Lopez Famosa and his girlfriend Lucia, 1952, after the famous quarterfinal victory
Alvaro Lopez Famosa
DQ, Featherweight Boxing
Olympic Boxing has been a controversial enterprise since its inception at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, when hometown hero Oonie Van Der Sleer used a pair of oversized gloves (four feet long from laces to tip) to land the most blows and win a gold medal. Today, the quantity-over-quality approach taken by the judges leads to many questionable decisions, and the best pure boxer is not always able to win gold. But never has there been a more divisive event than Alvara Lopez Famosa’s incredible run at the ‘52 Games in Helsinki. It remains a source of great argument and debate among boxing scholars, and it’s effect on the professional sports world can never be denied.
Born to street acrobats in Cienfuegos in 1932, the Cuban Famosa learned how to navigate his way around wires, nets, and rope at a young age. He joined his parents’ street show (Las Famosas Famosas, or “The Famous Famosas” or “The Famous Famouses,” if you also translate the surname into English) on his seventh birthday, and his agility, speed, and bright smile endeared him to the Cienfuegos citizenry. His parents earned more money in his first year than they had ever seen before, and before long Alvaro was touring the country and playing all the hottest Cuban venues, including the Estadio Guantanamo, the Playa Cardenas, the Republica Dominicana (confusingly, a club that was in Trinidad, Cuba), the Club Haiti (again, in Trinidad), Buenos Noches America (Fidel Castro’s favorite club, and violently anti-American), Casa Santiago, and the legendary Cabana Havana de Trinidad.
As Lopez Famosa entered his teenage years, his artistic evolution took a turn toward the humorous. Together with his parents, the act became more spirited and playful, and began to satirize aspects of the Cuban culture. As their reputation grew, they changed the name of the act to Las Famosas Infamosas (“The Infamous Famosas,” or, again, “The Infamous Famouses” if you also translate the surname). This unfortunately led to some resentment in the Communist hierarchy, and it wasn’t long before Fidel Castro’s irate brother Hernando sent a government thug to teach the young acrobat a lesson. The thug confronted Lopez Famosa after a gig in the parking lot at the Cabana Havana de Trinidad, putting up two fists in the traditional pose of boxing, one of Cuba’s most important sports. A newspaper reporter from the Periodico Cienfuego de Trinidad was on hand to describe what happened next.
Lopez Famosa answered with both hands, but quickly dropped them as the apparatchik threw the first punch. He ducked under the fist and spun around until he was back-to-back with the confused pugilist. He then locked arms at the elbows, bent forward, and flipped the thug over his head and onto the concrete. The fellow took such a tremendous blow to the skull that he soon wandered into a nearby alley and laid himself next to a cat who he called “Maribel” without, is it thought, knowing the animal’s true name. It was surely one of the great boxing matches of the decade.
“But it wasn’t boxing!” screamed Hernando Castro when he read the account, more enraged than ever. “It wasn’t boxing at all!” Nevertheless, word spread quickly, and other top boxers challenged Lopez Famosa to street bouts. He accepted all comers, and by age 20 he had amassed an impressive 36-0 record without ever throwing a single punch. The fights typically began with Lopez Famosa riling up the crowd by strutting or doing quick dance steps, at which point the enraged opponent would charge him. The quick acrobat would easily dance out of the way, and further play to the crowd by putting his hand to his ear to encourage their cheers, or climbing up on nearby objects before raising both hands in a triumphant pose. Sometimes this would result in his getting punched from behind, but Lopez Famosa would always recover. Finally, after dodging enough blows, he would either flip the opponent onto his head, or strike him with nearby objects, such as the lid of a trash can, a folding chair, or, in one memorable case, a bat wrapped in barbed wire that Cubans traditionally used to discipline their pets.
By 1950, he was hailed as the greatest living Cuban boxer, although several experts wondered if what he was doing could truly be considered boxing. Hernando Castro was particularly adamant, saying, “the only reason I don’t kill him now is because I crave the day when he is exposed inside a ring. Then, truly, we will see a bloodbath.”
He got his wish in the 1952 Games, when he personally paid for Lopez Famosa’s passage to Helsinki purely from a desire to see him humiliated. But instead of an easy defeat, Hernando watched from the box seats at the Messuhalli (Exhibition Hall) while Lopez Famosa charged through the featherweight ranks. He still chose not to throw a punch, which he feared might injure the hands he needed to do springs and cartwheels in Las Famosas Infamosas, but he was not without his resources inside the ring. In his first match against Jonsie Van Der Sleer (grandson of Oonie), he let the Dutchman chase him around the ring until he was fatigued, at which point Lopez Famosa ran directly into the rope, bounced off, and used the momentum from the ricochet to hurl his entire body at Van Der Sleer. The blow knocked the other man unconscious, and the Olympic Boxing Committee, always slow to institute necessary rules, declared Lopez Famosa the winner.
And that was just the start of the streak. In the next bout, he grabbed a Congolese boxer’s leg and bent it backward painfully before the man begged the referee to halt the fight. Next, he defeated a young Max Schmeling by gripping him in a headlock until Schmeling seemed to fall asleep. Finally, he reached the quarterfinals when he poked a fellow Cuban boxer in the eyes and then clapped him on both sides of the head. The Cuban staggered around in confusion for several minutes before reeling and falling to the side.
The Helsinki fans had fallen in love with Lopez Famosa, calling him the innovative boxer they’d seen in years. “It’s not fucking boxing!” shouted Castro, but his words had no impact, and the young acrobat was the toast of Finland. In the quarterfinal bout, he faced Wicked William Wallace, a Scottish fighter said to descend from Braveheart himself. It was a difficult first round for Lopez Famosa, who tried to run away and bounce off the ropes unsuccessfully while Wallace peppered him with jabs and hooks. Castro leaned forward in his seat, expecting the defeat he craved, and the worried crowd began to encourage Lopez Famosa with cheers of “Cu-Ba, Cu-Ba!”
Inspired, the young Cuban stood on the first rope in a corner of the ring, waving wildly to the crowd. As he turned around to look at Wallace, an idea struck. He climbed to the top of the rope and turned to face his opponent. Wallace approached, ready to strike at his opponent’s vulnerable knees. With a scream, Lopez Famosa launched himself into the air, flipped in mid-air, and hit Wallace with a flying elbow that broke his nose and sent blood splattering across the ring. He then laid across the prone body while the referee slapped the canvas, telling him to get up. Seeing Wallace’s inert body, the referee blew the fight to a halt after three canvas slaps. Lopez Famosa had done it again.
It was impossible to imagine the hype surrounding the acrobat as he partied his way through Helsinki with his girlfriend Lucia. It seemed like a gold medal was his destiny, and Hernando Castro was despondent. “Has my whole life been a joke?” he wrote in his diary. “If this is boxing, then boxing is no mas.” But he would finally see the outcome he wanted in Lopez Famosa’s semifinal bout against the Czechoslovakian Jan Zachara. When the opening ball rang, the Cuban immediately sprinted to the center of the ring, ducked under a punch, and bit Zachara on the ear, taking off a sizable chunk.
Unfortunately, the Olympic Boxing Committee had institute a no-biting rule ten years earlier after “Toothy” Sten Stuvio of Finland had won a controversial welterweight gold after biting his way through each opponent. Lopez Famosa was disqualified, and returned to Cuba without a medal.
He lived out his days in relative anonymity, surviving several assassination attempts by Hernando Castro’s henchmen, and died in 2008 while performing in Cienfuegos. But the tactics he invented at the ‘52 Games would, of course, launch one of the most successful sports entertainment ventures of the 20th century- professional wrestling.