Who killed USA Boxing: How amateur boxing became a joke

Trainer Freddie Roach: "I volunteered to be a consultant because I wanted to help these kids be the best they could be in the Olympics."ASSOCIATED PRESS
Trainer Freddie Roach: "I volunteered to be a consultant because I wanted to help these kids be the best they could be in the Olympics."ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: August 19, 2012

The English language is a marvelous tool for describing what is and what isn't, what could be and what might never be again. And "inchoate" - meaning not yet completed or fully developed; not organized, lacking order - is perhaps the most apt word to describe the ongoing demise of amateur boxing in the United States, a two-decade-plus process that might not yet have been seen through to completion, but appears to be inexorably heading in that direction.

Although die-hard optimists are unwilling to pull the plug just yet, even they can't dispute that the sanctioning bodies that have mismanaged the situation to crisis proportions - USA Boxing and the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) - are unlikely candidates to institute corrective measures.

The 2012 London Olympics were the last in which the controversial and generally despised computerized scoring system will have been used; the 2016 Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro will mark a return to paper score sheets and judges' visceral reactions to what they're observing in the ring.

But while an individual's eyesight and common-sense figures to be an improvement over the button-pushing era, it's important to remember that it was human fallibility - the egregious shafting of American Roy Jones Jr. in the 156-pound gold medal match of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in favor host-nation favorite Park Si-Hun - that prompted the computer experiment in the first place.

Make no mistake, though. Even though paper scoring figures to be a plus for American boxers, it is not a miracle cure. It won't produce a new bumper crop of Sugar Ray Leonards, Muhammad Alis, Joe Fraziers and George Foremans. That train has left the station.

The dismal record-setting performance in London by U.S. boxers - not a single medal won for the first time ever, with nine defeats in the last 10 bouts involving Americans - pretty much signals that rock bottom has been reached.

The USA won only four bouts overall, which is two fewer than the 2008 team that competed in Beijing,which was then a record low. Even then, however, U.S. heavyweight Deontay Wilder brought home a consolation-prize bronze.

"I think the foundation is kind of crumbling a little bit, but we're going to rebuild it," assistant U.S. coach Charles Leverette offered, hopefully, after the U.S. - whose 108 total medals in boxing since the modern Olympics were introduced in 1896 are the most of any nation - tumbled into the abyss. "The support is there, but we have to figure out the best way to help these athletes get back on top."

And yet, all manner of ploys have already been tried and discarded in an attempt to get American boxers back on top, several of which might have been successful had someone in authority had the stones to stay the course.

In advance of the London Olympics, USA Boxing appointed Freddie Roach - a five-time winner of the Eddie Futch Trainer of the Year Award - as a consultant. But the designation turned out to be mostly ceremonial; Roach didn't accompany the team to London and his input was limited; Olympic coach Basheer Abdullah apparently felt threatened by Roach's involvement. "I volunteered to be a consultant because I wanted to help these kids be the best they could be in the Olympics," Roach said. "I know that's what they wanted to be."

Roach instead got the brush-off and Basheer, an assistant coach or technical adviser for U.S. Olympic teams in 2000, '04 and '08, got his chance to run the show. And while Basheer should be credited for his dedication to the USA Boxing program, the bottom line on his watch has been dismal. Including this year's crash-and-burn, U.S. Olympic teams with which Basheer was affiliated have produced one gold medal (Andre Ward in 2004), two silvers (Rocky Juarez and Ricardo Williams Jr. in 2000) and three bronzes (Clarence Vinson and Jermain Taylor in 2000, and Wilder).

Roach, his good intentions aside, might have been well-advised to remember the frustration of another renowned trainer, Emanuel Steward. In the winter of 2002, Steward was named national director of coaching for USA Boxing by the organization's then-president, Robert Voy, who signaled the appointment as a major step toward renewed domination of the Olympics by American fighters.

"With the name of Emanuel Steward as national director of coaching, USA Boxing has taken a major step in bringing its athletes to a new level of success in international Olympic-style boxing," Voy said at the time.

By 2003, a disillusioned Steward resigned because his recommendations for revamping USA Boxing were routinely rejected or ignored by higher-ups. "Amateur boxing here and around the world is in total disarray," Steward complained. "I gave up on it. I remember when [1984 Olympic gold-medalist] Mark Breland showed up at the Nationals in 2004 in Colorado Springs and they didn't want to let him in. Nobody apparently knew who he was, and this is a guy they have a statue of in the hallway of USA Boxing."

Follow the trail backward from Roach to Steward to Lou Duva, another Hall of Famer who butted heads with USA Boxing's hierarchy and came away with little more than a migraine.

At the 1996 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in Oakland, Calif., Duva, who had been working with Philadelphia native and eventual bronze-medalist Zahir Raheem, was told in so many words that he needed to cease "interfering" with the guidelines USA Boxing had in place.

"The amateur boxing establishment's position is that it doesn't want professional-boxing interests to 'contaminate' their sport," Duva said after being relegated to the sideline. That's ridiculous. They act like we're ruining amateur boxing or something. You can't tell me that guys like Emanuel Steward, Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee and myself don't have something to offer, or shouldn't train these kids. All I want to do is help these young fighters maximize their abilities and represent the USA well. What are [officials] so afraid of?"

Jerry Dusenberry, the USA Boxing president at the time, confessed to the belief that amateur boxers would be best served if they remained out of the spoiling clutches of pro trainers. "The style and philosophy of amateur boxing is quite different to that of professional boxing," Dusenberry countered. "Apart from those rather significant differences, the thing that really worries me is the possibility of a repeat of 1992 in Barcelona. Too many of our boxers came back to the corner and were looking for their pro coaches instead of paying attention to the Olympic coach. That was a distraction, and I think it was reflected in the medal count . . . Quite frankly, professional boxing in many circles has an ugly image. We have tried to disassociate ourselves from professional boxing."

That Dusenberry should have lectured the Duvas and Dundees about their alleged representation of pro boxing's "ugly image" is far worse than the pot calling the kettle black. Dusenberry is the Jerry Sandusky of amateur boxing. Elected to USA Boxing's top post in September 1992, was released from an Oregon prison in the spring of 2011 after pleading guilty in July 2002 to molesting four boys.

But USA Boxing has hardly cornered the market on corrupt, immoral or incompetent administration. The former president of AIBA, Dr. Anwar Chowdhry of Pakistan, ran the body for 25 years as if it were his personal fiefdom. When his regime was finally exposed for what it was, Chowdhry was voted out in 2006 and replaced by Dr. C.K. Wu, who ran on a platform of clean governance and transparency.

Yet AIBA, with Wu now in his second term, was again the focal point of withering scrutiny in September 2011, when BBC Newsnight, citing "credible sources," reported that boxing gold medals at the London Olympics could be had by countries willing to make $10 million under-the-table payments to AIBA.

For whatever reason, that potential scandal scarcely was mentioned once competition began. Or maybe it just seemed that way; the international media paid little attention to boxing in London, and NBC's coverage was such that those bouts that were televised were shunted to secondary channels in less-than-desirable time slots.

Until more evidence is gathered, fight fans can only hope that paper scoring in Rio is a step in the right direction. The computer has been an abomination, with combinations and body-punching less likely to be rewarded than was the case prior to the 1992 games. Under that format, Olympic boxing had become, well, a paint-by-numbers exercise alien to American proclivities.

Sugar Ray Leonard, the breakout star of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, has said there is a good chance he wouldn't have medaled had computerized scoring been in effect then. "I don't know if I could make the Olympic team, much less win a gold medal, with the computer," Leonard said in 2000. "My thing was throwing combinations. Bap, bap, bap, bap, bap! The judges with the little keypads can't keep up. I could land five or six punches and be lucky to be credited with one point."

Maybe because he remembers the glory days, one well-heeled backer of American amateur boxing, Michael King, is throwing wads of money at the problem in the hope that a return to the glory days can be made in short order. King, who made his fortune as CEO of King World Productions, founded All-American Heavyweights in 2008. Its goal: Produce Olympic medalists who, presumably, would use that platform to go on to professional superstardom.

Toward that end, King trotted out an old and mostly discredited theory - that potentially great heavyweights could be found among the cuts at NFL and NBA training camps. One of his first recruits was a former quarterback at the University of Northern Colorado, 6-6, 260-pound Dominic Breazeale, who made the 2012 U.S. Olympic squad as its super heavyweight representative. "A great athlete in any sport can pick up any sport faster than most people," King reasoned. "It really all stems from a lack of talent and lack of apprenticeship for trainers. The pipeline is dead . . . It's not an NCAA sport, so it's totally dependent on the Olympic program, and that NGB [USA Boxing is its national governing board] does not have a lot of resources.

"Instead of getting some thug off the street, why not tap into the greatest talent pool in the United States? You're talking about elite athletes who are in great shape, who are really big, who are unbelievably coordinated, and they are articulate college graduates."

Breazeale lost his first-round bout in London, 19-8, to Russia's Magomed Omarov. If nothing else, Breazeale demonstrated that a "Cliff's Notes" approach to boxing isn't the same as a zealot's dedication in the gym from childhood to young adulthood.

Therein lies the real problem. USA Boxing can't seem to get its act together, but it is the growing discontent of those who still harbor dreams of mounting the medal stand that have made American Olympic boxing nearly irrelevant.

Perhaps the best hope for an Olympic boxing medal for the United States this year was Philadelphia's 165-pounder Jesse Hart. But Hart was denied a spot on the team when he lost a double tiebreaker to Terrell Gausha at the 2012 U.S. National Championships. Hart, the son of 1970s middleweight contender Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, had begun boxing in 1996 after being inspired by the gold medal-winning performance of another Philly fighter, David Reid, at the Atlanta Games. "I gave amateur boxing the best years of my life, but amateur boxing cut the heart out of me," Hart, now 23, said of his experience in the amateur ranks. "They made me lose all my passion for the sport."

Hart is now 2-0 as a pro, both his victories by way of knockout, and his passion for boxing apparently has been restored. But how many kids would he have inspired to put on the gloves and chase their own dream had he gone to the Olympics and won gold, as did his hero, Reid?

So "inchoate" is the word, the only way to describe the state of amateur boxing in 2012. And that is a state of affairs that the junking of computer scoring in and of itself might not be able to remedy.


Contact Bernard Fernandez at fernanb47@gmail.com

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