Hartford Courant , CT
Aug 11 2004

Counted Out?
U.S. Boxing Loses Some Of Its Punch



ATHENS, Greece - There must have been a doozy of an archeological
find among the ancient Athenian ruins recently, because somebody
claims to have unearthed the U.S. Olympic boxing team.

You may have forgotten we have one.

The U.S. boxers are so far off the radar screen, they may have to get
knocked out by a Jennie Finch wild pitch to get on NBC. Coach Basheer
Abdullah said unlike the soccer and some other U.S. national teams,
his boxers have not been booed in foreign lands. Not one chant of
"Osama!" That might be scarier. Maybe nobody cares.

Boxing once was the can't-miss programming of the Olympics. Nowhere
did the Cold War have more frostbite than inside the canvas ring.
Nowhere was the judging more suspect. Howard Cosell welcomed himself
into America's living room and, in no time, he had us so geeked up we
wanted to climb into the ring ourselves and knock the smirk off Cuban
Teofilo Stevenson or bury one of those great Slavic bears.

George Foreman waved his tiny American flag.

Cassius Clay threw his gold medal off a bridge into the Ohio River.

Sugar Ray dazzled us. The Spinks boys landed the 1-2 golden punch.
And so many of our boxers - right up through Roy Jones' colossal
ripoff in 1988 in Seoul - got stern lessons in international
corruption.

It made for unforgettable television. Yep, those were the salad days
of Ed Sullivan of Manhattan, Archie Bunker of Queens and Damoxenos of
Syracuse. Surely, you remember Damoxenos of Syracuse. He's the boxer
who jabbed his fingers into the rib cage of Kreugas of Epidamnos and
ripped out his intestines. Yeah, some time B.C. in Olympia was the
last time the Americans won a boxing gold medal.

OK, the record book insists it has been eight years. It only seems
like 28 centuries.

Long gone are Cosell, the Cold War and the five gold medal machine of
1976. The U.S. has 47 boxing gold medals, far more than any country,
but 45 came before 1992. Oscar De La Hoya won in Barcelona, David
Reid won in Atlanta and if Howard's toupee were still above ground,
he'd be going nuts about those numbers.

"It's very important we have a great performance," Abdullah said.

"We don't need to do great, we have to do well," counters 23-year-old
Jason Estrada of Providence, the first American super heavyweight to
win at the Pan-Am Games. "At least do better than the 2000 team to
help our sport."

Even that chore might be too much for this young group of nine. The
Americans failed to win a gold medal in 2000 for the first time in 52
years; they did eek out two silver and two bronze. The fact that
Estrada, light heavyweight Andre Ward and middleweight Andre Dirrell
are projected as the only medalists demonstrates how far America has
fallen.

"The disadvantage is we're young, but I think we have some greater
natural ability than the 2000 team," Abdullah said. "They tell me
when you're inexperienced and don't know any better you have a
tendency to be a little more courageous."

Speaking of young, Rau'shee Warren, 17, will return to the 12th grade
at Harmony High in Cincinnati after the Olympics. He's 5-foot-3, 106
pounds, wears a size 4 shoe and the youngest American male in Athens
is so cute you just want to hug him. Compared to the grizzled pugs
from Russia, Cuba and Kazakhstan - the three might sweep the 11 gold
- the Cincinnati Kid and the Americans are babes. Still, they get no
free passes.

There already have been too many excuses ... big American kids play
football. Too many leave the amateur ranks at an early age for the
money. Because of the scandals in the professional ranks, the sport
has staggered ... yada, yada.

Ward, a boxing aficionado who travels with a DVD to watch great bouts
from the past, did offer one theory to USA Today:

"If I had to choose one thing, it was that [the '76 Olympic team]
just attacked those other countries at the Olympics. There was no
fear, no doubts."

Said Estrada: "I don't know if the problem is talent. Some are born
more talented, but you can make up for it with heart and
conditioning.

"We have a lot of pro boxers out there right now who are making it
hard for the up and comers. A lot of these boxers are going to prison
for beating their wives, robbing and raping. It becomes a stereotype.
The world sees boxing as violent and ignorant. Half the people on
this team are nowhere near that. I know I'm not. It's hard, but we're
going to try to fix all of that."

It is a team with stories begging to be told. Ward works out by
pushing a Cadillac Coup deVille through Oakland and will fight with a
photo of his late father taped to his boot. Ron Siler, already a
father of five at age 24, got out of prison and is turning his life
around. Dirrell is coached by his grandfather, Leon Lawson, who is a
friend and former training partner of Ali. Rock Allen has a twin
named Tiger and a brother named Bear. The only reason the
Armenian-born, home-schooled Vanes Martirosyan made the team was
because Andre Berto threw down Juan McPherson at the Trials. After
three embarrassing flip-flops by USA Boxing, both welterweights were
disqualified.

As for Estrada, he started on the Mount Pleasant High basketball team
as a freshman before he made his career choice.

"I'm a point guard with a good handle," he said. "But at 255 pounds
everybody thinks I should play center. That's why I got this tattoo,
Big Six, on my neck. I'm only 6-0, but I'm wide."

There's a lot to like about this team, but as of today, there's no
reason for America to watch. The good news is the boxing finals don't
end until the last day of the Olympics and the super heavyweight gold
medal bout will be one of Athens' closing moments. There's a chance
for Estrada and the two Andres to make everlasting impressions in
Everlast.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Estrada said. "Money is a big
incentive for me, besides the gold medal and fighting for my country.
I have a 3-year-old son, Lennox, and I have to take care of him. Ever
since he was born, I've been on a winning streak. Everything I do is
for him. He's the reason why I want to get that gold medal.

"But we need silver and bronze, too. We need medals, period."