The best hope almost choked.
For one . . . two . . . three . . . four endless, listless minutes or more Wednesday afternoon, Antonio Tarver, the U.S. boxing team's most honored, talented and famous fighter, trudged around the ring in slow motion, eyes glazed.
And the reaction of his coaches and teammates? Panic.
The reaction of the U.S. audience? Boooooo.
"The crowd probably wanted to see something special tonight," Tarver said sheepishly afterward, "and I didn't give it to them."
No, he didn't. Tarver only barely scraped together enough of an attack to slip away with a strange, 5-2 first-round victory over reluctant Russian Dmitri Vybornov before 9,517 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
Five scoring points--generosity, according to most observers--in three rounds for the 1995 world champion, the most decorated American amateur fighter ever? What in the world happened?
"I came out wanting to start out boxing, and it just wasn't happening out there for me," said the 27-year-old Tarver, from Orlando, Fla. "I really can't explain it, but that wasn't the real me out there."
Said U.S. Coach Al Mitchell, "I thought his performance was lousy."
A few hours later, 20-year-old light-welterweight David Diaz, from Chicago, partially made up for the Tarver disappointment, using an all-out attack to wipe up the floor with, and eventually stop, overmatched Jacobo Garcia of the Virgin Islands in the third round.
Diaz's victory--he was ahead, 25-2, when it was stopped--ran the U.S. team's record to 9-1 as the tournament's first round ended and, in the wake of Tarver's performance, brought a bright smile to Mitchell's face.
"He's a fighting momma-jomma," Mitchell said, using his warmest terminology as Diaz shrugged beside him. "He comes to fight, and that's what I like about him."
But, heading into today's three pivotal U.S. bouts--including bantamweight Zahir Raheem's showdown against Cuban Arnaldo Mesa and Oxnard native Fernando Vargas' second-round bout against Marian Simion of Romania--Tarver's lackluster outing was the story of the day.
It was a performance that did not evoke gold-medal visions so much as it did a deer caught in headlights. Yet, Tarver and his coaches insisted this was just a one-day aberration by the American team's anchor.
"Really, last night I thought it was going to be tough today," Mitchell said. "Why? Because people are talking about Tarver as the gold-medal man, and he's out here watching and cheering on all his teammates day after day. The pressure started falling on him heavier and heavier.
"I look at the situation. Every day, people are saying, 'Tony's going to get a gold! Tony's going to get a gold!' When you've got 50 million people telling you that you're going to get the gold, it affects you. You start feeling that pressure."
The loud, lanky Tarver pointed out that he might have used up a lot of energy cheering on the eight American fighters who preceded him--and that the long wait made him logy.
"There were a lot of distractions--I guess I got side-tracked rooting for the other guys," Tarver said. "I was waiting around for five, six days, just waiting to fight, and I lost my focus.
"It wasn't a performance I anticipated. Maybe it was a fight I had been anticipating for so long. . . . It's been a long week, whooping and hollering for the rest of the guys."
In an agonizingly slow first round, the left-handed Tarver landed the only scoring blow, a soft, lunging right 2 minutes 30 seconds into the fight, then later careened to the canvas after a push by Vybornov, another lefty.
When he returned to the corner, Tarver heard more than the crowd's displeasure.
"I told Tony, 'This is not a tough fighter,' " said U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo. "I think Tony made the fight tough. The Russian wasn't the tough part of it. Tony was working one shot at a time. He wasn't throwing his combinations."
The second round wasn't much better, although Tarver did build up a 3-0 lead before two late shots by the Russian made it, 3-2.
In the third, Tarver knew he was fighting for his Olympic life.
"I felt a little desperate in the third round," Tarver said. "I felt everything slipping away, so I had to fight."
After a brief attack in the first 1:30 of the round, Tarver was up, 4-2, which was not enough to silence the boos.
"It might be because it was a boring fight," Mitchell said. "If I'd have paid to see this fight, I might've booed myself."
Diaz, a right-hander who fights from a left-handed stance, knows that his next bout--against dangerous German Oktay Urical, who beat Diaz in a dual meet several weeks ago--won't be anything like his target-practice bout Wednesday.
"I felt like slugging it out tonight," Diaz said. "I'm not going to outbox anybody, I'm not planning on it, anyway. I'll have to make some adjustments for the German, but I'm still going to fight my fight."
Besides the Rahim-Mesa face-off and Vargas' second-round bout today, heavyweight Nate Jones makes his first appearance--against England's Fola Okesola--after a first-round bye.