They would arrive in the Olympic city several days early, staking out the practice gyms and the arena. They hung out in hotel lobbies and on the perimeter of the athletes' village, chatting up families and waiting to contact boxing's most valuable prospects.
For several decades, the wisest guys in a sometimes shady profession turned the Olympics into their job fair. From fight titans Bob Arum and Don King to the least qualified hoodlum with a bankroll, everybody scrapped to sign the best fighters on the U.S. Olympic boxing teams to pro contracts, hopefully drying the ink moments after medals were hung around their necks.
``There were plenty of times it was a crazy scene,'' Arum said. ``It was the center for getting all the best talent. That's what the Olympics used to be.''
The scene won't look the same in Beijing. Fortune and fame are no longer guaranteed to America's best amateur boxers, even the dwindling few who win medals, and signing a U.S. star doesn't catapult a manager or promoter into a seat with the sport's power brokers.
Sure, young hustlers and talent scouts still head to the Olympics for their chance in a lesser lottery. But Arum, King and their counterparts prefer to watch from home, waiting until after the games to see if there's something worth promoting. And even when they find it, they won't spend wildly on a mere Olympian.
``The days of going out there, those are gone,'' said Dan Goossen, the veteran promoter and manager who has signed David Reid and Andre Ward, the last two Americans to win boxing gold medals. ``I just don't want to fight to go to those Olympics, where everyone is trying to nudge everyone else out of the way. You spend two weeks introducing yourself. It was terrible. I couldn't stand it.''
The spotlight on Olympic boxing has been shrinking for decades. It's been 48 years since Cassius Clay left Rome with a gold medal, and 16 years have passed since Oscar De La Hoya became the last U.S. Olympic star to shoot straight to the top and stay there. Boxing in Beijing will get almost no significant television time back home, and Arum was hard-pressed to name even one member of the team.
But a good portion of boxing history has been made in the shadow of the medal podium.
Famed promoter and manager Lou Duva propelled himself into the big-time in Los Angeles in 1984 when he signed five members of the U.S. team that steamrolled the world: Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Evander Holyfield and Tyrell Biggs. Two alternates on that team also signed with Goossen and quickly won titles: Michael Nunn and a squeaky-voiced kid from Brooklyn named Mike Tyson.
Former music executive Shelly Finkel jump-started his career as a manager for several of those Los Angeles fighters. Finkel wasn't as successful in 1992, when he paid for De La Hoya's mother's chemotherapy and, eventually, her funeral in hopes of signing the Golden Boy after the Barcelona Games. De La Hoya went with Arum, though he eventually repaid Finkel's largesse.
Longtime HBO executive Lou DiBella left the network and quickly became a big-time promoter and adviser by signing six members of the American team that left Sydney with four medals, albeit no golds. DiBella landed both Jermain Taylor, the former middleweight champion who's still with DiBella today, and Ricardo Williams, the electrifying silver medalist who got a $1.4 million signing bonus for an awful pro career that was halted in 2005 by a three-year prison sentence on a drug conspiracy conviction.
Although those games were just eight years ago, the U.S. team's imprimatur still meant enough to launch DiBella's promotional company into the spotlight - even after Arum outfoxed DiBella for Puerto Rican Olympian Miguel Cotto.
``The key is knowing which guys you want even before the Olympics,'' Arum said. ``That used to be where you sign them, but you already had to have an idea.''
Most agree that football and health hazards have leached away much of the U.S. boxing talent pool, notwithstanding that fairly promising team in China. More damage has been done by the amateur sport's evolution into what some describe as fencing with gloves, requiring skills that don't always translate into pro success.
Arum saw that evolution firsthand in 2000 when his favorite U.S. amateur prospect, heavy-handed dynamo Kelly Pavlik, was beaten out by the speedy, smart Taylor for an Olympic spot. Both became pro champions, but Pavlik has beaten Taylor twice.
``The scoring has become so arcane in the amateurs that for a fighter to excel, he has to have skills that don't necessarily translate into becoming a good pro,'' Arum said. ``The idea that punches count the same, no matter the force, and then only punches that land on a certain part of the glove count, it turns guys really into different kinds of fighters from those that fight professionally.''
Goossen dealt with that problem when he signed Ward, who turned in a spectacular performance in Athens by peppering opponents with the reflexive, quick punches that count most in amateur fighting. Ward is 16-0 but hasn't had a title shot.
``Andre had a tremendous amateur style rather than a professional style, and it's one of the reasons it's taken him a bit longer to develop in the professional ranks,'' Goossen said. ``After three years, he has learned the professional style in the gym. The speed and quickness that he used so well in the amateurs have been an asset in the pros, but he also had to learn how to combine it with pro skills.''
Winning a gold medal also is tougher than ever for Americans, according to De La Hoya, Sugar Ray Leonard and other former Olympic champions. The nine-man U.S. team has three recent high-school graduates and no fighters over 24, yet those youngsters often must face much older amateurs from Russia, Cuba and several other nations who fight in multiple Olympics, either because they aren't allowed to go pro, or have no financial incentive.
This isn't news to most of the current U.S. fighters, who realize promoters won't be banging on their doors in the Olympic village.
``It's about the dollar, and just being an Olympian alone coming out, I'm not guaranteed to make a certain amount of money,'' said bantamweight Gary Russell Jr., perhaps the U.S. team's most telegenic fighter, with an endearingly cocky personality and flashy skills.
``It's not just being an Olympian that will make you a lot of money. You've got to be marketable, and I think a lot of people lack that on this team. I think there's a couple of people that can definitely be marketable, and others that I can't see. They've got to bring something to the table that fans like to see.''
All these pitfalls leave many fighters wondering whether they should even run the amateur gantlet before tackling a pro career, yet gold medals haven't lost their allure. Russell has dreamed of standing atop a medal podium since he was 4 years old, and welterweight Demetrius Andrade laughed at friends who advised him to go pro before Beijing.
``I never even let that into my head,'' said Andrade, the top-ranked amateur in his division for three years. ``I want that gold medal more than anything. If I don't get a pro career, it would probably be worth it if I had a gold medal.''
Andrade and flyweight Rau'shee Warren, the first two-time American Olympian boxer since 1976, are the two U.S. favorites for golds. The top professional promoters praise Andrade's tenacity and Warren's longevity, even while they wonder what lessons they'll have to undo for their new prospects.
``I suppose if you can win a gold medal, if you can medal, going through all the nonsense of the Olympics has a great value,'' Arum said. ``Should it have a value? I don't think so.''