RING OF GOLD : A LOOK AT THE 1984 U.S. OLYMPIC BOXING TEAM : THE COUNT REACHES 10 : Some Are Out, but at Least Two of Nine Gold Medalists Are Still Going Strong
Ten years ago Thursday, American boxing’s class of ’84 jump-started the playing of the national anthem nine times.
The boxers cried a bit on the medal platform, hugged each other, then embarked on pro careers that a decade later continue in prosperous fashion for two--Pernell Whitaker and Virgil Hill--but have gone off the tracks for all the rest.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 17, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 17, 1994 Home Edition Sports Part C Page 4 Column 3 Sports Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Boxing--Yugoslavian boxer Anton Josipovic and referee Gligorije Novicic were misidentified in the Aug. 10 edition. Also, Josipovic, not New Zealand’s Kevin Barry, won the light-heavyweight gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. Barry won the silver.
They fought to a record nine gold medals in the Sports Arena, barely missing a 10th when a future heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, was disqualified in a light-heavyweight semifinal bout.
Nine. A big number. In two Olympics since then, U.S. boxing gold medals total four.
True, boxing powerhouse Cuba and most East Bloc countries boycotted the L.A. Olympics, making the going much easier for the the U.S. team.
Still, about half the members of that team earned more than a million dollars as pros, with Holyfield and lightweight Whitaker becoming the richest.
Holyfield has grossed roughly $100 million since then, including boxing and endorsement income. Whitaker would rank a distant second.
Holyfield was responsible for one of the most dramatic, unforgettable moments of the L.A. Olympics. Before 11,729, in a semifinal match, he flattened New Zealander Kevin Barry with a left hook that landed a split second after the referee’s “Stop!” command.
Instantly, Yugoslav referee Anton Josipovic gave the signal that he had disqualified the American. Holyfield, who had appeared to be not only on his way to a gold medal but the tournament’s outstanding-boxer award as well--seemed stunned.
Enraged, U.S. Coach Pat Nappi tried to charge into the ring after Josipovic but was restrained by assistant Roosevelt Sanders. The crowd was near-riotous. A two-syllable expletive was chanted, and trash sailed into the ring.
But the disqualification stuck, and Holyfield received the loudest ovation of all on gold-medal awards night when he was given the bronze, and Barry, who had won the gold, hauled him up onto the top spot of the platform so the crowd could salute him.
Ten summers ago, the biggest winner seemed to be Mark Breland, the skinny New York welterweight who, though booed repeatedly during the tournament, finished his amateur career with the best mark in the history of amateur boxing, 110-1.
He then signed a pro deal that remains the richest ever for an amateur turning pro. But his pro career (30-3-1), when measured against expectations in 1984, was something of a bust.
The biggest surprise of the class of ’84?
Undoubtedly, middleweight silver medalist Hill, who a decade later as a light-heavyweight champion has lost only once in his pro career and still regularly commands six-digit paydays.
A 10-year update, on the class of ’84:
PAUL GONZALES: Gold Medalist (106 pounds)
Gonzales remembers a flash of anger when he stepped onto the medal platform to receive his gold medal.
“I wanted to bring my mother up on the platform for the ceremony, but they wouldn’t let me,” he said.
“But still, I’ll never forget that moment--holding American and Mexican flags in my hands, listening to the national anthem, and feeling so proud of who I was.” It fell to Gonzales, through the luck of the draw, to set the tone for the U.S. sweep through the tournament. On day one, Gonzales drew South Korean Kim Kwang-Sun. He and Gonzales were ranked 1-2 in the world at the time.
Gonzales dominated Kim, knocking him down early, showing off all his considerable boxing skills and winning an easy decision.
STEVE McCRORY: Gold Medalist (112 pounds)
To hear his manager tell it, McCrory was done in by two human flaws, impatience and jealousy.
The Detroit boxer, younger brother of former welterweight champion Milton McCrory, wasn’t offered much to turn pro. He wound up with his brother in the Kronk Gym stable operated by Manny Steward.
“By 1985, Steve had become unhappy that the other Olympic kids were making much more money than he was,” Steward said recently.
“He was undefeated and wanted to take a fight in Australia with Jeff Fenech for his bantamweight title, and I advised against it. I felt Fenech was too strong for him, that Steve just wasn’t ready. But he insisted--he demanded--I make the fight.
“Steve just ran out of gas in the late rounds, and Fenech beat him. And his career never really bounced back.
“If he’d taken more of the fights I wanted him to take early on, he’d have been much tougher later.”
ROBERT SHANNON: (119 pounds)
Shannon is the answer to the boxing trivia question: “Which ’84 U.S. Olympic boxer did not win a medal?”
Left-handed, possessing a solid left hook and little defensive prowess, Shannon’s fights, amateur and pro, tended to be quick and exciting. In fact, his Olympic defeat went down in the minds of many as the most memorable of the tournament.
In a nonstop, multiple-knockdown brawl with a South Korean, Moon Sung-Kil, Shannon was stopped in the third round of the preliminaries.
Shannon was the team barber. He charged teammates $2 for a trim, $5 for a style cut. Today, at 31, he’s a professional barber in Lynnwood, Wash. And it’s $9 per trim.
Afterward, there was no big contract. He earned $1,500 for his first pro bout in 1984 and in a career that ended in 1990 with an 18-6-2 record, his biggest purse was $10,000.
His most vivid Olympic memory: “Just walking around in L.A. with my USA sweats on, and having so many people come up to me--not even knowing what sport I was involved in--and wishing me luck. It was a great experience, all of it.”
MELDRICK TAYLOR: Gold Medalist (125 pounds)
It’s commonly believed in boxing circles that Taylor’s pro career flamed out on a 1990 spring night in Las Vegas when he lost in the final seconds to Julio Cesar Chavez, and wound up in the hospital.
The conventional wisdom: He was never the same. Maybe so, but Taylor throughout his career had a nemesis more formidable than Chavez, the scales.
Once, when he was 17, on a night before a U.S. team was to box the Cubans, Nappi made bed checks and found Taylor tucked in with a pizza, hours before he had to make 125 pounds.
It was always like that for the extravagantly talented Philadelphia featherweight--the hard-hitting kid who couldn’t make weight.
Six years later, Taylor came within seconds of beating perhaps the greatest fighter of his time, Chavez. Despite Chavez’s great rally in the late rounds of a memorable battle of 140-pounders, two judges had Taylor comfortably ahead when disaster struck him with seconds left.
Taylor, bleeding from the nose and mouth and with his left eye closing, was felled by a right. He arose at the six-count, and when referee Richard Steele asked, “Are you OK?” he got no response.
Steele stopped it, igniting a controversy that still fuels arguments.
He signaled the fight’s end with two seconds to go, and raised Chavez’s hand.
Taylor never seemed the same fighter after that. More worrisome, he didn’t sound the same. His speech was slurred. Friends begged him to retire.
He didn’t. In fact, he will fight Chavez again on Sept. 17.
PERNELL WHITAKER: Gold Medalist (132 pounds)
“Sweet Pea,” his teammates of ’84 called him. He might have been the best of all, even then, as now.
Breland was the team’s headliner in Los Angeles, but Whitaker, the left-hander from Norfolk, was also world-class. When he defeated Cuba’s Angel Herrera in that USA-Cuba dual meet early that year, it was the third consecutive time he had beaten Herrera, one of amateur boxing’s great champions at the time.
But Whitaker and Breland were pals then, as now, and he never seemed uncomfortable in Breland’s shadow.
“I feel I’m the best (amateur) fighter in the world, but if people want to say Mark is, well, he’s my friend, so that’s OK,” he said, when the team arrived in Los Angeles.
His adviser since 1984, Shelly Finkel, said Whitaker as a pro “lived up to every bit of potential we saw in him then, and went beyond that.”
Finkel talked of two pro fights Whitaker won with broken hands as examples of his professionalism and courage. But the eye-opener occurred on Aug. 20, 1989, in Norfolk, Va., he said.
“That was the day he beat Jose Luis Ramirez so decisively, after he’d had a decision over Ramirez stolen from him in Paris the year before,” Finkel said.
“His attitude that day, his will--that showed me there was no limit to what he could achieve.”
JERRY PAGE: Gold Medalist (139 pounds)
Page won an Olympic gold medal, had a cup of coffee in pro boxing, retiring with an 11-4 record, and now says he’s happy.
Page, 33, and his wife, Christy, live in Page’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and have five children. The gold medal is in a desk drawer, he says.
Page works for the Columbus Police Athletic League, coaching youth boxers.
His most enduring ’84 memory: “Walking out of that tunnel during the opening ceremonies, seeing all those people, hearing the music--it hit me like, bam! There was a feeling of reality to it that I’ll never forget.”
Page’s gold medal was achieved with some controversy. When he was given a 5-0 decision over Thawee Umpormaha of Thailand, the Thais screamed.
Page, who retired in 1990, said he passed up chances to make more money than he did professionally.
“I was offered as much as $60,000 to sign with people, but everyone wanted me to move someplace,” he said. “I wanted to box in Columbus. And I had a bad knee then and I wasn’t confident about how it’d hold up. I didn’t want to take money under false pretenses.
“As it turned out, my biggest purse was $12,500. I have no complaints. Boxing was good to me.”
MARK BRELAND: Gold Medalist (147 pounds)
A decade later, Breland remains the king of boxing’s bonus babies.
Three months after he won gold in L.A., he was earning $100,000 for his first bout, had signed a $3-million dollar ABC deal, was driving a luxury car and lived on Park Avenue.
Appropriately, when he and seven Olympic teammates turned pro in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15, 1984, Breland had “Goldbusters” T-shirts printed up for everyone.
He had a good career. He was even a welterweight champion for a while.
But considering the huge buildup, he was something of a bust as a pro. New Yorkers turned on the Brooklyn fighter quickly when his soft chin was exposed by Marlon Starling in 1987.
In 1992, at 30-3-1, he retired. He says he’s not disappointed.
“I enjoyed my boxing career. A lot of people were saying I was going to be a (Sugar Ray) Leonard or a (Thomas) Hearns. Then when things didn’t work out like that, they said, ‘Well, he’s sure no Leonard or Hearns.’
“I never said that. It never bothered me that I didn’t live up to what other people expected.”
This year, at 30, an annuity established in 1984 by his adviser, Finkel, kicks in. From it, Breland will receive $100,000 a year for life.
FRANK TATE: Gold Medalist (156 pounds)
As was Taylor’s, Tate’s early pro career might have been a weight class too low.
Making the light-middleweight limit of 156 was a daily grind for Tate at the L.A. Olympics, and so was 160 when he turned pro. It all caught up to him when he faded in the late rounds and lost his piece of the world middleweight title to Michael Nunn in 1988.
Tate had perhaps the easiest journey of all to ’84 gold. In fact, he had a harder time in the Olympic trials final against U.S. rival Ron Essett than against any of five foes in the Games.
In Los Angeles, he started with two 5-0 decisions, stopped another opponent in one round, got a medical walkover in the semifinals and then won a 5-0 decision over Canadian Shawn O’Sullivan for the gold medal.
Tate’s pro career was temporarily in limbo after Nunn stopped him in the ninth round.
Tate, still active at 31-4, moved up to light-heavyweight in 1990. His old L.A. teammate, Hill, has twice lured him to Bismarck, N.D., and beaten him on decisions.
VIRGIL HILL: Silver Medalist (165 pounds)
In strictly a boxing sense, Hill has been one of the most successful of the class of ’84.
Holyfield, Whitaker and Taylor have made more money, but none of the 12 can match his record of 38-1, including 17-1 in championship fights.
And with the exception of taking a fight with Hearns in 1991--his only loss--he has made the best decisions of any of his teammates and been the best managed.
From the outset, Hill has concentrated on being a big-time star in his home state, North Dakota. He’s the biggest sports name there since Roger Maris. His portrait hangs in the state capitol in Bismarck.
Hill could book a fight in Bismarck with Roseanne Arnold, put 8,000 in the Civic Center--with the governor at ringside--and make $300,000.
The boxer thought by some to have been the weak link on the ’84 Olympic team has grossed about $4 million.
He trains virtually year-around, watches his diet between fights, and is still fighting at the same weight, 175, as when he turned pro in 1984. No other ’84 Olympian can make that claim.
EVANDER HOLYFIELD: Bronze Medalist (178 pounds)
Early in 1984, Ricky Womack of Detroit was thought to be a cinch for the Olympic team.
A natural light-heavyweight, Womack was fearless, a hard hitter and had beaten every contender in sight.
Then along came Holyfield, a skinny kid who earned pocket money by gassing up small planes at a suburban Atlanta airport.
He came on with a rush in the team selection process, before losing a 3-2 decision to Womack in the semifinals of the Olympic trials. But in the box-off three weeks later, he beat Womack twice in two days to make the team, both on 4-1 decisions.
Late in the Olympic tournament, Holyfield looked to be on his way to a gold medal and the outstanding-boxer award--won by Gonzales, as it turned out.
“I never saw a kid improve in six months like this kid has,” said Nappi, who was coaching his third Olympic team.
Through all the commotion and controversy of his unjust disqualification, Holyfield maintained a quiet dignity that remains with him today. Not once did he curse the referee, punch a wall or throw furniture.
A pro turning point? His one-punch, second-round knockout of Adilson Rodrigues at Lake Tahoe in 1989.
“That showed me and everyone else he was a legitimate heavyweight, that his punch would have to be respected by anyone,” Finkel said.
Holyfield’s career is at least on hold. A congenital heart problem was discovered after he lost his heavyweight championship to Michael Moorer last April, and Holyfield continues to undergo medical tests.
And Womack? His old amateur rival is serving a 12- to 25-year prison sentence in Michigan for armed robbery.
HENRY TILLMAN: Gold Medalist (201 pounds)
It was perhaps the most improbable story of them all, that Henry Tillman, two years after trying on a pair of boxing gloves for the first time, won an Olympic gold medal.
Tillman didn’t have much of a pro career (25-6), but his Olympic story remains one of the best.
In 1982, he signed up for a boxing class at the California Youth Authority facility at Chino, where he was serving a year on an armed-robbery conviction.
Tillman’s career will forever be linked with Mike Tyson’s. It was Tillman who prevented the 17-year-old New York slugger from making the ’84 team, beating him twice in the trials.
And in 1989, Tillman was selected as Tyson’s first opponent after his shocking knockout loss to Buster Douglas in Japan. Tyson knocked out Tillman in one round.
Tyson, an Olympic team alternate, wound up being Nappi’s go-fer at the Olympics. Four years later, Tyson grossed $50 million.
Today, Tillman, 34, lives in the Diamond Bar home he bought with the $350,000 earned in the Tyson fight. He is married to Gina Hemphill Tillman, whom he met during the ’84 Games. Hemphill, a granddaughter of Jesse Owens, carried the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.
Tillman has studied real estate and frequently does public speaking.
“I wanted to be the world heavyweight champion when I turned pro,” he said. “But I’m not sorry it never happened. It was time to move on. I did all right.”
TYRELL BIGGS: Gold Medalist (201+ pounds)
Biggs, more than anyone else on the ’84 team, benefited from Cuba’s boycott of the L.A. Olympics.
Cuba’s triple Olympic champion, Teofilo Stevenson, was 33 then, but still on top of his game and 2-0 against Biggs.
Biggs won a decision from a ponderous Italian, Francesco Damiani, for the gold.
Pro trainers were intrigued by Biggs, who was 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, had graceful ring movement and a workmanlike left jab. It was apparent he lacked knockout power, but many believed that through athleticism and boxing ability, he could become a prime-time heavyweight.
Largely unknown at the outset of his pro career, however, was that Biggs had a drug problem dating to his Philadelphia high school days.
Also, Biggs was always a much better interview than boxer. Great fighters all have, somewhere, a nasty streak. Biggs didn’t.
Now 33, he lives in Costa Mesa on some of the $1.25 million he earned from his 1987 Mike Tyson fight, the money having been put in trust for him. And he says he has been clean of drugs for nearly 10 years.
With his pro career (27-9) over, he would like to train young boxers.
“I never really had a trainer who could develop the skills I had,” he said. “Most pro trainers are big-punch oriented and tried to make me a puncher, when I wasn’t.”
Biggs’ career was never the same after Tyson defeated him in 1987. Biggs was 15-0 at the time, but lost his next three bouts was 24-5 by 1991.
Footnote: Nappi died at 75 in 1992. Not a single member of his ’84 Olympic team attended the funeral at West Point, N.Y.
A look at the professional boxing records of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team:
Paul Gonzales will retire Thursday (18-4 record)
Steve McCrory retired (35-1)
Robert Shannon retired (18-6-2)
Meldrick Taylor active (32-3-1)
Pernell Whitaker active (33-1-1)
Jery Page retired (11-4)
Mark Breland retired (30-3-1)
Frank Tate active (31-4)
Virgil Hill active (38-1)
Evander Holyfield awaiting medical clearance (30-2)
Henry Tillman retired (25-6)
Tyrell Briggs retired (27-9)