Teofilo Stevenson, the people's fighter

Cuba’s boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson sits next to a photo of Cuba’s Revolution leader Fidel Castro in his home in Delicias in 2000. Stevenson won three Olympic medals and three world championships. Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images

Five men sit around a small table on a beach in Havana, Cuba, talking and playing dominoes. There is a relaxed seriousness to their conversation as they speak of their role in a sociopolitical experiment that has shaped their lives and the lives of their fellow Cubans.

These men are not social scientists, politicians or soldiers. They're boxers who, in their youth, brought glory to their country through the strength of their fists and the intensity of their pride. Five living witnesses to the rise of the Cuban school of boxing, a product of the Cuban Revolution that became the dominant force in amateur boxing.

The men and their conversations serve as bookends to "The People's Fighters: Teofilo Stevenson and the Legend of Cuban Boxing," the Olympic Channel's new documentary, produced by Frank Marshall and directed and narrated by Peter Berg.

"It's the story of Cuba seen through the lens of boxing, which became a much bigger story than just about boxing," said Marshall, producer of such modern classics as "Back to the Future," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Color Purple."

The dominoes-playing caballeros are Emilio Correa Sr., Jorge Hernandez, Armando Martinez, Jose Gomez and Rolando Garbey. They are 65, 63, 56, 59 and 70 years old, respectively. Except for Garbey, they all won Olympic gold. The elder statesman of the group won silver in 1968, bronze in 1976, and eventually became a Team Cuba coach.

The sculpted bodies of their youth are gone, replaced with wrinkles, gray hair and grandpa physiques. Even so, the fighting spirit that once made them national heroes still smolders inside, as does the pride in their homeland and accomplishments.

These wise old heads, along with other Cuban voices, anchor the film and provide a first-hand and candid account of the turmoil and triumph that has been their lives.

"That was the greatest thing about it," Marshall said. "After being closed off for so long, they really had an opportunity to speak their minds. That was the best thing about it. It was wonderful. Ten years ago I could not have gone there."

Berg, whose directing credits include "Friday Night Lights," "Lone Survivor" and "Patriots Day," juxtaposed footage of both boxing and the Cuban Revolution, creating a montage indicative of how integral they were to each another.

Tanks rolling through the street of Old Havana; young boxers toiling in the gym; troops wading ashore, rifles held high above their heads; a Cuban boxer kissing a gold medal he won in a foreign land; Castro greeting him at the airport upon his return -- all signposts of a time and place gone by, when lessons should have been learned but were not.

There's even a weird clip of Castro, a notorious publicity hound, lighting a cigar for ABC Sport's Keith Jackson at the end of an amateur tournament in Havana.

That was during a brief honeymoon period, shortly after the overthrow of America-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and before the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis and the severing of diplomatic ties between the island nation and Uncle Sam.

Seeing the rapturous reception Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev received on his arrival in Cuba is a reminder of how hot the Cold War really was, and how sports were often a proxy battlefield.

Thanks to considerable support from the Soviet Union, Cuba continued to churn out high quality boxers regardless of the political climate and American embargo. Chief among them was Stevenson, a handsome, 6-foot-5 heavyweight with lights-out power in his right hand. He was the perfect centerpiece for Castro's goal of turning Cuba into an athletic juggernaut.

Those who have not seen the freakish power in Stevenson's right hand are in for a treat. The documentary celebrates his dominance with footage of Teofilo dispatching U.S. hopefuls Duane Bobick, Tyrell Briggs and John Tate with alarming ease.

Rather than the thundering herd of a Joe Frazier assault, Stevenson's finishing touch was as precise as a Zen archer's arrow. Frequently a single blow was all he needed. The men he beat to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals (1972, 1976, 1980) knew the right hand was coming but couldn't do anything about it.

Stevenson and Castro made quite an odd couple. Fidel was El Capitan, a bearded firebrand and leader of the Cuban Revolution, a mesmerizing extrovert with messianic leanings. Teofilo was El Gran Campeón, a humble man born into a family of modest means in Puerto Padre. He had smoldering good looks and was able to smite his enemies without a smidgen of hate in his heart.

"We all compared ourselves to him" said Hernandez. "I wanted to be like Teofilo Stevenson."

"He was a blood brother to all Cubans," said Correa Sr.

One of major strengths of "The People's Fighter" is allowing the story to be told from the Cuban point of view. Berg's narration is smooth and informative but never presumptuous. The opinions are those of the people on the ground, the ones that count, the real stars of the film.

The United States considered Cuba's cozy relationship with the Soviet Union a threat, but things looked different to Cubans desperate for the bare necessities.

"The Soviets lent us a hand and respected Cuba's sovereignty," said journalist Rudens Temba. "The Soviet Union was Cuba's best friend in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Its economic support allowed the country to survive."

The film also offers diverse viewpoints about the much-touted match between Stevenson and Muhammad Ali. It was a hot topic after the Cuban's success at the 1976 Olympics, but never got past the talking stage.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba's economic pipeline was turned off, and the country was plunged into a depression they call the "Special Period." It was a situation that eventually led to many of Cuba's finest boxers leaving their homeland to seek political asylum and turn professional. Some went to Europe but most found their way to the U.S. where they have met with mixed fortunes.

Stevenson died in 2012 due to a heart attack at the age of 60, a beloved hero honored almost as much for rejecting the lure of capitalism as for his ring exploits. His heavyweight successor, Felix Savon, also won three Olympic gold medals and opted to stay in Cuba, rejecting lucrative offers to fight Mike Tyson.

"Sometimes it's hard for somebody not from Cuba to understand that back then we all fought out of conviction for revolutionary principles," said Juan Hernandez Sierra, two-time Olympic silver medalist. "We had high ideas."

Today's ideas, personified by Julio Cesar La Cruz, are different.

"Personally, my role models are boxers who, for one reason or another, are not in Cuba." said La Cruz, winner of light heavyweight gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. "Back in the day we competed for honor, for our colors, for our flag above anything else. Nowadays people think differently, and, of course, making money is good."

Money remains a problem for the old champions on the beach. In their time they were the best at what they did, now they struggle to survive on an inadequate monthly stipend.

"It doesn't cover the cost of life," Martinez said.

"It's not enough, but without it we'd be screwed," said Gomez.

The Lara cars (1950 vintage American vehicles brought to Cuba before the revolution) the government gave them are plain worn out.

"From the bottom of my heart I can say that I love my car because it is a good car," Gomez said. "But it is tired. It can't fight anymore."

The houses they received are also in a state of disrepair; one so decrepit the roof recently collapsed.

"We are not criticizing the revolution," Martinez said. "We love and defend the revolution, but there are certain things that could have been done differently."

In closing segments of the documentary, film footage of the old boxers in their primes are shown, followed by shots of them mimicking the way they looked back then. For a few fleeting moments they were the people's fighters once again. And then it was time to go.

As they walked away with backs to the camera, some of them arm in arm, you knew we would never see their likes again.