It was September of 2000 when I was notified that the U.S. Olympic Boxing team was in San Diego training one day before they were scheduled to fly to Sydney, Australia for the Games. Being a budding and unpaid writer at that point, I was unsure at first if I should make the forty-five minute trek to get the interviews. After all, I tried to rationalize, these guys are amateurs. But my love for the sport prevailed. I filled up the gas guzzler and headed into the Kearny Mesa area of San Diego to a boxing gym appropriately named “The Boxing Gym.” I was met warmly by former world junior middleweight champion Paul Vaden who was involved with the gym and made the arrangements to host the nation’s top amateurs. He introduced me to their portly coach Tom Mustin who seemed like a nice enough guy. “Well, who would you like to interview?” he asked. I was watching the team workout not realizing at that point that in front of me were training future world champions.
Perhaps even a legend or two.
Due to time constraints, I chose to interview five fighters instead of the whole team. I would have to choose wisely. I first spoke to coach Mustin who went through the roster and told me about each fighter’s weaknesses and strengths. He told me about this kid Jeff Lacy who punched harder than any of the heavyweights. They had actually measured the force of his punches to prove this claim. Lacy eventually went on to become one of the most feared punchers in the Super Middleweight division. He also spoke of Calvin Brock who was representing the U.S. in the super heavyweight division. Mustin had him pegged as an underachiever so I quickly wrote off an interview with him. Six years later, Brock is going to fight Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight title and is a successful banker outside the ring. Some underachiever he turned out to be! Mustin also called Ricardo Williams the most talented fighter on the team but had expressed doubts about his work ethic. “Whether he’s done his work or not remains to be seen,” he said.
I made my choices. My first choice was Brian Viloria. Viloria had been making some noise in the amateurs and I had a feeling this guy would go somewhere. The fact that he was Hawaiian also made him stand out from the team since Hawaiian representation at the Olympics is rare. Then I looked around and noticed an incredibly athletic young man with a very distinct look. “I’d like to talk to him also,” I said. “Okay,” said Mustin. “That’s Jermain Taylor. You can talk to him after Brian.” I wanted to talk to the only Mexican American member of the team. It turned out to be Houston’s Rocky Juarez. I also chose Ricardo Williams who was supposed to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard due to his slick and smooth style. My last choice was the Heavyweight Michael Bennett because he was, well, a heavyweight.
I spoke to Viloria first and he struck as a well grounded and smart kid. The Hawaiian knew he’d someday be a champion. “That’s my goal in the long term, right now all I’m thinking about is gold,” he’d say. He didn’t win gold but won that world title he predicted he would in a spectacular one round demolition over Eric Ortiz. He defended the title once and then lost it to Omar Nino. He’s currently set to rematch Nino on the Pacquiao-Morales under card.
Jermain Taylor was the next interview. Taylor hasn’t changed much since 2000. Even back then he was a polite young man with yes sir and no sir answers. “I want to be champion in two divisions,” said the already ambitious young man from Arkansas. He ultimately won a bronze medal for his Olympic effort. Who knew I was standing in front of the guy that would defeat the legendary Bernard Hopkins twice and become the undisputed middleweight king.
Rocky Juarez was next and he seemed very confident about his chances in Sydney. “I’ve already fought most of these guys in the past and I’ve beaten a lot of them before. I like my chances,” he said. Juarez won a silver medal in what was considered a botched decision in his opponent’s favor. “My true goal was to become a world champion. I was planning on going pro but I decided to stay amateur because I knew I had a chance to make the Olympic team,” he said at the time. Juarez went on to a successful career with his defining fight being a split decision loss to Marco Antonio Barrera that many felt he pulled through. Juarez still hasn’t won a title but is young enough that he’ll eventually be worked into title contention again.
Ricardo Williams was my next interview and he was also a polite young man just like Taylor. He praised god several times for the great success he was enjoying as an amateur. “I’ve been most influenced by Roy Jones and ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker,” Williams stated. He eventually won the silver medal and signed a deal with Lou DiBella. The word was hot on Williams. He was considered the next can’t miss talent according to the “boxing experts.” Williams and most of the other Olympians were such hot commodities that many of them were paid unheard of signing bonuses by promoters.
That approach can have two completely different effects.
Either it motivates the fighter enough to keep him wanting more (like Taylor) or it can make a once hungry fighter complacent. The latter is what happened to Williams as he made an eight win run before losing to a truly hungry fighter named Juan “Pollo” Valenzuela. It was a huge upset as Williams looked out of shape and uninterested as the rounds slipped away. The UD loss set his career back to say the least. A few fights later and another loss against journeyman Manning Galloway, Williams’ stock was in the gutter. Eventually Williams’ career hopes ended in a sad conclusion as he was sentenced to three years in prison for his part in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine shipped to Cincinnati via Federal Express.
Michael Bennett was my last interview. Bennett seemed short for a heavyweight at 5-feet-11. “My tunnel vision is focused on Sydney. Anything after that we’ll see,” said Bennett when asked if he planned to turn pro right after the Olympics. Bennett won his first Olympic match but then ran into eventual winner and Cuban legend Felix Savon who ended his medal dreams. Bennett was also signed to the DiBella squad right out of the Olympics. Like the Ricardo Williams signing, the Bennett deal was another disaster. After debuting under much hype at the Madison Square Garden and fighting at the MGM Grand, Bennett was stopped in his fifth fight by Wes Taylor who was sporting a 3-4 record. Several more knockout losses later, Bennett called it quits in 2003.
Five different Olympians, five very different paths.
I can’t wait to interview the 2008 team.