- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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LONDON -- The Olympic boxing venue, almost every session, is packed. Many come to see British middleweight Anthony Ogogo, while others come to discern whether Kazakhstan's 6-foot-9 super heavyweight, Ivan Dychko, has game equal to his size. Increasingly the draw is Katie Taylor, the Irish middleweight who treats opponents' heads like a speed bag.
What they're not coming to the boxing venue to see is American men, because there are none. OK, going into Tuesday night one U.S. male fighter remained, welterweight Errol Spence, who needed his loss overturned in the previous round to even get this far (he ended up losing to Russia's Andrey Zamkovoy in the quarterfinals, anyway). But what's been a slow death over the past 20 years for U.S. Olympic boxing could result in expiration here in London. The U.S. has had a medal winner in every Olympics going back to the inaugural boxing competition in 1904 until now.
The U.s boxing program that produced 108 medalists, 48 of them gold, is now a dysfunctional embarrassment. The program that once gave the world, among others, Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ray Leonard, Leon and Michael Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, Riddick Bowe and Floyd Mayweather has now produced one gold medal in the past three Olympic competitions and one medal at the most recent world championship.
That program has given its sport a changing cast of coaches and officials, and worse yet wasn't smart enough to make better use of consultant Freddie Roach, only the best trainer in the world, who wanted to be a volunteer consultant yet is working during the Olympics back in New York. Roach, an alternate on the 1976 U.S. team that might be the greatest squad in Olympic history besides the 1992 Dream Team, said in a brief phone conversation Tuesday, "I volunteered to be a consultant because I wanted to help those kids be the best they could be in the Olympics and I know that's what they wanted to be. They were up to it. They wanted it."
Instead, in what amounts to the same old story going back to 1984, USA Boxing officials gave a stiff-arm to proven trainers like Roach and locked out the boxers' individual trainers to make the Olympians work with only the Olympic coach, Basheer Abdullah. USA Boxing folk accuse pros like Roach of using this as a recruiting opportunity to sign the kids to pro contracts. The professional trainers point to the dwindling number of prospects and say, "Recruit who? For what?" In the case of this team, people close to the situation said that Roach suggested they all work together for the benefit of the fighters, but USA Boxing rejected that.
Yes, Abdullah has been a coach with this team as an assistant or head coach in 2000, 2004 and 2008, but he wasn't named head coach of this team until June 30. Worse yet, he can't even be in the fighters' corner during the fights. Right, the head man cannot be in the corner during bouts. The given reason is that he had worked with a pro before being named head coach of the U.S. team, a no-no in Olympic boxing. Others say Abdullah simply wasn't credentialed early enough. Either way, it's unbelievably embarrassing to have your coach calling his fighters an hour before their bouts to have one last review of strategy. Can you see Coach K calling LeBron and Kobe on their cells an hour before they do battle with Spain to go over some game plans?
Charles Leverette, Anthony Chase and Gloria Peek, the assistant coaches, alternate corner duties. And this is just part of the mess. One person close to the professional trainers said, "The whole USA Boxing needs fumigation."
Word is Roach suggested USA Boxing bring international judges and international boxers to the training center in Colorado Springs to get the Americans accustomed to the styles and scoring system that have given U.S. amateurs so much trouble in recent Olympics. Roach was told -- and I'm serious about this -- USA Boxing didn't want the judges "spying" on the program. Roach and Jose Ramirez, the prominent lightweight American, were caught one night tip-toeing back into the practice facility after the official USA Boxing training day was over. Both were chastised, as if they had been naughty boys for seeking additional work. Likewise, the fighters were told that when they finished three rounds of sparring on "sparring days," training for the day was over, even if they wanted to work more with other coaches.
Roach, a person close to the situation said, wanted to work with the mitts, the time he gets to know who does what well and not so well, but USA Boxing said, essentially, there wasn't enough time for Roach and his mitts. Just as in 1984 in Los Angeles, when several boxers left the USA Boxing coach to work on their own at Muhammad Ali's gym in Santa Monica, several members of this team were still working with their individual coaches in the days leading up to the trip to London. The British boxers, if you want an example of another approach, trained together for something close to three months.
You want reasons as to how the U.S. could lose all nine fighters from Olympic competition in no time? There it is.
Some of this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the disarray of USA Boxing and everything to do with a sport that has made one stupid decision after another for 25 years. Boxing took itself out of the everyday conversation that long ago, when it went off network television, away from an entire generation that consumed it only in small doses on pay-per-view or limited cable. Whether related or not, the musty old urban gyms that were the breeding grounds for great fighters closed their doors. Boxing became controlled, gradually then exclusively, by agenda-driven rival promoters who constantly stand in the way of the fights people really want to see.
And while boxing's powers were doing that, mixed martial arts and UFC and all its related forms were grabbing hold of the people who still have a thirst for blood sport. Boxing, quite sadly for those of us who love it, ceased to matter to mainstream America. It's been said and written a thousand times lately but bears repeating: Boxing has become a boutique sport, and a tiny little boutique at that, in the U.S. Oh, it matters to the Europeans and Asians and Africans who fill the boxing venue here, but is so irrelevant to the American sports scene. When is the last time, when discussing the Summer Olympics, that boxing was mentioned in the same sentence with swimming, men's basketball, women's gymnastics or track and field? It used to be an American Olympic mainstay but now doesn't even qualify as an afterthought. (The only reason Olympic boxing has been on America's back burner at all is that two women -- flyweight Marlen Esparza from Pasadena, Texas, and Claressa Shields from Flint, Mich. -- have acquitted themselves very well so far.)
So, fans look elsewhere for their violence and potential boxers look elsewhere for their athletic fix, whether it's MMA or football or basketball or soccer. If the Olympic program isn't yielding any prospects and the urban gyms are shutting their doors, who's going to be good enough professionally to make boxing worth watching anyway? The U.S., which was home to the heavyweight champion nearly without interruption between 1934 and 1992, now hasn't had a heavyweight champ since Shannon Briggs in 2007. Russia has had four since Briggs, so has Uzbekistan, the Ukraine and Nigeria. The only boxing topic of consequence in the U.S. these days is why Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. can't give people the only boxing match with true world appeal.
In the meantime, professional trainers in America are having to contend with a shrinking talent pool and amateurs who have to be almost completely reconstructed and reprogrammed to get rid of their "protect the lead" mentality that comes from catering to the scoring system and instead become volume punchers.
This could have mattered to some greater degree had the U.S. men made a better showing, but so many forces were against them. The highlight for American boxing, it turns out, came in the opening ceremony on a night when all things British were celebrated, when Muhammad Ali, an Olympic champion boxer in 1960, was brought out as an example perhaps of the greatest, most adored living Olympian. Not a swimmer, or sprinter, but a boxer. You wonder how long it will be before the sport has another American take that kind of bow.
Boxing used to matter to people in the United States, but Team USA's poor showing at the Olympics offers the latest example of how far the sport has fallen.