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Friday, August 27, 2004
Dirrell grabs bronze; Ward aims for gold

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The crowd booed Andre Ward when he walked into the arena, and cheered when he slipped on the canvas. Through the din, he heard a small group of friends and family chant "USA, USA" before even more boos drowned that out.

It was lonely enough being the last American boxer left in the Olympics. Now Ward had to find a way to deal with a hostile crowd in the stands and a tough Uzbek in the ring.

He managed to do it, but just barely, scoring two punches in the final seconds Friday night to eke out a 17-15 win and become the only U.S. fighter to advance to a gold-medal bout.

"You never want someone to boo you, but it's here and it's happening and you have to adjust," Ward said. "We're in another country so they're obviously not showing the American flag much respect."

Fighting just hours after teammate Andre Dirrell lost his semifinal bout, Ward and Utkirbek Haydarov engaged in an ugly fight filled with holding and inside punching that was in doubt all the way until the final bell.

After it sounded and Ward's hand was raised in victory, the crowd jamming the Peristeri boxing arena booed him even more.

Little did they know, Ward was turning the boos into something positive.

"I like it. It motivates me," he said. "I feel like they're not showing my country much respect and I take that personally. They're also not showing me any respect and I take that personally, too."

On a day when the powerful Cuban team advanced seven fighters to the finals and British teenage sensation Amir Khan came up big again, Ward took a step toward salvaging battered American hopes in an Olympic sport the United States once dominated.

He had to overcome some confusion in his corner over the scoring, and it wasn't pretty. But it was good enough to put him in the light heavyweight gold-medal final Sunday against Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus.

"I really believe deep down inside I'm going to get this gold medal, and that's not being boastful," Ward said.

He was tied 13-13 going into the final round, but U.S. coaches thought he was ahead by a comfortable margin and told him to get on his toes and move and stay away in the final two minutes.

Coaches at ringside aren't supposed to know the score, but most teams employ systems of signals to let them know who is ahead.

"I need to fire someone," U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah said.

The strategy actually ended up working to Ward's advantage as he landed a punch with 18 seconds left in the fight to go ahead and a second in the final five seconds to seal the win.

"We sort of rolled the dice there," Abdullah said. "Even though we were wrong about the score it paid off."

American fighters had been warned about hostile receptions in Athens, and most have been booed when they are announced. Coaches and sports psychologists who work with the team have tried to get them to use it to their advantage.

Ward, though, was booed loudly from the time he entered the arena until he left.

The American middleweight Dirrell fell to Kazakhstan's Gennadiy Golovkin 23-18 Friday in the semifinals of the Olympic boxing tournament.

Dirrell will head home to Flint, Mich., with a bronze medal after being unable to solve the world champion's excellent amateur style. Dirrell failed in his attempt to become the first American middleweight gold medalist since Michael Spinks in Montreal in 1976.

"I am disappointed in myself,'' Dirrell said. "I didn't push it in the first rounds like I could have. ... My jab just didn't come out like I wanted it to. I should have kept my jab out there.''

Dirrell, known as a slow starter, fell behind 10-7 after two rounds, though neither fighter landed any impressive punches. Dirrell picked up his pace in the final rounds, but Golovkin's counterpunching and mobility kept his lead intact.

U.S. assistant coach Anthony Bradley disagreed with the decision.

"I thought that we won it,'' Bradley said. "That's amateur boxing. ... We lost points before we stepped into the ring, if you ask me. Certain countries, they don't have to score. They throw punches, don't touch you and get the points.''

Dirrell wasn't so sure.

"I figured I lost, but I don't think they gave me all my points," Dirrell said. "He fought smart today, and I can't take anything away from him.''

Ward and Dirrell have already accomplished something their other seven teammates couldn't by making the semifinals, where even the losers get bronze medals. In doing so, they bailed out a U.S. team in danger of being shut out of Olympic boxing medals for the first time ever.