As pundits and fans continuously recycle the argument that boxing is a dying sport, the U.S. amateur boxing program has become an easy target and scapegoat for the slowly crumbling the foundations of American prizefighting.
Boxing fans are certainly nostalgic types, and longing for the glory days of the 1976 or 1984 Olympic boxing teams has become more prominent in light of recent international failures.
While it would indeed be wonderful for Americans if the current U.S. boxing team (or any future team) could recapture the glory and success of the young fighters from ’76 or ’84, the reality is that this simply isn’t realistic. Amateur boxing has changed drastically, and expectations must be altered.
This is obviously a difficult pill to swallow, especially for a country that has historically dominated amateur boxing the way the U.S. has. However, while it is no longer realistic to expect the U.S. to win, say, nine gold medals, like they did in ’84—or even replicate the five gold medals from ’76—year-in and year-out, it is reasonable to expect the team to perform better.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, the U.S. has thus far had mixed results after the Round of 32. They are as follows:
- Joseph Diaz (bantamweight): 19-9 vs. Ischenko (Ukraine)
- Jose Ramirez (lightweight): 21-10 vs. Azzedine (France)
- Errol Spence (Welterweight): 16-10 vs. Carvalho (Brazil)
- Terrell Gausha (middleweight): RSC 3 (13-12) vs. Hakobyan (Armenia)
- Jamel Herring (light welterweight): 9-19 vs. Yeleussinov (Ukraine)
- Marcus Browne (light heavyweight): 11-13 vs. Hooper (Australia)
The U.S. will especially be disappointed with Browne’s early exit after the young light heavyweight dropped a razor-close decision. Still, having advanced four boxers thus far, the Americans have reason for hope.
Furthermore, flyweight Rau’shee Warren received a first-round bye, and heavyweight Michael Hunter and super heavyweight Dominic Breazeale will start their Olympic run in the Round of 16.
Much will be decided and determined over the next several days. As the fate of the 2012 U.S. boxing team still hangs in the balance, one must ask: What has happened to U.S. boxing?
A Disconnect Between Amateur and Professional Boxing
The Olympic preview issue of The Ring cites Roy Jones Jr.’s shocking defeat to Park Si-Hun in 1988 as the reason amateur boxing shifted to a computer-based scoring system for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
The 20-year failed experiment with computerized scoring will mercifully come to an end at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps no single element has contributed more to the U.S. boxing team’s failure than the flawed amateur scoring system.
Of course, the system isn’t actually computerized. The flawed human element remains, but now the judges can hide behind their keypads. It is not uncommon to see one fighter get no credit for clear scoring blows while another accumulates points for punches that don’t land.
Furthermore, of the five judges scoring a bout, points are tabulated by eliminating the scores from judges who credit a fighter with the least and most points for a given round, and a final score for a round is attained by averaging out the middle three scores.
Confused? Despite all this addition, little actually adds up.
This system encourages a specific kind of fighting that is counter to a boxer groomed with a professional style—i.e. one who commits to the body and tries to establish a solid base to throw power punches. In the Olympic preview issue of The Ring, Teddy Atlas sums up the flawed scoring system as only he can:
“It [Olympic boxing] began to look like fencing with boxing gloves on. It just mattered if you touched the guy. Power didn’t count. Body punches didn’t count. You couldn’t throw combinations because the punches landed too fast to hit the buttons so you got no points.”
Americans are taught to throw power punches in combinations and to go to the body, two of the elements Atlas specifically says do not count for anything of substance in amateur boxing. If a clearly landed jab counts just as much as a crisp left hook, there is no incentive for a boxer to actually fight.
Instead, Olympic and amateur boxing becomes an exercise in scoring single shots from the outside and then running and holding once a lead is established.
This is the type of system that can be circumvented and adapted to—fighters can be trained and manufactured to score blows and dance in an amateur style. For better or worse, the U.S. has not adapted to this change.
As mentioned above, the rule changes and structural reform in amateur boxing came as a result of Roy Jones Jr. controversially losing to a South Korean in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
The Seoul Olympics have, in many ways, become emblematic of the shifting fortunes and downward spiral of U.S.A. Boxing’s amateur system. 1988 was by all accounts an accomplished American team, perhaps even the last truly deep and quality squad the United States has fielded.
The team won eight medals (three gold, three silver, two bronze) and included Hall of Famer Michael Carbajal, future Hall of Famer and pound-for-pound great Jones, bantamweight titlist Kennedy McKinney and heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, who happens to be the last quality American heavyweight to emerge from the Olympic Games.
Since Seoul, there have only been three American gold medalists in a span of four Olympics: Oscar De La Hoya in 1992, David Reid in 1996 and Andre Ward in 2004. To further compound this disappointment, in 2008 the U.S. fielded its least successful boxing team in Olympic history; only super heavyweight Deontay Wilder won a medal, and it was a bronze.
The Olympics were once seen as the ultimate stepping-stone for a boxer to achieve rapid professional success and notoriety. After the 1988 Olympics, the new scoring system and tarnished integrity of Olympic boxing sullied the glamour once associated with entering the professional ranks with gold-medal pedigree.
As of 1992, it seemed that fighters willing to hang tough and vie for an Olympic spot were training for a tournament that negated every tool and skill needed to be a successful professional boxer.
This sense of distrust in amateur boxing is further explained by a less publicized controversy at the 1988 Olympics. The aforementioned Carbajal also seemed to be the victim of a corrupt decision when, according to The Ring, Vladimir Gordienko, a member of Olympic boxing’s 1988 executive committee, had a heated argument with American officials and stated, “You will lose 5-0 to the Bulgarian.” Naturally, Carbajal lost 0-5 to Ivailo Marinov of Bulgaria.
While the 1988 U.S. Olympic boxing team was outstanding, these instances of distrust, fraud and manipulation have been, through no fault of their own, their lasting legacy.
The Rise of Other Nations
At London 2012, Cuba, Ukraine and Great Britain, among others, have fielded teams with more concrete medal hopes than the United States. Cuba and Ukraine especially are at the top of the amateur boxing heap, and the 2011 World Championships were a telling litmus test, as Ukraine captured five medals (four gold, one silver) while Cuba tallied three (two gold and one silver).
In terms of all-time medal counts, the United States’ 109 (including 48 gold) are well ahead of Cuba’s 63. Of course, this discrepancy does not do justice to the power shift in amateur boxing that has prominently occurred over the last 20 years.
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Cuba won eight medals, followed by China’s haul of four. Russia, Italy and Great Britain were all tied at three total medals, and the way top honors were spread out suggests that other countries are becoming more competitive.
Ukraine, which enters London 2012 as one of the strongest teams, only won two medals in 2008, but their gold medalist, Vasyl Lomachenko, won the Val Barker Trophy as the tournament’s most outstanding boxer.
The U.S. has only won a combined seven medals in the past three Olympics, and four of those came at the Sydney Games in 2000. As stated earlier, it is unrealistic to expect current and future U.S. teams to match the success of the 1976 or 1984 squads, but the fact remains that especially over the past two Olympics, the U.S. has not even been contending for more than a couple of medals.
While an average of three medals seems to be respectable in terms of a quality team performance given the current landscape of amateur boxing, the U.S. should expect to have most, if not all, of their fighters make deep tournament runs.
One and Done
When watching the Olympics, one thing that stands out is how many fighters compete into at least their mid-20s. While the U.S. always fields an undeniably talented team, most of the squad’s potential is generally viewed in terms of possible professional success.
This year’s U.S. team actually features more boxers in their early to mid-20s than seems the norm, but the deep-seeded problem lies in retaining boxers for multiple Olympics. Whether it’s by choice or not, successful Olympic boxing nations are the ones able to retain and continue to develop their athletes by having fighters compete in multiple World Championships and Olympic Games.
The U.S. squad is often littered with 19- and 20-year-olds, which is fine and a credit to their respective skills, but it also represents a wasted opportunity.
Take someone like current team member Joseph Diaz, a 19-year-old who won his first round bout impressively by a score of 19-9 (over a Ukrainian!). Diaz has a steep uphill battle to win a medal—his next bout is against Cuban sensation Lazaro Alvarez—and he’ll likely turn professional after the Olympics. If the U.S. team was able to bring someone like Diaz back in 2016, he would, as a 23-year-old, be that much more experienced with a greater chance to medal.
While it makes sense for young boxers to turn professional for both the glory and financial compensation, this reality does nothing to help the U.S. amateur boxing system. Perhaps with the switch back to pro-style scoring in 2016 and organizations like the World Series of Boxing (WSB) that allow fighters to make some money while retaining their Olympic eligibility, some U.S. boxers will elect to remain amateurs.
Then, perhaps, U.S. boxing will return to form and resume spoiling their fans rotten. That, or Americans will just have to curb their expectations.