Estrada, U.S. falling short in ring

ATHENS, Greece -- The universal scouting report on American super heavyweight boxer Jason Estrada praises his unusually quick hands and tactical clarity.

On Monday night, in the bout that separated Estrada from a chance to compete for a medal later this week, the boxer did not mirror the scouting report.

Estrada fell behind in the judges' electronic scoring 6-1 after the first round and never recovered. He was thoroughly controlled by Cuba's Michel Lopez Nunez, 21-7, an outcome that leaves the U.S. on the brink of its worst Olympic boxing performance since 1936.

Only two American boxers have a shot at the medal round: light heavyweight Andrew Ward, who has a Tuesday bout; and Andre Dirrell, who is set for a Wednesday middleweight quarterfinal.

If one of those two fails to advance, a promising young U.S. team will go down as potentially the least successful in the history of the modern Games. The 1936 team won a silver and a bronze.

"We're about to make history the opposite way we wanted to," said U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah. "We have a successful boxing program, but we are just not displaying it in the biggest sporting event in the world."

Estrada is known for having the hand speed of, say, a middleweight. Those hands, though, are attached to a 260-pound body, a roundish physique suggesting speed is automatically eliminated from the equation unless it involves consuming large quantities of food in short spans of time.

He absorbed large quantities of Lopez-delivered blows Monday in their quarterfinal.

"I fought the way I should," said Estrada, who implied he disagreed with the scoring but did not produce a specific example. "It's all part of boxing. You can't win every match."

In his hour of Olympic disappointment, Estrada also matter-of-factly confirmed that he will turn professional in the near future. The U.S. has not produced a super heavy gold-medal winner since Tyrell Biggs in the Soviet- and Cuba-boycotted Games of 1984.

Estrada was supposed to enter the ring with the presence of mind of an experienced international boxer -- a mind that tells him to score points with purposeful blows instead of trying to scramble his opponent's brains with a single shot. Nonetheless, until the summer of 2003, he was not on the radar of Olympic contenders.

Estrada maximized his improbable qualities in the 2003 Pan American Games, where he made history by becoming the United States' first super heavy Pan Am champion, defeating the same Nunez who owned him Monday. Here is what was more remarkable about the Pan Ams: No Cuban, ever, had lost that title in the half-century or more of the event.

The Cubans have been arriving at international competitions with Dream Teams in baseball and boxing for generations. These were teams and athletes that do not lose, no matter what economic hardships ravage their island nation. That blanket statement is especially true against U.S. opponents; it was beyond certain -- and then some -- in the heaviest boxing weight class.

American boxers have for years played Rocky to the Cuban's punching WMDs. The difference was they did not have the luxury of being in the movies where, eventually, Rocky prevailed against some pulverizing machine and won Adrian's heart. There was a time in the 1970s and into the early 1980s when Cuba's towering Teofilo Stevenson was the greatest fighter on earth. Problem was he refused to turn professional and forsake Fidel Castro, so he unleashed his greatness on a bunch of amateurs, literally. Stevenson won Olympic gold consecutively in 1972, 1976 and 1980, the latter in the U.S.-boycotted Moscow Games.

Last summer at the Pan Ams, lefthander Nunez arrived as The Intimidator, blessed with the cachet of a Cuban super heavyweight -- a product of the Stevenson and Roberto Balado (1992 Olympic champ) legacies and a favorite in every sense of the word whose only real opponent of consequence was expected to be Russia's Alexander Povetkin, the reigning world and European champion.

In the Pan Am final, Nunez came up against Estrada, a kid from Providence, R.I., who had more than 250 amateur victories. But what did it matter? Cubans don't lose in the Pan Am Games.

Estrada apparently is a lousy student of boxing history. He won the bout and the Pan Am title, 14-6. Maybe Nunez spotted the simple tattoo on Estrada's upper right arm that warns, "Lights Out" and assumed the American would make the error of trying an all-or-nothing approach.

For his part Estrada has refused to characterize the 2003 win as some monumental achievement. He told his hometown Providence Journal, "It was nothing spectacular."

With an additional 20 pounds on his already substantial frame compared to a year ago, maybe the Pan Am win was more of an upset and less spectacular than even Estrada realized. He didn't go there.

Instead, he protested: "[Nunez] was getting points for shots he wasn't landing. But this is just one bout in my life."

One bout. The one he needed most.

The stage is set for the Povetkin-Nunez gold medal showdown. Povetkin powered his way into the Olympic semifinals with Monday night's 31-15 decision over Mukhtarkhan Dildabekov.