TOKYO — Even now, 17 years later, Andre Ward can recall every detail from his Olympic triumph. The flight to Athens, shortly after the Iraq war started … The tournament, when the crowd seemed to turn against the American boxers, showering them with heckles and boos … His tournament, the victories, the way that same crowd stood and cheered as an official hung a gold medal around his neck.
He still wonders why he didn’t smile in that moment, after becoming the first U.S. champion in eight years. His match ended so late, he missed the Closing Ceremony. None of that mattered. He knew, in that instant, with that history, his life had changed.
“That’s forever etched in my heart,” Ward says over the phone from the United States. It’s nearly 1 a.m. in Tokyo early Sunday morning. Only hours earlier, Allyson Felix completed a run to immortality, collecting her eleventh Olympic medal, finishing an illustrious Games existence that started in the same place and same year—Athens, 2004—that Ward won gold.
In roughly 12 hours, two male American boxers will seek to replicate his greatest amateur achievement, the one that launched an undefeated pro career. The United States again finds itself in a precarious state, only this time, it’s a country at war with itself, amid a global pandemic and a reckoning on race. But this is not 2004, and Ward knows that, because he’s reminded of the time gone by every time there’s an Olympic boxing tournament. Someone will mention it every cycle. Ward will do the math.
He’s not sure what shocks him more, now, in 2021. That Felix is still sprinting, still winning, at 35 years old. Or that no male boxer from the United States has triumphed in a gold-medal match since he did. There are reasons for that, explanations he’d rather not dive too deeply into, not with those chances for Americans to change the narrative only hours away. But even if he listed every reason, or wrote a thesis on the descent, it still wouldn’t explain the drought. “I came up in an era where the United States was feared,” he says. “We showed up and every country respected us. And that has clearly waned.”
He pauses, as if weighing what he wants to say. He won 32 bouts as the drought continued, then retired, four long years ago. “To look up, and it has been 17 years, it’s just … unbelievable,” he says. “It’s not something that should be associated with our boxing team. We have the best talent in the world.”
Then he pivots, back to the boxing ring in Tokyo, where on Sunday afternoon local time super heavyweight Richard Torrez Jr. or lightweight Keyshawn Davis might just snatch the label that Ward would prefer to no longer hold. Either—or both—could become the last American male to collect a boxing gold.
Fast forward half a day, to the possible culmination of a comeback, to two American boxers who spent months pushing each other to do what had not been done in almost two decades. Neither clung to unrealistic illusions. They could both triumph and this wouldn’t mark a return to the heyday of amateur boxing in the U.S. This wasn’t Muhammad Ali winning gold, nor George Foreman, nor Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, or Ward. Boxing’s professional heyday has long passed for many of the same reasons, the most important being a shallower talent pool due to a steep fall in relevance. This wasn’t a primetime Olympic event, either, which only added to the circular loop playing without end.
Davis strolled through a hallway near the boxing ring at Ryōgoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, normally a historic venue for the super-sized athletes who compete in the portion of Tokyo that locals refer to as Sumo City. The lightweight contender had just completed his gold medal bout against his rival, the Cuban named Andy Cruz who danced the salsa in the ring and on the medal stand. Actually, rival might be understated; Cruz topped Davis three times in 2019, which meant Davis sought both gold and revenge.
He almost grabbed both, fighting a smart fight, dancing away from Cruz’s range and striking at opportune times. Davis lost the first round, won the second and worked to a standstill in the third. The question lingered? Had he done enough to overcome both a close fight and Cruz’s amateur pedigree? The answer, via split-decision, was no.
Davis did not seem all that broken up about the silver, not outwardly, not in public. Instead he and the half dozen or so reporters there to speak with him all turned toward the television, where Torrez was attempting to do what Davis had almost done. Davis knew his teammate’s unfortunate history against this particular opponent, Bakhodir Jalolov of Uzbekistan. He was there, in Russia, in Sept. 2019, when Jalolov sent a left crashing into Torrez’s jaw and the American fell to the canvas, unconscious, his body flat and his eyes shut. Torrez left that arena on a stretcher.
Despite a GPA over 4.0 and memberships in good standing with his high school robotics and chess clubs, the boxing genius from Tulare, Calif., did not stop fighting, even then. Instead, Torrez made gold his goal—his only one—and trained for the next two years to realize it.
Undersized but seeded third in the super heavyweight bracket, viral video a distant memory, if not one logged deep in his subconscious, Torrez scrapped his way to the final. Jalolov, of course, awaited him.
Davis gifted the scribes with expert and running commentary, watching as they did, as Torrez faced off against an opponent who looked like a giant in comparison. Think Rocky IV, or two nesting dolls, with Torrez serving as the smaller one. Those David vs. Goliath jokes he likes to make didn’t seem that funny anymore. Davis scored Round 1 for his friend, awed by the fortitude in play, from being knocked unconscious to landing shots that Torrez shot upward, as if reaching for leaves on a tall tree, his own head located somewhere down the trunk. “It says a lot about Richard,” Davis explained. “He didn’t make it out of there last time. But Richard is a dog! He got a chance to win.”
A chance is one thing; a gold, another. Jalolov simply proved too giant, too heavy-handed, for Torrez. He landed a shot in Round 2 that wobbled the American, opening a cut over Torrez’s left eye. By the time the third and final round ended, Davis didn’t need to say anything. It was already clear: Torrez had also lost.
The first American super heavyweight to medal since Riddick Bowe in 1988 had also won a silver, same as Davis and same as Bowe, who lost to Lennox Lewis. After leaving the ring, with tears in his eyes, Torrez called his father, Richard Torrez Sr. Dad told the son he had trained for this moment all of his life that he was proud of him. But neither would claim a morale victory.
“This one sucks,” Senior said.
“I hate this feeling right now,” Junior said.
Anyone who watched Torrez would likely see his fight in a different light, because fight was the key word. He competed with guts, moving forward, fully aware of the danger that choice presented, not looking to survive, which would have been an understandable, even rational, decision. Against the man who knocked him flat, he did have a chance to win.
Torrez bordered on inconsolable in the mixed zone, his face showing exactly what the gold had meant to him, forget the history, drought. He called losing that particular match “one of the worst things ever.” He said that it was harder to accept the outside opinions of anyone who felt otherwise. He thanked his family, his hometown and his country, pausing several times to compose himself.
It wasn’t the right time, wasn’t the right place, to remind Torrez that this team had fought to more medals than any U.S. team since 2000. Duke Ragan snagged the featherweight silver earlier in the tournament, making three silver medals for the men, three chances at gold, after placing only one such medalist (Shakur Stevenson) in Rio. Oshae Jones also won bronze at women’s welterweight. This wasn’t 1984, especially not after dominant women’s middleweight Claressa Shields turned professional. But it was a start.
Afterward, familiar questions surfaced. For the men, why did another cycle pass without that elusive gold? Davis answered honestly, pinning the drought on international judging but not going so far as to say that his gold had been stolen by the scorers here.
Ward prefers to save that question for another day, down the road. He did not believe—because almost everyone in boxing does not believe—that this team’s performance would spark some sort of boom. But it would, Ward says, “bring necessary spotlight back onto USA Boxing.” Perhaps that might attract a few more linebackers or power forwards to a discipline that once ruled American sports. But more importantly, Ward believes it would push the actual Olympians to see all that was possible again. Like on the afternoon when Davis nearly won gold and Torrez stepped gamely toward the giant. “We can build from here,” Ward says.
“I believe it’s coming,” Torrez said, meaning a gold, just one, earned by a U.S. male, in Paris in 2024.
“I guess you gotta wait and see,” Davis said with a shrug.
For years, the last American man to win a boxing gold medal didn’t know what to do with this rarest piece of hardware. He kept it inside a small box, at home, locked away in a safe. Recently, he decided to display it, placing the medal behind enclosed glass, presenting it for every visitor to see. It doubles as a sign of glory, for Ward, and disappointment, for USA Boxing. In 2021, in Tokyo, there was progress but not the transformative kind, guts but no golds and a program seemingly moving in the right direction but a million miles from its heyday. Undoubtedly that beats the alternative. The question now is, what’s next?
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