It was quite possibly the worst week a U.S. boxing team has had in Olympic history. Bad enough the Americans were getting picked off in the ring and justifying the pre-tournament doom widely forecast. But worse yet, super heavyweight Jason Estrada said after losing Monday night that he didn't give a damn, that his primary goal was to not get hit because it was time to turn professional. Asked if he was aware that the U.S. boxing team had won at least one gold medal from 1952 to 1996, that the United States had never ever been shut out from winning some kind of medal, dating all the way from 1904 in St. Louis, head coach Basheer Abdullah said: "Oh, I'm very aware of it. Very aware. I was part of the 2000 team," the first not to win gold since 1948. "I'm very conscious of our situation."
And it's with all that pressure and angst that Oakland, Calif., light heavyweight Andre Ward stepped into the ring Tuesday night to face two-time Russian champion Yevgeny Makarenko, 6 feet 6, with a right hand that has for a couple of years knocked opponents senseless. But after four rounds of the best American Olympic boxing effort since Oscar de la Hoya in 1992, the U.S. team avoided a medal shutout and regained at least a degree of dignity. Abdullah, clearly relieved after Ward's victory, said: "He patched up the wound. I was bleeding. He felt the pain."
Ward and middleweight Andre Dirrell from Flint, Mich., are the only U.S. boxers remaining in the tournament; Ward is now through to the semifinals, where he will fight Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan on Friday; Dirrell has a quarterfinal bout Wednesday against Cuban Yordanis Despaigne Herrera.
But there was certainly no reason to be confident Ward would still be in the competition after his bout Tuesday night against Makarenko. "At times," Ward said, "I could feel the anxiety real strong."
But he didn't fight like it. With plenty of technical assistance from assistant coach Al Mitchell, Ward was able to see on film that Makarenko never, ever throws his big right hand while moving, only once he sets his entire body. So Ward would wait until the instant before the Russian planted himself, then beat him to the punch repeatedly to score a 23-16 victory in a bout full of well-executed attacks and counterpunches. "He boxed a beautiful bout," Abdullah said toward the end of another wacky night at what usually turns out to be the wackiest venue at every Summer Olympics.
While Ward and Abdullah talked to reporters about trying to salvage a decent showing for the U.S. team, the biggest crowd of the boxing competition so far angrily threw water bottles into the ring when Greek light heavyweight Elias Pavlidis, ahead on points 18-12 in the third round, was forced to stop because of cuts.
Pavlidis, had he held his lead through the fourth and final round, would have been the first Greek ever to win an Olympic boxing medal. But the fight was stopped and Egypt's Ahmed Ismail was declared the winner, then had to run from the ring to the dressing room because of the plastic bottles, some still containing water, flying toward him.
It's the kind of melodrama those of us who cover Olympic boxing have come to expect over the years. And over the last couple of competitions, we've come to expect a U.S. team not up to its old standards, largely because the best young American boxers now want to turn professional as soon as possible and aren't really attracted to the amateur or Olympic movement, while Russian and Cuban boxers dominate competitions like these.
After the U.S. team failed to win gold in Sydney four years ago, when Abdullah was an assistant, he wanted to prove the United States could return to Olympic boxing prominence. But it's not going to happen this year, not with only two boxers remaining. "I read what you guys write," the coach said. "I like to read. I like to prove the writers wrong, but I couldn't do it this time."
He certainly wasn't helped by Estrada, the super heavyweight from Rhode Island who probably embarrassed himself more after his fight than during it. Among other stupid things, the overweight Estrada said afterward: "If I'm going to lose," he said, "I'm going to lose getting hit as little as possible."
Abdullah said he called his wife Sylvia back at home in the United States because he was so temporarily dispirited Monday night. Twenty-four hours later, even after time to be reflective, the coach said, "[Estrada] didn't take pride in representing the United States. He didn't show any class, any pride, any respect. He embarrassed our country, embarrassed our national governing body, and embarrassed the USOC."
Asked if it was possible Estrada was simply in denial after the loss, Abdullah said, "No matter what happened -- and we talked about this in advance -- we still have to represent the United States of America."
There's no question Ward did that to the best of his ability, even though, as Abdullah said, "He had to feel the pressure. We all felt it," going into the fight.
Ward said he ate two bananas, drank a bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water first thing Tuesday morning and still weighed in at 174. He said he read the 17th chapter, first verse of the Old Testament book of Samuel earlier in the day. "David vs. Goliath," Ward said, referring to his size disadvantage and being the heavy underdog. He said he felt while the boxers were riding on the bus to the arena that his Russian opponent, among others, was "snickering and laughing. . . . I felt they were definitely directing it at me."
Like his coach, Ward was angry not that sportswriters had predicted the U.S. team would pick up very few if any medals, but that they are already accurate in the assessment. "Dirrell and I have to keep our focus," he said, "especially the way we're being talked about right now. . . . My father [who died two years ago] always said you have to rise to the occasion in big fights. I did it tonight. I've got to do it two more times."