For American boxers, talk is most often cheap
BEIJING (AP) The big American heavyweight was talking much like a young Cassius Clay, his mouth moving as fast as his hands. That's a trait that could make Deontay Wilder a good bit of money some day, assuming his talent can catch up with his words.
The littlest guy on the U.S. boxing team wasn't talking nearly as much, but who could blame him after opening his mouth once too often before the Olympics?
"One of the biggest liars I've ever met," coach Dan Campbell snarled before he and 106-pounder Luis Yanez made nice and made their way together to Beijing.
All hasn't been forgotten between coach and fighter, who took to the ring together Wednesday night in pursuit of a common goal, if not quite in agreement about how to go about it. But a temporary truce seemed to hold as Yanez went about his business of trying to land enough punches to the head of Spain's Jose Kelvin de la Nieve to advance past his first Olympic bout.
Yanez did just that, at least according to the buttons pushed by the five ringside judges who are part of a scoring system that has turned amateur boxing into little more than fencing with gloves.
And with a win earlier in the day by the loquacious Wilder, all suddenly seemed right with a beleaguered U.S. team that has seen so much go wrong in a sport that Americans once seemed to own.
"We're all going to get through this together," Yanez said. "Your hardest opponent is yourself."
That's surely the case with this dysfunctional team, which until getting the two badly needed wins appeared on its way to yet another miserable Olympics. Just five Americans remain after five days of competition, a figure even worse than it looks because no U.S. fighters have yet to box the powerful Cubans or Russians.
Even worse, look at the way they've been dropping out.
One was found unconscious in his room at the athlete's village, so dehydrated from trying to make weight that there was no way he could fight.
Another mysteriously quit fighting in the last minute of his bout, dancing around and looking at his friends in the stands while not even trying to make up a one-punch deficit.
And then there is Yanez, who nearly blew his chance to be here in the first place. He was kicked off the team for refusing to attend training camp and feuding with Campbell before U.S. boxing officials desperate for medals decided at the last minute to allow him to come to Beijing.
"I think Luis is a good person," said Campbell, who evidently wasn't thinking that a few weeks ago. "It wasn't Luis. It was the people around him."
Personnel issues aren't anything new for a U.S. boxing program which once produced fighters like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard and Evander Holyfield. Americans have won only three of the 47 gold medals in the last four Olympics, and there is often friction between team coaches and fighters who want to listen to the trainers they grew up with.
A bigger reason for the decline, though, has to do with those judges and the little blue and red buttons they're taught to push when they see a fighter land a punch. That's taught, because what is put into practice often seems to have little to do with what goes on in the ring.
Ironically enough, the scoring system was developed in the wake of the decision given a South Korean over Roy Jones Jr. in 1988 that was so horrendous it even seemed to embarrass the home country.
Faced with such an uproar that boxing was threatened with expulsion from the games, international amateur officials were forced to do something to protect both their cozy positions and the sport. They decided on a system that awards points to a boxer if three of five judges push the same button within one second of each other.
The system works in theory, sort of. But in practice, judges score only punches they can see to the head, while ignoring any to the body, and power punches count no more than a gentle tap on the nose.
The would-be pros on the American teams usually fail to adapt, and their final Olympic moments are usually spent complaining that the judges are unfair.
Wilder almost fell into that trap in his first Olympic fight, and was tied after three rounds with his Algerian opponent. But he poured it on in the final round, landing some big left hooks that got the crowd roaring at the Workers' Gymnasium, and then poured it on afterward for the media in a nonstop monologue.
"I love a crowd, man," Wilder said. "They keep me going. I'm a performer. I like to give the crowd a performance. They paid their good money to be here, so when you come to support the Olympics, they show us love."
Love wasn't in the air everywhere, though it seldom is in Olympic boxing where styles and countries collide. And while Yanez and Campbell weren't quite showing love, they did offer each other grudging respect.
On this day that was about as good as you could ask for a U.S. boxing team lurching its way from one crisis to the next.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org