It didn't take long for Deontay Wilder to go from new kid on the global bopping block to our final hope that a fighting phenom Phoenix might yet rise from the ashes of 2008 Olympic boxing for the United States.
As bad scores, negative news and putrid public relations reviews continued to crash upon this year's crop, it was hard to imagine they had anything besides their flag in common with heroic teams of the seemingly long gone past.
The Bejing scene opened with reports of insider chaos overshadowing whatever team spirit, if any, remained among Team USA's contentious contingent. Things continued crashing all the way to rock bottom.
Amidst such despairing details, and unable to catch even a glimpse of Olympic boxing while here in Germany during the start of soccer/football season, it was less painful to look back without anger at the good ol' days when US fistic factions summoned images of glory more than gloom.
I couldn't tell you where or how this year's mauling model was assembled, but decades back, for a near-perfect trifecta type stretch, I was lucky enough to witness the final steps in an old school process that produced many alumni, medalists or not, who'd subsequently proceed to the upper echelons of the sport.
Final competitions between the top two performers of the Olympic Trials took place in a meet called the “Box-Offs”.
Maybe there was just as much pounding personal politics behind the scenes back then, just as many clandestine workouts away from rejected mentors, but it sure didn't appear that way.
“The Olympics started a lot of great memories for me,” said Oscar de la Hoya. It was the same for many future world class professionals.
For me, the 1984 team came closest to replicating the dazzling skills of the '76 squad (Ray Leonard, Spinks brothers, et al) which blazed gloriously out of Montreal into boxing immortality when the game was still a prime time juggernaut.
The '84 Box-Offs were held in a basic but beautiful metallic warehouse barn, almost humorously christened the Caesars Palace Sports Pavillion. They were thrilling from top to bottom, televised as the main event on Wide World of Sports, which usually meant the most watched games of the week.
Mark Breland and Paul Gonzales got most of the hype. Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Frank Tate, Virgil Hill, Evander Holyfield, and Tyrell Biggs ended up with more fame and fortune.
But it was a then mostly unknown, short and stocky kid named Tyson, who lost a deciding nod to Henry Tillman for the 201 pound representative, who'd eventually see the brightest global spotlights.
Tillman deserved plenty of credit for hanging almost dead even in a pair of thumping, highlight reel eliminators that turned the packed pavillion into a screaming nuthouse. Still, Tyson deserved the decision and the then cherished spot on the team. Unless you were there inside a perimeter 20 feet from the ring, that's an undisputable fact.
Not long afterward, my old amigo The Blutox and I were headed back to the hotel for some fear and loathing type reinforcement when we came across the young Tyson, still in his Olympic Trials uniform, standing alone under the nearby outdoor grandstands in the crisscrossed shadows of a sinking sun. He looked like a gigantic, incredibly muscular baby trying to meditate.
We hesitated, out of respect and caution, but Tyson looked like he welcomed the distraction so we offered our boisterous opinions he wuz robbed.
It was then the first time I heard his distinctive voice, even more light-pitched than the one which would later fuel comic impersonations for decades. Tyson responded with surprising maturity and class as we looked to console him with pats on the back.
“He fought great and deserved to win,” said Tyson, already Iron. “I hope he wins a gold medal and you guys should too. I don't have any problem with the decision. This was a great experience and I'm just proud I could be party of helping our team get ready.”
Later, I heard Tyson's lack of international pedigree affected scoring perspective. Maybe, maybe not, but I was never surprised in later years when Tyson was always more likeable and cooperative than often portrayed by himself or others.
The '88 Box-Offs were held in the same beloved place, and by then I had a beloved press pass. The competitions were almost as stirring as '84.
The biggest controversy this time involved excellent, world walloping and highly touted Kelcie Banks against a much shorter upstart tornado named Ed Hopson. Banks got the controversial selection call, Hopson went much further as a pro.
A month or so later a media day was held in Arizona, where the team trained at an Army base called Fort Huachuca, about 50 miles outside Tucson. When Michael Spinks and Butch Lewis rolled up in a pearl white stretch limo that shined against the stark desert background you could see the sugarplum visions in every young boxer's gaze.
Riddick Bowe promised to earn a similar vehicle for his family. Others, like Michael Carbajal, Roy Jones Jr, Kennedy McKinney, and Ray Mercer ended up with some pretty nice rides themselves.
In 1992 the powers at be moved the Box-Offs to Phoenix. It was a drop in glamour and drama from Vegas, but still a great scene and for me, closer to home. I met a fresh faced kid named Oscar, who was highly animated with excitement as we spoke.
“I just want to do everything I can for my country and make my mom proud of me,” said the kid. I didn't know about his mother's illness at the time, so I thought he was one of the happiest competitors I'd ever seen. He wasn't the Golden Boy yet, but he definitely had the glow in his eyes.
I remember De la Hoya, Vernon Forrest, Raul Marquez, and Chris Byrd looking like the brightest prospects. Montell Griffin, who had to win a lawsuit to get on the team, wasn't far behind, and by far the most exciting. Stylewise, if De la Hoya and Marquez met in the pros, it might have been each man's classic contest.
It still stands out how a chin-up Carbajal, Jones, and Holyfield handled their own probably unjustified heartbreaking defeats. This week, Demetrius Andrade left the ring without waiting for his opponent's hand to be raised.
“In some ways, winning a gold medal would have meant as much as being heavyweight champion,” said Holyfield, looking back.
“Being on the Olympic Team got me ready for just about everything else that followed in my pro career,” Carbajal told me a while ago. “I doubt my career would have been the same.”
Maybe Team USA '08 will someday be looked upon as one such rare incubator of future championship material. Today that looks like a sucker bet.
It was once practically a guaranteed tradition that North America's foremost boxing stars would emerge after Olympic stardom.
That doesn't have to mean that many in our ill-suited Bejing crop don't possess the skills or heart to succeed without their headgear on, or that we shouldn't continue to offer our cheers and support. For better or worse, they're still our KO kids.