Russians just can't win at Olympic boxing tourney

Aug. 17, 2008, 11:50 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Maybe the Russian Devolution started with that taunting, come-and-get-it gesture from Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko to world champion Albert Selimov last week.

Just who did Lomachenko think he was, arrogantly crouching in that corner of the Workers' Gymnasium ring? Nobody acts that way when they're up against the Russian Olympic boxing team, widely assumed to be the scariest bunch in the sport.

But Lomachenko wasn't afraid of Russia's world champion featherweight or any of its 11 pedigreed fighters in Beijing. He was determined to get the upset - and ever since Lomachenko did it last Monday, one fighter after another has stood up to a Russian powerhouse that's now collectively staggering to its corner.

With light welterweight Gennady Kovalev's loss to Cuba's Roniel Iglesias on Sunday night, eight Russians have been knocked out of the tournament, an astonishing number for a boxing-rich nation that trails only the once-powerful U.S. in the sport's total Olympic medal tally.

The Russians will win at least one medal after heavyweight Rakhim Chakhkiev advanced later Sunday, but the games already are a disaster for a veteran team that planned to assume predominance in amateur boxing in Beijing by pushing past the young Cuban squad.

At a workout in China before the games, back when the Russians were speaking to the media, middleweight star Matvey Korobov predicted Russia would win five gold medals. Lightweight Alexey Tishchenko, who's still in the tournament, forecast three golds and six total medals, enough to lead all nations boxing in Beijing.

The lowest blow came Saturday, when Korobov - arguably the most talented boxer and best pro prospect in the entire field - didn't even show his teammates' usual disbelief and poor sportsmanship after he was beaten by Kazakhstan's Bakhtiyar Artayev. Korobov simply seemed to accept defeat, something nobody would have dreamed last week.

The only people the Russians are scaring these days are Olympic volunteers and referees in the frustrating moments following one loss after another. Most amateur boxing experts in Beijing think Russia's flop is the most inexplicable turn of events in the sport's recent history.

"It's a shock at this stage," said British coach Terry Edwards, whose super heavyweight, David Price, got an improbable second-round stoppage of Islam Timurziev, the Russian favorite.

"I thought Russia was probably first on the stage now, and Cuba was second, so it's stunning to see where we are now," Edwards said.

After winning three gold medals and three silvers in Athens, the Russians added three world titles in 2005 and three more in 2007, winning eight total medals last fall in Chicago. Russia also was the only team to qualify boxers in all 11 weight classes in Beijing, a measure of its top-to-bottom strength.

But the Russians' world champions have all been eliminated - and the fighters have been much more menacing in the interview area than the ring so far. Russian reporters rarely show up to cover the elite team, and nobody else can even get a civil word with a losing Russian fighter.

Lomachenko's virtuoso show finished Selimov, and such a dramatic loss surely must have staggered the Russians' confidence. Selimov also set the tone for Russia's sportsmanship when he refused to shake Lomachenko's hand, and the very sight of Selimov's vein-popping infuriation visibly wilted the handful of volunteers waiting to interview him.

Two more Russians then fell on Wednesday, with Price incredibly stopping a woozy Timurziev with two big shots to the face. Another Russian pair was sent home Thursday, including light heavyweight Artur Beterbiev, who finished second at the world championships but couldn't score against an awkwardly effective Chinese opponent.

When world champion bantamweight Sergey Vodopyanov lost a shocker to India's Akhil Kumar on Friday, he angrily berated the referee in the ring before sitting in a hallway at Workers' Gymnasium with his head in his hands, barking at anybody who approached him.

Middleweight star Korobov's loss is jaw-dropping only without the context of his faltering teammates. Korobov blew a fourth-round lead against Artayev, failing to land the difficult punches that usually come so easily to him.

Now, the Russians can win only a fraction of Korobov's predicted haul - if they stagger away from Beijing with more than Chakhkiev's medal at all.