With 30 seconds left in the fourth and final round of his Olympic-opening bout, Rau'shee Warren, the U.S.' reigning flyweight world champ, looked to his teammates in the stands. They were gesturing wildly, and Warren swore he heard them yell, "Move! Move!" So Warren danced around on the outside until the referee told him to engage. By then, only four seconds remained.
It was during that brief pause when Warren heard his coach yell for him to punch. Amateur boxing coaches are supposed to remain silent in the corner, but this was a desperate moment. Warren rushed in and appeared to land a right hook just before the buzzer. But it didn't score, and Warren went to his corner not knowing that his Olympic dream had just slipped away by a single point. He had lost 9-8 to Lee Oksung, the fighter who beat Warren at the 2005 world championships and went on to win the competition.
Warren walked confidently to his corner, and coach Dan Campbell asked him why he had stopped punching. Warren told his coach that he thought he heard his teammates yelling, "Move!" And then, Campbell said, Warren asked, "You mean I lost?" And Campbell gave him the bad news.
Neither Warren nor Campbell, who has been brutally honest about his fighters' performances, could believe it. "Some things you don't want to say," Campbell said, "but it's hard to understand the scoring. Twice Rau'shee threw punches and scored, and [Lee] got the point. That determined the fight."
The crowd seemed to agree that Lee, 26, was awarded at least one point for a punch that Warren scored, as the first sustained chorus of boos during 2008 Olympic boxing wafted through the hockey-puck shaped Worker's Gymnasium after a Warren hook landed flush, but Lee was awarded a point.
Warren, 21, the first U.S. fighter since 1976 to compete in a second Olympics, was devastated after the fight, throwing his headgear, and later recognizing that "I got a little unsportsmanlike there." His loss is a serious blow to the United States, which lost medal contender Gary Russell Jr. before the fighting even started when he passed out trying to make weight and couldn't attend the weigh-in. U.S. boxing has never failed to win a medal in an Olympics in which it has competed, an amazing feat considering the sport entered the Games in 1904.
The best hope to keep that streak alive now is Demetrius Andrade, a defensive wizard and the reigning welterweight world champion. Andrade won his first bout on Sunday.
After Warren's fight, Campbell felt the scoring was poor enough, and that Warren was such an important part of the team, that the loss could be a psychological power punch to the rest of the team. "Our biggest fear is that they get discouraged," he said. "We have a psychologist around, and I'll make sure she talks to them."
But for Warren, who comes from an impoverished neighborhood in Cincinnati and put off going pro for four years to come back and win a gold medal, he'll have to do his talking in the professional ranks.
Sadam Ali, the first Arab-American boxer to compete in the Olympics, began his amateur boxing career with tears, and likely ended it with tears on Monday night, when he lost 20-5 in the opening round to Romania's Georgian Popescu.
Ali, born and raised in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn -- he's the first Olympic boxer from New York City since Riddick Bowe in 1988 -- was 8 years old when he stepped into the ring for the first time. He was fighting a kid who was a little bit older, and more experienced, and he cried the whole way as he took his lumps. He cried through the rounds, and he cried in the corner.
Afterward, an official from USA Boxing approached Sadam's father, David, who immigrated from Yemen in 1978 when he was 11. The official told David Ali that it was the first time he'd seen a kid cry for three straight rounds but continue coming out of the corner. "I think he'll quit," the man told David. "But if he doesn't, if he comes back, he'll be one of the best."
And come back he did. Ali, now 19, beat the same kid six months later in Brooklyn's legendary Gleason's Gym. And last year, at the U.S. Olympic trials, he confirmed that boxing official's premonition and booked his ticket as the U.S. lightweight representative in Beijing.
At the opening bell of his Olympic bout, both Ali and the southpaw Popescu looked a bit nervous, hopping from toe to toe, but they settled into a close first round. In the ensuing rounds, Ali appeared to "fall back into some bad habits we thought we broke," according to Campbell, as he got away from using clever angles, and began moving straight forward and back against a fighter with a longer reach. Popescu took advantage by continuously shoving Ali back into the ropes and scoring while Ali was stuck in front of him.
Before each of the final two rounds, David Ali stood up in his fourth-row seat and implored his son to go after the Georgian, knowing Popescu would begin fighting defensively to protect his big lead. But Popescu was adept at backpedaling for nearly the entire final round, keeping Ali scoreless in the fourth.
After the fight, Ali did his best to hold back the swell of tears, but couldn't entirely quell his emotions. He waged as courageous and classy a battle as any in the ring, as he composed himself to take questions from a gaggle of reporters. He was honest about his performance.
"I was leaning over too much with my punches," he said. And with each personal question, you could see the fight again playing out in his eyes. What if you had won? "I had friends and family who were going to come if I went farther. I'm sorry to everyone back home." And what about your Dad? "I love my dad to death."
Just before the first "Ali" to fight for the United States at the Olympics -- that other guy was Cassius when he won gold in 1960 -- walked off down the long hall, he said, calmly, "This isn't the last of me. I'm going to show everybody who I really am."
Little did he know that he just did.