Column: Are U.S. boxers down for the count in Rio?


By Tim Dahlberg

AP Sports Columnist

Robert Shannon was known as a big banger at 119 pounds, good with his gloves and handy enough with scissors that he did his teammates hair.

He still cuts hair in the Seattle area, but now is known more as the answer to a trivia question about the 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team.

“The only one not to win a medal,” he said. “That’s how I’m remembered.”

It wasn’t totally Shannon’s fault. He and South Korea’s Moon Sung Kil engaged in one of the best brawls of the Los Angeles Games until Moon caught him with a series of punches that ended the fight in the third round.

Shannon could only watch as his teammates — a group that included Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland and Pernell Whitaker — paraded to the medal stand. By the time the final punches had landed, the Americans had won nine golds and two silvers in the biggest Olympic boxing haul ever.

Just how talented was the team? A rising young heavyweight by the name of Mike Tyson couldn’t punch his way on it, losing to eventual heavyweight gold medalist Henry Tillman in the U.S. trials.

Contrast that to the last two Olympics, where U.S. boxers have won a grand total of one bronze medal. They haven’t won gold since Andre Ward turned the trick in 2004, and were embarrassed with a medal shutout in London.

Unfortunately, things look just as bleak for the Americans next month in Rio.

A once proud national boxing program has been dysfunctional for years, and there are serious questions about the future of amateur boxers in the Olympics. Only six Americans qualified to even go to Rio, leaving the country with no heavyweight or super heavyweight in the Olympics.

Throw in the fact that Cam F. Awesome, the fighter with arguably the best name in boxing, didn’t qualify, and Rio doesn’t figure to be a showcase for a country with more medals in boxing — 48 golds among the 108 — than any other in Olympic history.

“There’s a lot of talent out there that is not in the Olympics for one reason or another,” said Oscar De La Hoya, who built a pro career on his 1992 gold medal. “We only have six kids on the Olympic team, and that’s unheard of.”

Actually there are eight kids on the team, with women’s boxing in the Olympics for the second time and two U.S. women qualifying out of four possible. One of them is Claressa Shields, who became the first U.S. woman to win a boxing gold in London and will be a favorite in Rio.

Shields is a shining hope, and the male boxers are talented enough that they may end up bringing home a medal or two. But the days of the U.S. dominating boxing like it continues to do in swimming are in the past.

The 1984 team was somewhat of an aberration — the Russians and Cubans didn’t compete — but U.S. boxers always seemed to pick the Olympics to shine. That was especially true in 1976, when Sugar Ray Leonard led a star team that included Michael and Leon Spinks to five gold medals.

Boxing meant something at the Olympics then, before changes in rules and horrendous scoring soured the public on the sport. Promoters circled everywhere looking for talent, and medalists fought their first pro fights on national television soon after the games.

De La Hoya got in at the tail end of that, and America embraced the story of the teenager winning a gold medal in honor of his mother, who had recently died of cancer.

“We had national TV covering every single fight that took place before the Olympics,” De La Hoya said. “It gave us exposure, but most importantly it gave us the experience to go out there and perform against the toughest competition in the world.”

Not only does America not know the members of the abbreviated team going to Rio, the promoters barely know them. De La Hoya, who runs Golden Boy Promotions, said he doesn’t have any of the fighters on his radar, though that could change if they have some success.

And with pros now being invited to compete, there could come a day in the near future when chasing Olympic gold simply doesn’t mean that much anymore to fighters.

“My dream as always was to make the Olympic team and win the gold for my country, my family and myself,” De La Hoya said. “A lot of these kids still have that dream, but as time goes by they are realizing that maybe it’s just best now to skip the Olympics and make some money.”

Judging from the way Rio is shaping up, they may have made the right choice.

By Tim Dahlberg

AP Sports Columnist

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