ATHENS, Greece -- Andre Dirrell already honored his
grandfather by getting a tattoo of his face on his back. Pretty
soon he'll be able to share an Olympic medal with him, too.
Dirrell assured the United States of at least two boxing medals
Wednesday by narrowly beating Cuba's Yordani Despaigne to advance
to the Olympic middleweight semifinals. The win came in front of
his grandfather and boxing coach, who celebrated his 64th birthday
in Athens last week.
"I'm aiming to please my grandfather," Dirrell said. "Besides
the money, the gold medal and everything, I want to make him happy.
This is what he said was his birthday present."
With his family members cheering him on from the stands, Dirrell
bloodied the Cuban's face in the third round and held on for a
12-11 win in a cautiously fought bout. The win guaranteed him at
least a bronze medal and, coupled with Andre Ward's win a day
earlier, gave the United States two real possibilities for gold
"I knew I could outbox him," Dirrell said. "I was extra
nervous because the Cubans are great boxers."
Dirrell wasn't too bad himself, coming from behind in the third
round with a flurry to take the lead and then listening to his
grandfather and other family members when they told him to get on
his toes and stay away to keep the lead with 25 seconds left.
"We knew it was going to be a chess match," U.S. coach Basheer
Abdullah said. "He was very patient and he played the chess match
and won it tonight."
Dirrell, whose grandfather began teaching him to box at the age
of 10 and then refused to let him quit the sport two years later,
advanced to a semifinal match Friday against Gennadiy Golovkin of
More importantly, he put a smile on the face of his grandfather,
Leon Lawson, a former bodyguard and sparring partner for Muhammad
Dirrell had a tattoo of his grandfather's face put on his right
shoulder last month to thank him for years of making him train for
his Olympic moment.
"I figured he was on my back this long that I would put a real
one on my back," Dirrell said with a smile.
Dirrell came into the Olympics as the most highly touted member
of a team that wasn't expected to fare too well in Athens. The
20-year-old from Flint, Mich., looked the part in moving easily
through his first two fights, but the matchup against the tough
Cuban was his real test.
Dirrell beat Despaigne easily in a test match in the same ring
in May, when the Cuban came at him aggressively and he was able to
land counterpunches at will. The Cubans adjusted their tactics this
time, trying to draw Dirrell forward, but the move had been
anticipated by the American coaches.
The result was a slow-moving bout, fought in little spurts and
basically decided by a combination of punches that scored three
quick points for Dirrell in the third round.
"At the end of the second round I told my coaches, `I'm not
getting all my points," Dirrell said. "They said, `Just stick to
your game plan.' I knew he was bothered by the bleeding in his eye
but I was just real cautious."
Despaigne refused Dirrell's offer of a hug after the decision
was announced, shaking hands with the American's coaches and
leaving. Dirrell then stood in the middle of the ring and blew
kisses to all four sides.
The loss was a rare one for the potent Cuban team, which
advanced eight boxers to the semifinals, more than any other
country. Six Russians also advanced, including middleweight world
silver medalist Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov.
The U.S. team, meanwhile, is down to its two Andres, who both
came up big to keep the team from being shut out for the first time
ever in the Olympics. Andre Ward started it on Tuesday by beating
two-time Russian world champion Evgeny Makarenko, and Dirrell
followed it with his win over the Cuban.
Both wins brought looks of relief to the faces of a beleaguered
U.S. coaching staff, which had watched some other members of the
team give less than stellar performances when it mattered most.
"I feel like a new person," Abdullah said. "I thank these two
young athletes for giving me this feeling."
The U.S. team didn't win a gold medal in Sydney for the first
time in 52 years, but Abdullah has high hopes for each of his
"If we take home a gold and a silver or something like that I
would be happy with that," he said.