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Michael Wilbon

U.S. Boxers In for a Fight

By Michael Wilbon
Friday, August 13, 2004; Page D01

ATHENS

Between 1904 and 1988, the U.S. boxing team won 45 gold medals. In the three Olympics since then, the United States has won only two. Four years ago in Sydney, USA Boxing won fewer gold medals than Uzbekistan, Britain, Kazakhstan, and -- God help us -- France, which is to say, zero. We got shut out, blanked, whitewashed, punked. For the first time since 1948, no U.S. boxer won gold.

The boxing tradition that produced three gold medals as recently as '88, nine in '84, and five in '76 may yield a big, fat zero again here. When the boxing competition begins Saturday, no U.S. boxer will be favored to win his weight class, which was unthinkable for a system that, beginning in 1952, gave us Floyd Patterson, Jose Torres, Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, Ray Seals, Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks, Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield (silver), Ray Mercer and Oscar De La Hoya as recently as '92.


Rau'Shee Warren, right, had his hands full against Wiley McCanery at the Olympic trials in February. (Lance Murphey -- The Commercial Appeal Via AP)

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Russians and Cubans figure to dominate the ring in Athens the way Americans did in Los Angeles in 1984, in Montreal in 1976 and in Helsinki in 1952. Felix Savon, the Cuban heavyweight three-time champ, is retired, but coaching his countrymen. And he has been quoted this week as saying he believes his fighters will win as many as eight gold medals. The Russians, meanwhile, won nine of 11 weight divisions in the Continental Championship.

Asked this week to rate his team, U.S. Coach Basheer Abdullah said, "I don't want to rate them. I'll let them rate themselves with their performances as the competition unfolds. Any head coach's expectations are high, or we wouldn't take these positions."

Abdullah is either very confident or dancing around big-time deficiencies.

U.S. boxers know there are almost no expectations for them to win gold medals, which is why they all use the phrase "shock the world" when talking about their chances. Asked if he hears the criticism, light heavyweight Andre Ward said, "All the time we hear it. If we listen to it, we're already beaten. We've been working years to get to the point, most of us half our lives or longer. We can't listen to it."

Ward is one of the few who, depending on the draw, could be favored in most of his bouts. He's a 20-year-old from Oakland, Calif., who admits to being essentially a middleweight fighting in the light heavyweight division, but still hasn't lost a match since he was 14. "I believe with all my heart this is a David-versus-Goliath situation," he said. Ward has got the foot speed and hand speed to be sure. He sparred recently with the man he has studied most closely, Roy Jones Jr. "He told me that I do a lot of the things he forgot he could do," Ward said.

Ward, probably, is the team's most solid fighter. Andre Dirrell, the middleweight from Flint, Mich., is the team's best fighter, pound for pound, according to his own coach. His hands-at-his-side, feinting and weaving style translates well to the pros and television, but maybe not for international scoring.

And scoring is just one of the things working against the Americans, who are penalized for their style, for throwing hooks and head shots that don't land as frequently as lower impact punches to the body that are easier to land and therefore score. That's penalty enough. Beyond that, the 106-pound fighter is a charming and talented young kid named Rau'Shee Warren, but, at 17, is the youngest of all the U.S. male Olympians. He's so small he wears a size 4 shoe. His feet are the size of teacups.

The U.S. welterweight, Vicente Escobedo, 23, sadly for him, is in the same division as two-time Olympic champion Oleg Saitov of Russia, who's healthy, precise and going for his third straight gold medal. The U.S. super heavyweight, Jason Estrada of Providence, R.I., is said to weigh more than 240 pounds and he's barely 6 feet tall, if that.

The most fun to watch of the U.S. fighters might be Ronald Siler, the 112-pound flyweight who has one of those stories that's part Rocky, part Greek tragedy. His mother gave birth to him, then left immediately to join the Army and has had almost no contact with him. He's one of 12 children, and in the spirit of that tradition, has five little boys, and he wasn't joking the other day when he said there's a sixth on the way. Siler is 24.

Again, on the subject of his team's ability to compete favorably here, Abdullah said, "I think these guys will shock the world and reestablish our standing in international boxing. There is some pressure, but let me tell you this: Jason Estrada, who people are saying is too short and undersized to fight in his division, he's got awesome speed. Andre Dirrell has charisma and hand speed and elusiveness. And Andre Ward, there's not a day he's slacked off in the gym, or running or sparring. And anytime you have a leader like that it helps. There have been some teams in the past with a lot of prima donnas and didn't live up to the talent. We've got chemistry here, the cohesion is unbelievable. We've been promoting the team concept from the beginning and they've embraced it. They totally support one another."

And they're going to need to, as U.S. amateur boxing faces the same obstacle as professional boxing. First and foremost, the best athletes don't go into boxing nearly as frequently as they used to. The Hispanic kids often turn first to soccer, the black and white kids to basketball and football. The kids like the ones who've made this team exhibit much the same desire and inclination to work and spar. The question is, for the second straight Summer Games, whether the Americans have what it takes to win against perhaps more talented opponents, especially from Cuba and Russia, in a sport in which years of U.S. domination have been reduced to memory.


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