Divided, American boxers fall
BEIJING -- Before the start of his last bout at the Olympics -- and probably his last bout for a U.S. boxing team -- light flyweight Luis Yanez held one gloved hand near his ear.
The pose was essentially an obscene gesture directed at U.S. Coach Dan Campbell, people close to the boxer told the Associated Press. But as bold as Yanez’s actions were, they were simply the latest sign of the near-mutiny that has roiled the U.S. boxing team in Beijing, sending it spinning toward the worst performance by American fighters in 60 years.
Coming into these Games, the U.S. had won nearly twice as many boxing medals as any other country, and had won at least two in every Olympics since 1952.
Yet heavyweight Deontay Wilder, who guaranteed himself a bronze Sunday with a controversial tiebreaker victory over Morocco’s Mohammed Arjaoui, will be the only American to leave Beijing with any hardware.
That’s a far cry from the 1984 L.A. Games, when the U.S. took advantage of an Eastern Bloc boycott to win 12 medals -- 10 of them gold -- or the Seoul Games four years later when the Americans won eight medals.
The Olympics once provided the springboard to fame for the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, among others. But since Oscar De La Hoya struck gold in Barcelona, many of the country’s best fighters have been encouraged to avoid the amateur ranks and its arcane scoring system altogether.
As a result, the U.S. has won only two golds since 1992 -- and earned a total of two medals four years ago in Athens.
“I’ve got 18-year-olds telling me they’re ready to turn pro now instead of staying in the program,” said Cameron Dunkin, professional boxing’s reigning manager of the year. “There’s no reason to. For every Olympian doing well in the pro game there’s 10 guys doing better who weren’t.”
The embattled Campbell blames the steady decline of U.S. amateur boxing on a failure to adapt to the style and scoring of international boxing.
His fighters, however, tell a different story.
After all, they point out, the team did well enough with the international style to win two titles and send three other boxers into the quarterfinals at October’s world championships. The difference between then and now, they say, has been the demands of USA Boxing’s 10-month residency program, which kept the boxers sequestered in Colorado Springs, Colo., away from family, friends and their personal coaches.
“None of them are happy about leaving their coaches or being away from home,” Dunkin said.
In June, Yanez and light welterweight Javier Molina of Commerce briefly went AWOL, with Yanez being temporarily kicked off the team as a result. And then when they arrived in Beijing, the Americans lost Gary Russell Jr. when the two-time national champion collapsed from dehydration a day before the weigh-in while trying to get down to the bantamweight limit of 119 pounds, a weight he hasn’t boxed at in nearly a year.
“The team is very talented. We should have all been doing real good,” said Molina, who fought poorly in his first bout after doctors cleared him to fight despite the fact they detected a hole in his lung. “But everything we went through, just with the residency program itself, they should put that off. It almost seems like they were going against you.
“It would have been better off if we were with our coaches, where they know us. We’ve been with them for years. I was away from my family. I wasn’t doing good in school, I wasn’t training how I wanted to train. So I was real stressed out.”
However, the program does have at least one defender among the boxers -- and tellingly that defender is Wilder, the only man still fighting in Beijing.
“Whatever decisions have been made, I just go with it without complaining,” said Wilder, who fights Italy’s Clemente Russo on Friday in the medal round. “I’m not a guy that complains. The program has been pretty good on my behalf.”
The residency program is the first for boxers in 24 years, although similar programs exist in other Olympic and Paralympic sports such as judo, volleyball, weightlifting and wrestling.
Campbell, who has an extensive history coaching at the junior Olympic level and was an alternate coach for the 2004 Olympic team, brought back the program in September after comparing how other countries’ junior programs trained with the way the U.S. prepared for Athens.
So three weeks after last summer’s Olympic trials, he ordered the boxers -- five of whom have young children -- to come to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, allowing them only two extended trips home.
“It was a great experience being up there. But at the same time, I felt like we should have been home most of the time,” said world champion flyweight Rau’shee Warren, one of three U.S. boxers eliminated in his first fight in Beijing. “The whole time we were there, it was a training camp. We never really got rest.”
By the time the team got into the ring in China, it was in open rebellion with Yanez openly ignoring Campbell’s advice from his corner in his second-round loss. But he wasn’t the only one. Welterweight world champion Demetrius Andrade, who lost in the quarterfinals, repeatedly looked to his father in the stands, not his coach, for help.
“They were trying to tell me to go at him, go at him, go at him,” Yanez said of the U.S. coaches. “I’m not that fighter.”
Said Campbell: “He basically did the opposite of what we told him.”
The thinking behind the residency program, Campbell said, was to eliminate outside distractions and get the team to focus on learning the international style of boxing, where judges award points only when the white part of a fighter’s glove strikes the opponent in the scoring area. And all punches deemed clean carry the same value.
That makes international boxing fundamentally different from professional boxing, where there is no defined scoring area and where heavier punches count more.
“We know what it takes to win internationally,” said Campbell, who favors extending the residential program despite the controversy. “We tried to get these guys to key on these types of approaches to international boxing. Once they get away from that and go back to their domestic style of boxing, they damage themselves.”
Campbell gets support in his views from HBO’s Larry Merchant, who has watched the U.S. failings in Beijing and says it’s clear the boxers are struggling with a “culture shock” and “dysfunction” between how they are schooled and how points are earned.
“A guy lands a clean hard punch to the body and gets zero credit for it,” Merchant said. “The scoring system skews how you fight.”
Merchant said Americans should appeal to international authorities before the 2012 Games to award clean body punches with points. He said the U.S. should also designate an individual to supervise boxers who continue to train with their own coaches and advisors.
“The coaching system goes against the grain of fighting, which is an individual motivation,” he said.
For Wilder, at least, the system has proved successful.
“I don’t want the world to remember the U.S. team being failures,” said Wilder, who credited the residency program for his success. “Because I can’t express how much hard work we put in, dedication. There’s been sacrifices.
“To come out and for the result to be me as the last [chance] of medaling. I’m speechless.”
Baxter reported from Beijing, Pugmire from Los Angeles.