US boxing program down but not out
By BARRY BEARAK
The New York Times | July 28,2012
United States’ 52-kg flyweight boxer Rau’shee Warren, right, warms up during a practice session in London.
LONDON — Olympic boxing begins today, and with it comes the question: Has the U.S. boxing program, once a pugilistic superpower, regained its muscle after a generation of decline — or will it again go home looking like just another palooka?
On the plus side, the United States emerged from international qualifying events with fighters in 12 of the 13 weight classes, more than any other country.
“We have a good tactical approach and we’re not afraid to match up against anybody,” Basheer Abdullah, the team’s head coach, said this week.
Women will box for the first time in Olympic history, and each American in the three female divisions — flyweight Marlen Esparza, lightweight Queen Underwood and middleweight Claressa Shields — has a reasonable shot at a medal. So do some of the men, including Rau’shee Warren, a flyweight fighting in his third Olympics.
But there are also reasons to doubt a return to the glory days. On Friday, the tournament’s seeding was announced and only Warren was granted a first-round bye based on his ranking in the field. Esparza and Shields received byes through the luck of the draw.
Many of the U.S. fighters are relatively inexperienced in international competition, in part because USA Boxing, the governing body of the Olympic effort, is chronically short of cash. Many nations had extended training camps for their boxers; the U.S. session was an abbreviated four weeks.
“Would I love to have had a three- or four-month training camp? Yes, I would,” USA Boxing’s executive director, Anthony Bartkowski, said. “But it costs money to put your kids in camp for 120 days, and it adds up very quickly.”
Money is merely one problem. Within a month of the London Games, the U.S. team still lacked a head coach.
When the job finally went to Abdullah, he arrived with a big drawback: since he had worked in a professional fight during the past six months, international rules prohibited him from being in the corner during Olympic bouts. Two of his main assistants are similarly barred from ringside.
“Rules are rules, and none of our coaches with Olympic experience will be able to work the corners, and that’s a shame; an experienced coach can make all the difference in a close bout,” said Abdullah, who was also head coach in 2004.
“But our first-time coaches are capable, and we’ll be fine.”
His technical adviser, Al Mitchell, coach of the 1996 Olympic team, said experience in the corner is “really important,” and to emphasize the point he repeated “really” nine more times.
Some of the U.S. boxers say much the same.
Esparza, 23, is a six-time national champion. When she was told this month that an unfamiliar coach would be in her corner, the news hit her like a haymaker, and for a few seconds she closed her eyes.
“This is just so bad,” she said, adding that the only corner men she is comfortable with are her personal coach, Rudy Silva, who has trained her since she was 11 years old, and Abdullah, whom she worked with at the world championships.
“You don’t ever want to come back to the corner and think that you are alone, and that the person there has no idea what they’re talking about,” she said.
In the past, U.S. boxers have sometimes gotten conflicting advice from their personal coaches — people who have trained them for years — and the Olympic coaches who oversee their preparation for the biggest fights of their lives.
Shields, a devastating puncher and a plain-spoken 17-year-old, said she was unhappy with advice she received in her corner when she lost her first fight during the women’s world championships in May. Her solution: “In London, my personal coach Jason Crutchfield is going to be in the crowd, and I’ve bought a blow horn and I’ll be listening for his voice, telling me what to do.”
Crutchfield, who taught Shields how to box in Flint, Mich., said: “I’ll be on the bullhorn. There’s certain things I’ll say to her and she’ll do them. We’ve got our own way of boxing, our own system. These others don’t know our system.”
From 1952 to 1988, U.S. boxers won 52 medals in the Olympics, 31 of them gold. In those days, the boxing ring was as much a center of attention for Americans as the track, the swimming pool and the basketball court. Among gold medalists were the amateur incarnations of Floyd Patterson, Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali), Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ray Leonard.
But in the past five Olympics the United States has managed only 14 medals, three of them gold, and the trend line is in a precarious nose-dive: four medals in 2000, two in 2004 and one — a bronze — in 2008.
Many reasons are mentioned for the decline: the rush of young U.S. fighters to turn pro, inconsistent coaching, a lack of preparation for international competition, more nations producing excellent fighters. Then there is the matter of USA Boxing. The organization has been flailing about for years.
“I inherited an organization in dire financial straits,” said Bartkowski, who took over as executive director in October 2010. “No one seemed to understand the basic principles of cash in and cash out.”
At the London Games, there are 10 weight divisions for men and 3 for women. The United States, along with Brazil, China, Britain and Russia, are the only countries to qualify women in every weight class. There are 12 boxers in each of the women’s divisions, 16 to 28 in the men’s.
Among the men are the superheavyweight Dominic Breazeale, a 6-foot-7 colossus who began boxing four years ago after playing quarterback at the University of Northern Colorado and failing to catch on during tryouts with three NFL teams.
There is also Jamel Herring, a Marine from the hamlet of Coram on Long Island. During his two tours in Iraq, he said, he often “felt like a sitting duck in the middle of nowhere.” Fighting for the Marines’ boxing team was a way to keep from being redeployed, allowing him to spend more time with his family, he said.
Warren, 25, is an extraordinarily quick and highly regarded fighter who nevertheless became a symbol for the team’s futility in 2008.
He entered the Beijing Games as one of the favorites, but during the final round of his first bout he listened to voices from the crowd telling him to stay away from his South Korean opponent. He assumed he was ahead on points and stopped throwing punches, dodging about the ring. He was actually behind. He lost, 9-8.