Woes As Proes--The 2004 US Olympic Squad Disappoints

BY George Kimball ON May 16, 2009
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NEW YORK – Floyd Patterson won an Olympic gold medal at Helsinki in 1952. Four years later he knocked out Archie Moore to succeed Rocky Marciano as heavyweight champion.

Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, won a gold in Rome in 1960. Four years later he stopped Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title.

Joe Frazier, a gold medalist in Tokyo in ’64.  By 1968 he had was recognized (by New York and five other states) as the heavyweight champion.

George Foreman won his gold medal in Mexico City in 1968. Less than five years later he knocked down Frazier six times to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Olympic triumphs haven’t always translated into success in the professional ranks, but historically it has been a fairly reliable harbinger of things to come. And as the aforementioned accomplishments would suggest, a five-year gestation period would appear to be an entirely reasonable expectation. 

We’re now coming up on the fifth anniversary of the 2004 Athens Games. That star-crossed Olympic crop has yet to produce a single world champion, and you’d have to say that none of them are even close to being ready to fight for a title. 

Andre Ward, the lone US gold medalist in Greece five years back, won the most significant bout of his 18-fight pro career on Saturday, May 16 with his shellacking of Edison Miranda before a hometown crowd in Oakland. Miranda is, or was, a legitimate top-ten contender (though he hardly looked it on this night), but it should be borne in mind that while he was competitive in his fights against Kelly Pavlik and his two with Arthur Abraham, he lost all three of them. Yes, it was a big win for Ward, but not one that necessarily makes him a threat to Carl Froch or Mikkel Kessler or even Lucien Bute.

Americans haven’t won more than a single boxing gold in any Olympics since 1984, but US teams for most of the intervening 35 years have evinced a fairly consistent pattern of success within the five-year period.

The five golds captured by Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leon and Michael Spinks, and Leo Randolph in Montreal in 1976 remains a high-water mark for the United States. Within five years Leonard, both Spinks brothers, and Big John Tate had all claimed world titles at the professional level.

The 1984 team (the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games) produced an even larger haul of gold medals, but the accomplishment was somewhat diminished by the absence of any Cuban, Russian, or Eastern European boxers in Los Angeles. Five years after the conclusion of that Olympiad, Evander Holyfield, Virgil Hill, Frank Tate, Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, and Meldrick Taylor had won world championships.

Seoul in 1988 resulted in just won US gold, but five years later Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, Roy Jones Jr., Kennedy McKinney, and Michael Carbajal had all won titles.

Oscar De La Hoya won the lone US gold in Barcelona in 1992, but within the 5-year window Oscar had been joined by Tim Austin, Rafael Marquez, and Montell Griffin as world champs. (Although it should probably be noted that the latter was on his knees when he won his title, via DQ, against Jones; that ’92 crop also included a couple of late bloomers, Chris Byrd and Vernon Forrest, both of whom won titles, but well outside the five-year mark.) 

The last Olympics contested on American soil, Atlanta in 1996, saw only one US winner, but seven boxers from that team eventually won titles. Four of them – Reid, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Fernando Vargas, and Eric Morel – came within five years.  (Antonio Tarver, David Diaz, and Zahir Raheem took longer.)

The collection we sent to Sydney in 2000 came home without a single gold, but five years later Jermain Taylor, Brian Viloria, and Jeff Lacy had all won titles. (Another boxer from that US team, Rocky Juarez, has fought five times for world titles and is at this point 0-4-1; Rocky is about to get another crack at it in his rematch against Chris John next month.)

How did things go so badly off the rails for the 2004 team, then? 

For one thing, they were not as a group that promising to begin with, although one certainly would have expected more from Ward and bronze medalist Andre Dirrell at this stage. But since Athens was the last Olympics I covered before retiring from the daily newspaper dodge I’ve probably followed the progress, or lack of it, by the members of that team with more than usual interest.

Jason Estrada, the super-heavyweight representative, has been almost as disappointing as a pro as he was in Athens, where his stock tumbled almost overnight.  Despite fattening his record on some faded name heavyweights, Estrada has lost to Travis Walker and ’04 gold medalist Alexander Povetkin (whom he never faced in Athens), and has managed to stop just three opponents in 18 pro fights.

Heavyweight Devin Vargas rolled up 16 wins in five years and then, against the first remotely threatening opponent he had faced, was KO’d by Kevin Johnson in Atlantic City last weekend.

Vicente Escobedo lost to Daniel Jimenez, a result that took on added significance when Jimenez lost back-to-back fights last year. Escobedo’s handlers aren’t taking many chances: Thursday night in Sacramento he’s supposed to fight 41-year old Kevin Kelly.

Rock Allen has fought 15 times in five years against undistinguished opposition and has yet to even be scheduled for a 10-rounder. Dirrell (18-0) has been moved almost as cautiously, and even his biggest wins – Anthony Hanshaw and Curtis Stevens – don’t exactly pronounce him ready to play in the big leagues. 

Another member of the US Class of ‘04,  Freddie Roach-trained Vanes Matriroysian, faces a stern test in Andrey Tsurkan on June 27. Michael Moorer will work that fight, since Freddie will be in London with Amir Khan. Martirosyan is 24-0, but the best you can say about his victims so far is that he's fared better with John Duddy victims than Duddy has: He beat Billy Lyell, and KO'd Charlie Howe, who had gone the distance with the Irishman.

Two other members of the ’04 Athens crop remained amateurs. Last summer in Beijing, Rau’shee Warren was eliminated in the first round of his second straight Olympics. Ron Siler’s whereabouts these days appear to be principally of interest only to his parole officer.

The jury is still out on Andre Ward. Dan Goossen hasn’t taken many chances in moving him, but you’d have to say that he’s passed the limited examinations that have been put before him in the form of Jerson Ravelo, Henry Buchanan, and now, Miranda. He needs to be fighting more often, but even with his five-year grace period about to expire, he’s still only 25. Froch is 31, Kessler 30, and Bute 29.  Who’s to say time won’t  run out on them before it runs out on him?

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