Sunday August 14th, 2016

There’s some real fight in the U.S. Olympic boxing team this time around.

In recent years, the American men’s program, once the swaggering heavyweight of international amateur boxing (and the most decorated program in Olympic history, with 111 medals), had been getting batted around like an anemic flyweight. The nadir came, like a particularly nasty left hook to the body, four years ago in London, when the U.S. men went home without a medal for the first time in Games history. (To be fair—and perhaps simply underscoring the stark nature of the men’s failure—in those same Olympics, Claressa Shields became the first American woman to win a boxing gold medal.) Beset by organizational issues and plagued by inadequate funding and a chronic low profile among American amateur sports, the men’s program appeared destined to keep on taking its licks through Olympiads to come.

That prospect was seemingly being borne out when the U.S. qualified boxers in only five of the 10 men’s weight divisions for the 2016 Games (the women put entrants in two out of three divisions, including the returning Shields).

But here in Rio, just over halfway through the 16 days of competition, the U.S. team’s record stands at 10–3. The most recent victories came on Sunday in the noisy fan-friendly arena at Rio Center 6, where, first, celebrated bantamweight prospect Shakur Stevenson opened his Olympic campaign (following a first-round bye) with a flowing, skillful and—judging by his broad smile in the ring—joyful unanimous decision win over Robenilson De Jesus of Brazil. Light welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell followed with a victory in his second bout of the tournament to advance to the quarterfinals. Then, to cap off the afternoon from the U.S. perspective, there was 20-year-old Nico Hernandez beaming on the podium as he accepted the bronze medal in the men’s light flyweight division. The Americans clearly are up from the canvas and punching away.

Nico Hernandez carrying Tony Losey's memory with him at Rio Olympics

A key factor in that turnaround is Billy Walsh, an easy-going 53-year-old native of Wexford, Ireland, who until last November was coaching his country’s national team. In late 2014, seeking to bring in a new head coach with strong international experience, USA Boxing had approached Walsh, who in his 12 years at the helm had taken an Irish program that qualified just one boxer for the 2000 Games to seven Olympic medals and perennial honors in European and world championship tournaments.

“We did an international search,” says Michael Martino, executive director of USA Boxing, “and Billy Walsh was highly recommended. He had the experience, the temperament and the contacts and relationships throughout international amateur boxing.”

For his part Walsh—who began boxing at age seven in a Christian Brothers gym on Wexford Town’s Wolfe Tone Terrace and went on to represent Ireland as a welterweight in the 1988 Olympics—was intrigued. “I’d always said,” he recalls, “that if I ever left Ireland it would be for the sleeping giant of amateur boxing.”  

Walsh found the giant less than imposing at first glimpse, coming away unimpressed with what he saw on a visit to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. (“The OTC itself was beautiful,” he says, “but the gym wasn’t really world-class. It was just one ring in it and six bags. Like a guy would have out in his back yard, in the shed.”) He negotiated for upgrades across the board and was quickly granted an offer and signed. Then, shortly after guiding the Irish to three medals at the 2015 world championships in Doha, Qatar, last fall he encamped to a revamped OTC in Colorado Springs and set to work. Now he’s here in Rio, along with assistant coaches Kay Koroma and Augie Sanchez, working a stirring number of winning corners.

Martino is one of many now celebrating the results—even if mixing his sports metaphors in the process—saying, “I think we hit a homerun with Billy.”

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To Walsh, an essential element in creating success for U.S. boxing is to integrate the personal coaches of the top prospects into the national program. He wants to start bringing them into the training center for regular clinics and periodic training camps with other international squads.

“You teach one boxer, you teach one boxer,” he says. “You teach one coach, you teach a hundred boxers. We need a better education system around the country.”

An education system, he stresses, that focuses on the particular demands of international amateur boxing. “It’s skills and techniques that focus on hitting and not getting hit,” Walsh says. “Defense and counter attack. It’s common sense for me: If you marry that focus on technique with the talent that’s in the United States you will have success.”

Walsh is also hopeful that a better-run and better-supported system, along with some international success, can help return amateur boxing to something of the stature it once held in the U.S. “The club coaches in the States, they’re only considering professional boxing,” he said on a recent afternoon at the boxing arena. “We wanted to make [the amateurs attractive] again. This,” he adds, gesturing around, “is the pinnacle of the sport of boxing. We want our guys to want to go to the Olympic Games and to want to stay around for a couple of years—and we want to be able to actually support them.”

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Whether any of the 2016 U.S. Olympians will stick around for 2020 remains to be seen, of course. The important thing is that, for now at least, they’re sticking around in the Olympic tournament.

Next up for the Americans is welterweight Antonio Vargas, who after an opening-round victory faces Shakhobidin Zoirov of Uzbekistan on Monday morning; followed by women’s lightweight Mikaela Mayer against Russia’s Anastasia Beliakova in a quarterfinal match. A win there would guarantee Mayer at least a bronze. On Tuesday, Stevenson and Russell will both be back for quarterfinal matches. And on Wednesday, the formidable Shields begins her quest for a second straight gold. Suddenly, someday is starting to feel a lot like today.

Asked yesterday after Russell’s stirring win about his teams prospects, a grinning Walsh said, “When I started, everybody suggested to me 2020 is where we should be pointing. I said, ‘I’m getting ready for Rio! We might not be alive in 2020.”

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