Orlando Martinez, Cuba’s first Olympic boxing champion, dies in Havana at age 75

Martinez won the gold medal at Munich 72 in a sport that the island has depended on for much of its Olympic success in the years since.

Orlando Martínez primer oro olímpico del boxeo cubano
Orlando Martínez primer oro olímpico del boxeo cubano

Half of Cuba’s gold medals in the Olympic Games are due to boxing.

The successful path of Cuban boxers on the Olympic podium began in Munich 1972 with three golden accomplishments of bantamweight Orlando Martinez, welterweight Emilio Correa and super-heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson.

Martinez, the first Cuban with an Olympic gold medal in the ring, died Wednesday in Havana at the age of 75, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

His title on that day in the German city where the giant Stevenson was beginning to become the most famous boxer in the amateur world, would have another connotation: Martinez gave Cuba its first Olympic gold 68 years after the one won by fencer Ramon Fonst in 1904 at the Olympic Games in St. Louis.

On the island it was also celebrated as the first Olympic gold medal of Fidel Castro’s revolution.

In Munich Martinez achieved five victories before being crowned: he beat Wing Maung (Burma) 4-1, Michael Dowling (Ireland) 3-2, Ferry Moniaga (Indonesia) 5-0, George Turpin (Great Britain) 3-2 in the semifinal and Alfonso Zamora (Mexico) 5-0 in the final.

Zamora would go on to become a World Boxing Association professional world champion three years later.

Martinez was an Olympian on three occasions: Mexico 1968, Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976.

In Mexico he lost in his debut against Hungarian Tibor Badari and in Montreal he was eliminated in his second appearance 3-2 by South Korean Hwang Chul Soon after beating Venezuelan Jovito Rengifo by unanimous decision.

In Montreal Martinez was a member of a great Cuban team led by Stevenson that would only be surpassed by what many consider the best team ever presented by the United States in an Olympic tournament.

The American expedition was led by men who went on to become professional boxing champions such as Ray Leonard, Howard Davies, brothers Michael and Leon Spinks, and Leo Randolph, all five of them Olympic champions in the Canadian city 45 years ago.

Three of them, “Sugar Ray” Leonard, Davies and Randolph, defeated Cubans in the final. In turn, three others left the ring with gold medals: Jorge Hernandez, Angel Herrera and Stevenson with his second of the three Olympic titles he would win in his career. In Moscow 80, he became a three-time Olympic champion, equaling the record of Hungary’s Laszlo Papp.

Teofilo Stevenson (AP)
Teofilo Stevenson (AP)

The Cuban heavyweight, who died in 2012 at the age of 60, could have won his fourth Olympic gold in Los Angeles 1984, but his country joined the boycott led by the Soviet Union in response to the one carried out by the United States and its allies against the Moscow Games four years earlier.

Many faces that a year earlier were seen on the podium of the Pan American Games in Mexico 1975 reappeared in the Olympic tournament in Montreal, among them Orlando Martinez, who won gold in the Mexican capital by beating Bernard Taylor of the United States.

Of the 84 gold medals won by Cuba in its 21 Olympic participations, boxing accounts for almost half, 41, starting with the gold medal of Orlando Martinez, and despite the Olympic absences of Los Angeles and Seoul.