U.S. Olympic Men’s Boxing Team – Sports Illustrated is as accurate at making predictions as the rest of us, which is to say not very. Frequently, when a would-be seer attempts to look into the future, that person’s crystal ball or tea leaves send out the wrong message. But those with a forum for offering opinions keep doing so nonetheless, and while it can be gratifying to nail a called shot every now and then, the mere act of repeatedly putting yourself on the line can lead to occasional embarrassment.
We don’t know which SI “expert,” or panel of such, arrived at his/their conclusions on how the Olympic boxing competition will play out in Rio de Janeiro next month; that person or persons was not identified by name. But whoever is responsible, let’s hope, for the United States’ sake, that he, she or they are very, very wrong.
Four years ago, in London, the U.S. – which remains the winningest nation in men’s Olympic boxing, with 108 total medals, including 49 golds, dating back to the reintroduction of the modern Olympics in1896 — turned in a historically dismal overall performance. No American male came away with a medal of any kind, for the first time since those 1896 Paris Games, and a complete shutout was averted only because U.S. women, in the first Olympiad in which the sport was open to members of their gender, produced middleweight gold medalist Claressa Shields and flyweight bronze medalist Marlen Esparza.
But if SI’s July 25-Aug. 1 Olympic double issue is to be believed, American men again will find the medal stand to be as difficult to locate as Jimmy Hoffa’s remains. Although the magazine foresees Shields, the 21-year-old from Flint, Mich., again taking gold in the women’s 165-pound weight class, she is the sole U.S. boxer to be granted SI’s seal of approval. Although the U.S. will be represented by six male boxers (America failed to qualify its Trials winner in any of the four remaining weight classes), not one is seen as likely to even make it as far as the semifinal round.
To avoid medal shutouts on the men’s side in back-to-back Olympics, one or more of the following qualifiers — light flyweight Nico Hernandez, flyweight Antonio Vargas, bantamweight Shakur Stevenson, lightweight Carlos Balderas, light welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell and middleweight Charles Conwell – will have to perform above expectations, and possibly well above.
If the dire predictions for the U.S. prove accurate, the country that once dominated the Olympic ring will certifiably be reduced to also-ran status, which once would have been considered unthinkable. In early June, at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, six living members of the 1976 U.S. Olympic squad – arguably the greatest American team ever, with seven overall medals, including five golds – were brought together for a 40-year celebration of their shared glory in Montreal.
“Everybody that was anybody was there, all the Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba,” gold medalist Sugar Ray Leonard, 60, said several weeks in advance of the reunion in Canastota, New York that he was looking forward to with undisguised relish. “We had to go through the toughest competition to wind up doing what we did. I know I had some pretty difficult fights; we all did, really. When I look back, I don’t think there was anyone who thought we’d win more than one gold medal and it would be Howard (Davis Jr.) who got it. But guess what? We were all part of the best team ever.
“If I could re-live anything, I would want to re-live that moment when I was on the medal stand. Those Olympics were the best time of my life. I had an opportunity to be among some of the greatest fighters and teammates in the world.”
Leonard went to Montreal as a highly gifted but nonetheless starry-eyed 20-year-old from Palmer Park, Md., who might never have gone into boxing in the first place without having had an Olympic dream. In his prepubescent mind’s eye, he saw himself doing what another exuberant kid, Cassius Clay, had done in winning a gold medal in Rome 16 years earlier. But what if Leonard’s Olympic dream had proved too far out of reach from the outset? Would the world ever have gotten to revel in the post-Olympic career of an all-time great who went on to capture six world championships in five weight classes as a pro, and was a first-ballot inductee into the IBHOF in 1997?
Given AIBA’s highly controversial decision to open Olympic boxing to the pros in Rio, a move which has not met with widespread approval globally, perhaps the only hope for the U.S. moving forward is for big-name professional standouts to pick up the banner for Old Glory, as did the NBA-superstar-laden men’s basketball “Dream Team” in 1992. But is AIBA’s edict, pushed through by AIBA president Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu of Chinese Taipei, counterproductive, at least to the U.S.? America again is fielding an all-amateur team in Rio, all of whom are in their late teens or early 20s. Could open-to-all Olympiads be a death knell for amateur boxing at the elite level, at least in the U.S.? Could the youthful likes of a Clay, Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya even have been able to plant the seeds of their greatness in the Olympics if they had to compete too soon for berths against seasoned pros?
Even qualifying for a seat at the Olympic table has become a trudge through a thicket of obstacles that some of America’s better amateur boxers have declined to undertake. On Oct. 1, 2013, his 18th birthday and the first day he was eligible to do so, America’s brightest hope for a gold medal in Rio, 140-pounder Erickson Lubin, signed a pro contract with Iron Mike Productions, prompting then-USA Boxing president Dr. Charles Butler to release an open letter to Mike Tyson, appealing to the two-time former heavyweight champion’s sense of patriotism.
“These young athletes are forgoing their Olympic hopes and the hopes of our nation for a professional boxing contract,” Dr. Butler said in publicly scolding Tyson. “You are offering these athletes pennies on the dollar of what they would be worth with an Olympic medal, or even for being just an Olympian. You are destroying the next United States Olympic boxing team.”
Tyson, not surprisingly, countered with an open letter of his own, advising Butler that “Many of these boxers are like me in that they are from poverty-stricken communities and boxing is their only way to a better life. They have obligations beyond your personal vision for them. No one has the right to question the path a fighter chooses in pursuit of their American dream.”
It is interesting to note that although Lubin, now 16-0 with 11 knockouts as a pro, remains a hot growth property, Iron Mike Productions folded after having been in existence only 17 months.
Nor was Lubin the first such U.S. medal hopeful to walk away from a chance to live out his Olympic dream. (See Jesse Hart, 2012.) And the early departures aren’t always about a desire to cash in quickly on an elite prospect’s earning potential; Olympic boxing has been tarnished for years by charges of incompetence or, worse, corruption.
Teddy Atlas, who was NBC’s voice of Olympic boxing in Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London, won’t be behind the microphone in Rio, by what he says is his choice. A man can only stand so much disillusionment.
“Olympic boxing has become a joke. It’s not relevant anymore,” said Atlas, who is adamantly opposed to the shift toward full involvement with pros, as is already the case in Olympic basketball, tennis, golf and track and field. “People want to at least think there’s some purity to Olympic boxing, some detachment from the pros. It’s a chance for kids to represent their country. Afterwards, they can make a choice whether to go professional.”
Among the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials champions who failed to have his ticket to Rio punched is heavyweight Cam F. Awesome, the former Lenroy Thompson until he had his name legally changed on Feb. 16, 2013. The 27-year-old southpaw, who was suspended for a year by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2012 for multiple failures to provide his location in order to be available for drug-testing, thus making him ineligible for the London Olympics, had remained in the amateurs expressly for the purpose of going for gold in Rio. During the interim Awesome had become such a respected elder statesman for USA Boxing that he was selected as an athlete member of the organization’s Board of Directors.
“We’re super-optimistic,” Awesome said in the early spring, when hope still was eternal. “Most of us need to qualify in the Continentals (in Buenos Aires, Argentina), but it’s against pretty much the same competition we had at the Pan American Games and I believe we had five or six medals there. I see us taking a pretty full team to Rio. Even for those of us who don’t qualify (by finishing in the top three) in Argentina, we have two more qualifying tournaments (in Bulgaria and Azerbaijan) after that.”
But all those additional paths to Rio became minefields for the U.S. team, with Awesome, welterweight Paul Kroll, light heavyweight Jonathan Esquivel and super heavyweight Brandon Lynch all failing to negotiate them successfully. As a result, America will be represented by a reduced contingent of eight boxers (two of whom are women), down from the 13 who went to London and, at least on the men’s side, took that humiliating collar.
Sports Illustrated, of course, can be wrong. An American man might still emerge as a hero, possibly even the first to take gold since light heavyweight Andre Ward in Athens in 2004. Shields is an odds-on favorite to add a second gold on the women’s side, but there are those who believe Stevenson has a better-than-decent chance to snatch a medal, possibly even a gold if everything falls into place just so.
Yet it must be sobering to a country so identified with Olympic boxing success that Cuba is predicted to come away with a haul of eight medals (five golds, three silvers) and Russia six (two golds, a silver and three bronzes). Even Ireland (a gold, two silvers and a bronze) and Uzbekistan (four bronzes) are pegged for four trips apiece to the medal stand.
There are many theories for why the U.S., which amassed 35 Olympic boxing medals from 1976 through 1996 (America boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics), has been held to a mere seven in the men’s competition since then. There are just as many theories as to what can be done to reverse the downward trend.
If there is a solution to the problem, someone needs to enact it, and quickly, or a proud national tradition will continue to recede into irrelevancy.
U.S. Olympic Men’s Boxing Team