Zou, Lomachenko reach Olympic gold medal bouts

Aug. 22, 2008, 10:54 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) While a French boxer wailed for justice and a Romanian in an orange sport coat claimed worldwide conspiracies, the classiest fighters at the Olympics swept through the semifinals without a bitter word or a questionable call.

Sideshow theatrics are as common as headgear in the nutty world of amateur boxing, and these Olympics haven't lacked in distractions. Friday's really remarkable events were the winning performances of Chinese light flyweight Zou Shiming, Ukrainian featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko and Cuban welterweight Carlos Banteaux.

Zou blanked Ireland's Paddy Barnes 15-0 in the best effort of his high-pressure home Olympics, advancing to the finals with two of his Chinese teammates. Lomachenko put on his fourth straight dazzling display of speed and skill, while Banteaux coolly headed to the finals with a four-man Cuban delegation, the biggest in Beijing.

But even on a full day of outstanding competition, this sport can't shake its drama and dirt.

Light welterweight Alexis Vastine got the most airtime for his weeping, screaming protest of a harsh last-minute penalty that decided his tied bout. An hour afterward, Rudi Obreja - a Romanian technical delegate apparently on his way out of the International Boxing Association (AIBA) - made sweeping allegations of fraud and corruption in a sport that seems to be working hard to cleanse itself.

"We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the judges," said Tom Virgets, the head of AIBA's disciplinary committee. "But we have a process that we'll follow, because we take any notion of impropriety very seriously."

In the meantime, maybe the championship fighters can take center stage for just a weekend. The best ones leave nothing to the judges, the draws or politics.

The home team went 3-1 Friday to get three shots at its first boxing gold this weekend. While Zou won easily, light heavyweight Zhang Xiaoping sweated out a narrow win over Kazakhstan's Yerkebulan Shynaliyev, and super heavyweight Zhang Zhilei also advanced by walkover when Ukraine's Vyacheslav Glazkov dropped out with a sprained elbow.

China's sports authorities have expected Zou to win their first boxing gold since his bronze breakthrough in 2004. After working Barnes like a heavy bag for every minute of every round, he can fulfill his heavy potential with one last victory over Mongolia's Serdamba Purevdorj.

"This time I am fighting at home," Zou said. "I will win. I will get a gold medal."

Two weeks after Russia's 11-man team began the Beijing tournament with expectations of passing Cuba as the sport's dominant power, just two boxers - lightweight Alexey Tishchenko and heavyweight Rakhim Chakhkiev - will fight for gold medals this weekend.

While Russia disappointed, Cuba exceeded some expectations with eight medals and four semifinal winners.

"I'm not doing an evaluation, the ring is doing it," said Cuban coach Pedro Roque, whose nation traveled to Beijing without a defending gold medalist for the first time in at least 16 years. "These are the most important Olympic Games in history because of the quality of the boxers in general, and we have more than any other country. This is a brilliant performance by our team."

Cuba and Russia split two bouts Friday in the long-standing rivalry between the sport's top two powers, with Cuban flyweight Andris Laffita and Russian heavyweight Rakhim Chakhkiev advancing. Britain and Ireland also split their two matchups in front of their singing fans, with British middleweight James Degale and Irish light heavyweight Kenny Egan moving on.

Lomachenko already had trounced his division's top two favorites and the Chinese featherweight before he brutalized Turkey's Yakup Kilic 10-1 - a score that could have been three times as bad if the Ukrainian wished. The final obstacle for Lomachenko, who has beaten four opponents by a combined 49-12, is France's Khedafi Djelkhir.

Banteaux was every bit as impressive in a 17-4 victory over China's Hanati Silamu, who had more than 12,000 fans behind his every punch. Banteaux probably wouldn't even be on Cuba's deep Olympic team if world champion welterweight Erislandy Lara hadn't attempted to defect last year.

"I had a lot of strength tonight," Banteaux said. "I didn't start too fast, but after two minutes, it went very well."

Unfortunately, the afternoon session's most eye-catching display came from Vastine, who lost 12-10 to the Dominican Republic's Felix Diaz. Vastine's 9-6 lead had vanished into a 10-all tie when referee Rogelio Fortaleza of the Philippines hit Vastine with a two-point penalty for holding with just 19 seconds left.

Vastine screamed directly at IOC president Jacques Rogge's section when Fortaleza called the penalty, and he collapsed into waves of tears and wailing after the buzzer. He then stepped out of the ring and stretched out on his back on the floor before his equally infuriated coach led him away.

"We all saw what happened," Vastine said through more tears. "I won this bout, but it was stolen. It was unfair."

The French team said it wouldn't protest the result.

"The penalty was good, and they should have called it earlier," Diaz said. "He was holding all day."

Diaz will face Manus Boonjumnong, Thailand's gloriously eccentric light welterweight. The Athens gold medalist frustrated Cuba's Roniel Iglesias in a fight that left both boxers complaining of foul play.

At least some fighters were gracious in defeat. U.S. heavyweight Deontay Wilder congratulated Italy's Clemente Russo after winning the Americans' 100th medal in Beijing, but ensuring the U.S. boxing team's worst Olympic finish. Of the nine Americans on the team, only flyweight Rau'shee Warren showed up to cheer Wilder, with most of the others already back home.

"This isn't the way we wanted our team to go out," said Wilder, who lost 7-1. "I came here with eight guys, and I wanted to celebrate with eight guys."

The middleweight final will pit the singing, boasting Degale against Cuba's Emilio Correa, who posted a 8-5 win over Vijender Kumar, India's first boxing medalist.

"I said on my day, I am the best of anyone in the world," Degale said. "It's just silly things that stop me. Today, the tactics were there. Now, the weight is perfect, the body is perfect. If I'm right in the head ... I'm the man."