Thursday, August 9, 2012
U.S. boxing Dream Team? Why not?
By Dan Rafael ESPN.com
If you have followed the Olympic boxing tournament in London the past two weeks, you know that this has been the worst American team in history.
Sure, there have been scoring controversies and brutal refereeing, but most other countries are in the same boat.
The bottom line? Zero medals for the American men. That is a first. Not even a stinkin' bronze. (Although two of three U.S. women, in the first year of women's boxing as an Olympic sport, are bringing home medals.)
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USA Boxing, the organization that oversees amateur boxing in the United States, is an unmitigated disaster, with more problems than a third-world country. It's a complete mess that needs a massive overhaul from top to bottom. The entire culture needs a scrubbing. It simply doesn't put America's hardworking young men in the best position to bring home medals.
With the men having been shut out, the program has reached its nadir. Remember, Americans once dominated Olympic boxing (to the tune of 108 total medals, including 48 gold, coming into these Games). The American amateur program has produced legends of the game: Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr., Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and many more.
And now it has come to this: In 2012, Mongolia, with a population of about 2.8 million, will take home two men's boxing medals. The United States, with a population of about 312 million, will take home none.
I was talking to promoter Dan Goossen the other day, and we were lamenting the woeful performance of Team USA. Goossen has an affinity for Olympians. He has promoted several in his day, most notably 1996 gold medalist David Reid, who went on to win a junior middleweight world title as a pro, and current super middleweight champion Andre Ward, the last American gold winner in 2004.
Goossen said there was only one way to restore America to a medal-winning machine.
"We gotta do what they did in basketball," Goossen said. "We gotta bring in the pros."
That got me thinking: How interesting would it be if the United States, or any country, for that matter, was able to send its professional fighters to the Olympics? It probably would pump a lot more interest into the tournament than there is now. It would be exciting.
Would Floyd Mayweather Jr. jump at the chance to return to the Olympics to earn the only thing his money can't buy, a gold medal? You bet he would.
Currently, the lords of amateur boxing don't allow pros, even though it's common practice in other sports. That's why we see the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant closing in on a basketball gold medal, and basketball pros from all over the world play for their countries. It's also why superstar pros Serena Williams and Roger Federer play in the tennis tournament.
If pro fighters were cleared to compete, I believe that many would accept the opportunity to represent their countries without being paid. Boxing is one of the most nationalist sports there is. Flags are always flying in the stands at big fights.
Just imagine Team Ukraine being led by super heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko, the 1996 gold medalist gunning for another. And what about Manny Pacquiao, captain of Team Philippines, seeking the 141-pound light welterweight gold? He has eight pro world titles but no Olympic gold medal.
I have visions of Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez putting aside their rivalry for a few weeks to support each other on Team Mexico, with Chavez going for gold at 165 pounds and Alvarez doing the same at 152.
With pros, the level of interest in Olympic boxing would be off the charts. I took it a step further and came up with my own "Dream Team" to represent the United States. Because the weight limits for amateur weight classes are slightly different from the pros and there are fewer divisions, I took the liberty of moving some guys slightly up or down in weight, but all are weights at which these fighters could legitimately fight.
With that, here's my American Dream Team:
Light flyweight (108 pounds)
Unfortunately, Team USA wouldn't have a full squad. There isn't a single notable American professional who fights in either the 105-pound strawweight division or 108-pound junior flyweight division. The U.S. would kick some butt in the other weight classes, though.
Flyweight (114), Brian Viloria
Viloria was a 2000 U.S. Olympian and a major medal hope, but he got a very tough draw in Sydney. He won his first bout but lost a close fight to eventual gold medalist Brahim Asloum of France in the second round. All these years later, Viloria is still going strong as a pro flyweight titleholder. In fact, of all the fighters on the 2000 U.S. team, Viloria is the last man standing. He probably would love a second chance to earn the medal he didn't get in 2000, and you know what? He'd probably do very, very well.
Bantamweight (123), Nonito Donaire
Some folks might say, "What's he doing on the team, he's from the Philippines?" Yes, Donaire -- one of pro boxing's pound-for-pound stars and a reigning unified junior featherweight titlist (122 pounds) -- was born in the Philippines and embraces his heritage. But he also has lived in the United States since he was a child and, more importantly, came up through the American amateur system to the tune of winning multiple national titles. He wore the red, white and blue for those tournaments and could do it again to go for gold. With his speed and power, Donaire would be in the thick of the medal hunt for sure.
Lightweight (132), Adrien Broner
Broner won a 130-pound pro world title, was recently stripped for not making weight and will now fight at 135. He would be fine at 132. He turned pro at age 18, so although he had hundreds of amateur fights, Broner didn't fight in the major international tournaments. But he sure has the talent and style to fight any competition, which is what you need in amateur boxing because you never know what kind of opponent will be in the ring from fight to fight. Broner has a soft spot for his country, too, which is why he went on a USO tour of the Middle East with other Golden Boy fighters in 2011. With a chance to represent his country (and also to grow his brand), how could Broner, still just 23 -- younger than many fighters in London -- turn down that opportunity? Mark him down as a medal favorite.
Light welterweight (141), Timothy Bradley Jr.
Bradley owns a 147-pound world title after his controversial win against Manny Pacquiao in June, but he's included here for his exploits at 140, where he was a unified world champion and one of the best in the business. Bradley had a good amateur career and is one of America's best pros, so it was a no-brainer to send him back to 141 pounds to help America's cause. The weight class is a tough one on the international scene. Bradley would do well. Not sure about gold, but mark him down for a medal.
Welterweight (152), Floyd Mayweather Jr.
"Money" would do this for free. If the wealthy NBA stars can represent America, Mayweather would, too. In fact, Mayweather was a 1996 Olympic bronze medalist who was robbed in his medal-round loss. When the scores were announced, everyone thought he had won -- including the referee, who began to raise Mayweather's hand in victory until he heard the other guy's name announced as the winner. Mayweather has often spoken of his American pride, and failing to earn gold was a big disappointment to him. I asked him once years ago about winning a bronze medal. He looked me dead in the eye and said, "You don't win a bronze medal; you receive a bronze medal because you lost the fight." The pound-for-pound king -- who holds pro world titles at 147 and 154, so weight is no issue -- would gladly lead Team USA back into battle for the opportunity to get something that all his money can't buy: a gold medal. Clear a spot on top of the podium, because with Pacquiao fighting in my fantasy Olympics at his more natural 141 pounds (meaning we would continue to miss out on a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight), Mayweather would surely win gold.
Middleweight (165), Andre Ward
Ward, the last American boxing gold medalist, took the 2004 tournament. He knows how the Olympic system works, and he's a winner. Ward is on a 15-year winning streak, with his last loss coming at age 12 in an amateur fight. Besides Mayweather, he is America's best fighter and must be on the Dream Team. Keep this in mind: When Ward won gold in Athens, he did so in the 178-pound light heavyweight division. He was facing much bigger guys. When he fought in the gold medal match, he weighed only 172 pounds. As a pro, he has dominated at 168 but has said that he would be willing to meet middleweight champion Sergio Martinez at around a 165-pound catchweight if that's what it takes to make the fight. For a chance to win another gold medal, Ward would drop the three pounds. And he'd dominate again.
Light heavyweight (178), Chad Dawson
Dawson, the 175-pound pro world champion, is dropping down to 168 to challenge Ward for his title on Sept. 8, but for the chance of a lifetime in the Olympics, he would gladly fight guys a few pounds heavier. Dawson wasn't a decorated amateur like some of my other Dream Teamers, but he has a style that's conducive to the Olympic scoring system because he's tall and can pick his shots, use a jab and touch his opponents enough to score points. For three rounds -- the scheduled length of Olympic bouts -- Dawson can box with anyone on the planet. He'd be a medal lock.
Heavyweight (201), Steve Cunningham
In the Olympics, the 201-pound category is called heavyweight, but it's essentially equal to the pro cruiserweight 200-pound division. Cunningham, who has held cruiserweight titles, is planning to move up to the pro heavyweight division in his next fight. But he could put it on hold to fight for gold. We also know he has a streak of patriotism because he served in the United States Navy, hence his nickname of "USS." Being honest here, he would be in a tough spot. The Eastern Europeans at 201 and at super heavy are extremely tough and often very technical. The American big men are the weak link on this Dream Team. Cunningham has the ability, but he'd have a tough road to a medal.
Super heavyweight (201-plus), Cristobal Arreola
With the big guys, one punch can turn things around, even in the Olympic system (where knockouts are few and far between), so Arreola always has a chance. But the American heavyweight contenders aren't what they once were, and Arreola is about the best the U.S. has at the moment. He can bang, and even though his stamina isn't the greatest, in a three-round Olympic fight he could go all-out and try to get by on intense pressure. Forget about gold if Klitschko is in the tournament. Silver or bronze? Maybe.