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Lost Chance Leaves Fighter on the Ropes

I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told. And I’ve squandered my existence, for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises. All lies in jest, till a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest . . . --"The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel.

Requiem for a middleweight.

For a boxer who lost everything.

For a boxer who even lost his chance to lose.

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Anthony Hembrick, Army paratrooper, missing in action.

That will be his epitaph.

That will be how he is remembered.

As the Olympic no-show.

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As America’s bus misser.

As a forlorn fighter, floored by fate, sucker-punched by a traffic jam, unable to get to the arena, soldier and victim of a Korean conflict.

Ding, dong, the ringside bell is ringing. Ding, dong, the bell is going to chime. Come on and pull up the buses, see where the guy fighting for us is, and get him to the ring, get him to the ring, get him to the ring on time.

Oh, little Anthony.

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Where were you, son?

Why did you listen to people who told you they would take care of you?

“I was ready to rumble. I was ready to fight. I was ready to represent my country,” Hembrick said here Wednesday, dropping by the Chamsil Arena, hanging around in a white USA baseball cap and black leather gloves, reliving his bad dream.

“The Olympics, man . . . " he said, and thought about it some.

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“The Olympics. That’s the head of the class. See, I don’t view myself as an American. I view myself as the world. I had an opportunity to be the world’s best, not just my country’s best. And just like that, poof. Gone.”

Hembrick, 22, a West Virginian, a communications specialist and paratrooper stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., a young man who lists his hobbies as “photography and cutting hair,” came here to do the same thing Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson and Leon Spinks did--win the Olympic gold, then proceed to fame and fortune.

“My amateur career, that’s over,” Hembrick said. “As far as my professional career goes, that’s just beginning. My goal is to be a pro world champ.”

The jokes are just beginning, too, of course.

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You say Anthony Hembrick’s fighting at Madison Square Garden this Saturday at 8 o’clock? Hey, better tell Anthony the bout starts at 6.

You say Anthony Hembrick’s fighting at Caesars Palace in November? Hey, better send the limo in October. You say Anthony Hembrick’s going 12 rounds against Michael Nunn Saturday at the Fabulous Forum? Hey, better tell Michael that Anthony will probably be there around the third round.

Better get used to it, Anthony.

There was nothing funny about it when he missed the bus to the Olympic arena and arrived too late to rumble with his Korean opponent. He had believed the mumbled promises of the coaches who told him they would guide him to a gold medal, who would fulfill his every need, who would make sure nothing got in his way.

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Hembrick found nothing funny about his situation. He found little sympathy, also, because even his teammates treated him with, well, kid gloves.

“After it was over and I was back at the village, my teammates didn’t approach me,” Hembrick said. “At first, they wanted to leave me alone to be with my thoughts. I could tell they wanted to console me, but they didn’t know how.”

Ken Adams, Hembrick’s coach and acting scapegoat, volunteered for Hembrick’s benefit: “You can kick me, hit me, anything you want.”

Hembrick did not take him up on it.

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“No, no one in the world is perfect,” Hembrick said. “Coach Adams is trying to take it all on himself. There’s no need to do that. I read the schedule the same way the coaches did.

“I’m just sad to see myself go down this way, my dreams snatched away so quickly, so fast, without even getting into the ring. But I still have faith in the Lord, that things will fall into place for me.”

Hembrick thought of all the hours in all the gyms, all the fists in his face, all the cuts and scars and bloody noses and puffy earlobes and sore ribs.

“This hurts worse than any of that,” he said.

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He turned and walked toward an exit.

Suddenly, he heard some noise from the boxing ring, inside the belly of the hall. A bell had rung, and there was cheering. Hembrick didn’t even know who was fighting. Didn’t care, either.

“Kill!” he shouted, shaking a fist in the direction of the ring.

He laughed and left. And he carried the reminders of all the gloves that had cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his pain, “I am leaving, I am leaving,” but the fighter still remained.

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