triumph. He then left the sport behind 16 years after his first fight with a near-unrivalled record of 269 victories and only eight defeats.


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