The fight was over. For the first time since Riddick Bowe in 1988, an American boxer will fight for gold in Sunday’s featured final fight, the last of these Tokyo Olympics.
Torrez’s victory came minutes after female welterweight Oshae Jones lost a sluggish split decision in her semifinal fight to China’s Hong Gu, guaranteeing her a bronze medal but leaving her storming out of the ring and through the Kokugikan Arena hallways, refusing to speak to anyone, screaming down an empty corridor.
Torrez, on the other hand, wanted to talk Wednesday. He stood in the same hall Jones had raged through and said he had a word to describe his Olympic run: “destiny.”
He said he has had a feeling about these Olympics since his first fight here, wiping away the doubts fed by more than a year of international tournaments canceled by the coronavirus pandemic and by the punch that knocked him out in the quarterfinals the 2019 world championships. With each fight in Tokyo, he said, the sensation kept getting stronger.
“It’s an existential feeling,” he said. “I don’t know how to put it. What is love? It’s kind of that same thing. I’m meant to be here. All I know is that.”
Torrez’s victories in Tokyo have not been a surprise. He entered the Olympics as the third seed even though he’s smaller than most of the men in his weight class.
Kunkabayev is 6-foot-3, a two-time silver medalist at the world championships who has started a professional career in which he’s 3-0 with three knockouts. But Torrez was fast and strong and willing to follow the strategies constructed by his U.S. coach, Billy Walsh, and his father and personal coach back home.
Guard against Kunkabayev’s left, they told Torrez, then use that against him. So Torrez did what they said, deflecting Kunkabayev’s punches, then dropping his own left against Kunkabayev’s head. After the first couple of shots, the fight never felt close.
Torrez, 22, had fought this fight before, inside his head, five times Tuesday night and another three Wednesday morning, each time imagining his left landing, making the bigger man wobble. He was still picturing himself pummeling Kunkabayev as he walked into the ring in the early afternoon while Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” played through the arena’s speakers.
Torrez loves that song for the way it makes him calm. In high school in Tulare, Calif., he listened to it when he took important tests and also during lunchtime chess matches as the school’s chess club president. He once read that classical music helps brain function, and he wondered whether maybe he should be listening to Beethoven when he walks into fights as well.
Tulare isn’t a big place, a handful of stops on the road between Fresno and Bakersfield. But it is a place of Olympic champions. The faces of the city’s two most-famous athletes — two time decathlon winner Bob Mathias and Sim Iness, a discus champion — are captured on a downtown mural beneath the words, “Olympic Gold.” Torrez wants to be on that mural, too.
And that is why he fights.
But he fights, too, for his father, who came within three fights at the U.S. boxing trials of landing a place on that 1984 Olympic team. The older Torrez brought his son to the gym, taught him the sport and hoped his child could take a punch. They talk constantly now, even with Richard Jr. halfway around the world. For Richard Jr., this is their fight together. When he thinks about destiny, he imagines going back home, shaking his father’s hand and saying, “Dad, I did it.”
Now comes Sunday’s gold medal final, the fight that could land Richard Jr. on the side of that building in downtown Tulare, making him the first American man to win an Olympic boxing gold medal since Andre Ward in 2004. Looming on Sunday is Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov, the man who knocked Torrez unconscious in that 2019 world championship quarterfinal.
Jalolov has rumbled through the Olympics, winning all but one round unanimously. On Wednesday, his semifinal match against Britain’s Frazer Clarke ended in the second round with a great gash on Clarke’s face
Few will expect Torrez to win. But as he stood in that empty hallway, he smiled. He said he will be ready for Jalolov. If nothing else, he has learned to defend against that punch that comes furious from nowhere. He said he is going to leave here as the Olympic super heavyweight champion.
“I think it’s something the U.S. needs,” he said.