Only at the coolest and most confusing of all the Olympic venues -- boxing -- can you find a U.S. coach temporarily wearing Iraqi colors, the two best amateur heavyweights in the world fighting each other in the preliminaries, a Greek competitor being coached by a Cuban, a Pakistani competitor being coached by a Cuban, and an Ethiopian competitor being coached by a Cuban.
We're going to reach the point, perhaps by 2008 in Beijing, at which every medalist in the Olympic boxing competition will be a product of the Cuban system. It's pretty impressive that the U.S. basketball system is so highly regarded that the China men's team hired Del Harris to be its coach and the Nigerian women's team hired Sam Vincent. Throw in Team USA's Larry Brown and you've got three teams here being coached by Americans. But of the 72 countries that sent boxers to Athens, 13 are coached by Cuba.
Boxers from Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Greece, Syria, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Botswana, Nigeria, Namibia and Ethiopia are coached by Cubans. Oh, and let's not forget that Cuba is coached by Cubans, and not just any Cuban but Felix Savon, the three-time heavyweight Olympic champ. The only things more frequently exported from Cuba are cigars and sugar.
Venezuela is coached by a Venezuelan, Alfredo Lemus, who spent three years boxing under and learning the coaching business from Cubans. He apprenticed under the legendary Alcides Sagarra. Asked why so many countries are hiring Cuban coaches, Lemus said Wednesday through an interpreter, "This is the style of boxing people want. They feel it is their best way of becoming competitive in international competition. They think this is the way that one day they can win."
And even those who can't win look a lot better than they used to. Niridio Rubio has the Ethiopian fighters dramatically improved. Ecuador has only one fighter here, Patricio Calero, and he spent three months training under Pedro Luis Diaz in Cuba. The Botswana trainers went to Cuba. It's one big worldwide exchange program.
Thirteen years ago when I spent time in Havana covering the Pan American Games leading up to the 1992 Olympics, a Cuban sports official told me Cuba was sending its boxing coaches to China, which would in turn lend its considerable expertise to tutor Cuban divers. You think it's a coincidence the Chinese boxers are so good now they began Wednesday undefeated in Olympic competition?
Argentina had the benefit of coach Sabelio Fuentes from 1994 to 2000, and produced, among others, Omar Navarez, who became a WBO champ.
"They're all over the world," U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah said, ticking off the Cubans he knows of who are coaching other countries' fighters here. "They teach the same style, too. What do I think of it? Well, I'm not jealous. Maybe we need to create an alliance with the rest of the boxing world, send coaches all over the world and have people come in for clinics.
"Watch the Thailand boxers [working under Juan Fontanills]. Watch their footwork now, their ring generalship. The Cubans are so disciplined, the way they keep their spacing between themselves and their opponents, the way they're always turning. They fight with . . . it's like a cadence. They punch in three- to five-second windows."
And now fighters from all over the world are following. It's the biggest follow-the-leader in sports since Bill Walsh started teaching the West Coast offense.
The irony of the first bout of the evening session Wednesday wasn't lost on Abdullah or anybody else. When Iraqi light flyweight Najah Ali blew away North Korean Ju Hyok Kwak, the men doing the coaching in the Iraqi corner were Maurice Watkins and Abdullah, who, in his role seconding Watkins, changed out of his red-white-and-blue outfit to wear the Iraqi coach's green sweats while in Ali's corner.
Watkins has been working with Ali for a while. Neither would be here without the other. "I work for the coalition," the chatty Watkins reminded reporters before the bout, apparently referring to the U.S.-led military force in Iraq. "The money to train Najah came from seized money being given back to the Iraqis. I think I was born to help people. I'm a Christian, they're Muslim. Ali has been to my church and I've been to his mosque. He came to Houston for two weeks [before the competition] and we went to the University of Houston for a visit. [The plan] is for him to work on his master's degree in computer science."
If the sight of those two wearing Iraqi sweats and coaching an Iraqi fighter under the circumstances of the world doesn't qualify as an Olympic moment, then somebody ought to douse the flame and wrap this party now -- even if it is just wacky boxing, where God knows anything goes. Perhaps only in Olympic boxing can people who would never get together otherwise, get together. And they do it, almost always, without worrying about who is at war with whom. Having said that, the Cubans aren't exactly working with the Americans yet. Maybe that's the ultimate test of sport. But given the number of Olympic gold medals the Cubans may win, relative to the United States, we might want to accelerate that process.
Of course, the Cuban system seems best executed by Cubans, probably the quickest, strongest and best-conditioned boxers in most weight classes, except when that applies to the Russians. That's why it was such a shame to stage the heavyweight fight between Odlanier Solis Fontes, who is going for a third straight Olympic gold medal, and Russian Alexander Alekseev so early in the competition. The draw should have been set up to give both every chance to make it to the finals.
Instead, a great fight was wasted in the prelims on a Wednesday afternoon in a two-thirds empty arena. You just don't often see as much action as these two heavyweights created, and Solis Fontes won, 24-21. While this was a match that surely shouldn't have taken place this early in the competition, Abdullah made a point worth considering when he said of the Cuban coaching influence, "Even the Cubans now have real competitive fights early in the tournament."