HAVANA — HAVANA -- In Cuba, the title "people's champion" takes on a whole new meaning. It's not a bad slogan to carry around, really.
You earn a wage, get an apartment, eat three square meals a day, travel freely off the island for competitions and receive bear hugs and boxing tips from the big man himself,President Fidel Castro.
You don't even have to answer to a revolutionary Don King. You just fight and win and smile every time you're summoned to the Presidential Palace.
Felix Savon says he doesn't mind the job. He is a soft-spoken 23-year-old who is built like a basketball guard and hits with the force of a truck on a guard rail. He even can handle the man dressed in the combat fatigues.
"The Commandante, he would have been a good fighter," Savon said. "He has a good build. He is smart. They have pictures of him training."
So, what do you talk about in the Presidential Palace? Politics? The sugar harvest? The balance of trade?
"We talk about my performance," Savon said. "One time, I went to Atlantic City, and he told me I looked hurried."
Savon, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound heavyweight slugger with a 224-9 record, is expected to take his time and beat up all comers when the Pan American Games boxing tournament begins tomorrow. Because the United States is bringing what amounts to a team of losers -- second- and third-place finishers from last month's Olympic Festival -- the Cubans are looking for at least one good harvest this summer.
"We will be fighting for 12 medals -- preferably gold," Savon said.
The boxing program is one of the crown jewels of Cuban sport, and Savon is its king. The island has put together an assembly line to nurture talent, sending scouts into the countryside to bring the kids with the heavy fists and the willing hearts to the central sparring gym in Havana.
Savon was raised in San Vicente, near the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo. He remembers attending school on a hill overlooking the base, and heading out during recess "to see the maneuvers, watch the jets go around and around."
In 1981, he was desperate to attend a sports school in Guantanamo, where his sister, Eneida, was a volleyball player.
"I had problems getting recommended in the school," he said. "I asked my sister, 'Place me in any sport.' In the midterm, they got rid of X-Y-Z students, and the boxing coach came by and said I could join the team. When I got there, I just wanted to do a sport. It just so happened it was boxing."
Savon's parents weren't pleased when he came home from the first week of school with swollen hands.
"My mother found out and wanted to take me out," he said. "One month later, my dad went to the school and told them he was taking me out of the school. But they wouldn't listen to him. They came back to my mother and told her that I could win a gold medal. So, they thought it over and said it was OK to fight."
From the beginning of his career, Savon was compared to Cuba's three-time Olympic champion, Teofilo Stevenson. They looked alike and fought alike, and, once they met, quickly established a father-son relationship.
"When I was a kid, where we lived, there was no TV," he said. "I had no idea who Teofilo Stevenson was at first. I heard about him when I got to school. That is where the influence of Stevenson came from. People started comparing me to him. I hit people hard. I was going to be the next Teofilo Stevenson. Teofilo was a picturesque fighter. If there was anyone who I would like to make a mirror of, it is Stevenson. He is such a noble man."
Savon never fought an official fight against Stevenson, who retired in the mid-1980s. But they sparred at the 1987 World Championships in Reno, Nev.
"Even though Stevenson was in decline and I was in ascent, we were able to pressure each other," he said. "I thought I had the edge. I thought I
could beat the Lion. But Stevenson, he hit me with a right cross and split my upper lip."
Savon is as picturesque as Stevenson once was. Disarmingly polite and gracious during an interview, he fights with power and purpose, rarely wasting his punches and always hitting in combinations.
What Savon lacks is an Olympic title. The overwhelming favorite to win the 1988 gold medal at Seoul, South Korea, Savon missed the Games because of Cuba's boycott. He speaks without emotion of staying home while others fought for medals.
Bring up professional boxing, and Savon's voice is filled with irritation.
"You can see that the athletes are being exploited, that man is exploiting man," he said.
He is still a student, receiving a monthly stipend of 260 pesos in a country in which a TV set costs 900 pesos. He also has an apartment, but declined a car because "the mentality is if you have one, you tend to go for bad women and live life in the fast lane."
Could he beat Mike Tyson? Of course, he said, just fight "amateur style, three rounds, and I would win.
"Just like me, he is a human being," he said.
But, according to Savon, Tyson, like all U.S. professionals, is a human enslaved by a corrupt system.
"It's not very sportsmanlike because the welfare of the athlete is not the main purpose," he said. "Athletes get cut, they keep fighting. People with money do a lot of damage to the sport. The athlete who has won the money has a camp he has to share the money with. Then, after paying all those people, what does he have left? I have seen the whole world. I don't have to deal with that."
The people's champion is content with life in Cuba. The hours are good, the pay is fine and he has a friend in a very high place.