The young U.S. boxing team prayed and preyed together, dominating the favored, more mature Communist fighters and winning five golds, a silver and a bronze
August 08, 1976

Saturday was a proud day for U.S. Olympic boxing. One of the American fighters was a Marine lance corporal, another his kid brother, a part-time dishwasher from St. Louis. The best-known was an introspective 20-year-old they call Sugar, a writer of sensitive poetry who vowed that after the Olympics he would never fight again. And there was the one who answered to the name of John John; sculpted for the ring by his father and dedicated to winning a gold medal in memory of his late mother. The oldest was an Army sergeant; the youngest had a year to go in high school. The biggest was a truck driver from Tennessee. They prayed together often, the fighters and their coaches—Pat Nappi, a quiet Italian-American from Syracuse, N.Y. and Tom Johnson, a gregarious black man from Indianapolis—and their manager, Roily Schwartz, a Jewish brass and bronze ingot salesman from Cincinnati.

They looked upon themselves as a family joined by a powerful faith in God and each other. Their conditioning was superb, their strategy brilliant and devastating. Sometimes using the rapier, sometimes the bludgeon, they ravaged the Iron Curtain bloc and stripped the mantle of invincibility from the Cubans. When it ended Saturday night, the U.S. had won 35 of 41 fights and had harvested five gold medals—only one fewer than the entire U.S. track team—one silver and one bronze.

Not since 1904 and 1908, when most of the fighters were English or American, has one nation so dominated Olympic boxing. With the silver and the bronze, the team surpassed the five gold medals won by the U.S. in 1952. And last week brought more boxing gold than the U.S. had come home with in the last three Olympics.

The gold medal winners:

•The first Olympic boxing brothers, Leon and Mike Spinks, were the team's big punchers. Leon, the Marine, a 23-year-old light heavyweight with paralyzing power, stopped the highly favored Cuban Sixto Soria at 1:51 of the third round. Mike, a 20-year-old middleweight who prefers to unload his thunderbolts from a distance, forced badly battered Rufat Riskiev—the only Russian fighter to make it to the finals—to quit at 1:54 of the third round.

•Little Leo Randolph, an 18-year-old flyweight with a golden smile, who will soon return to high school, decisioned Cuban Ramon Duvalon. The vote was split 3-2. "It's the greatest thing that has happened to me since I turned Christian in 1962," said the quiet youngster from just outside Tacoma, Wash. "Tomorrow I'll be home for church."

•Howard (John John) Davis II, 20, from Glen Cove, N.Y., is the lightweight schooled by his father, a former boxer. His mother died of a heart attack two days before the Olympics opened. He said, "I dedicate this gold medal to my mother, wherever she may be." He won his final by a 5-0 decision over Romanian Simion Cutov, a two-time European champion and a veteran of more than 200 bouts.

•Sugar Ray Leonard, the light welterweight with a long ton of captivating personality and two badly injured hands, ignored intense pain to decision Cuban Andres Aldama 5-0.

The silver medal was won by Army Sergeant Charles Mooney, a bantamweight, who was suffering from a bad cold and dropped a 5-0 decision to North Korean Yong Jo Gu, a hooker who entertained interviewers by reading aloud from propaganda pamphlets. They were the same bedtime stories the KorComs read to their prisoners of war 25 years ago. The bronze went to Big John Tate, 21, the sanitation truck driver from Knoxville, an unpolished diamond with only 19 months' experience, who was quickly knocked out in the semifinals by the Cuban Teofilo Stevenson, the eventual heavyweight gold medal winner.

When they weren't fighting Americans in the finals, the stone-faced Cubans, who were expected to win the lion's share of gold medals, did well. Jorge Hernandez decisioned North Korean light flyweight Byong Uk Li; featherweight Angel Herrera knocked out East German Richard Nowakowski; and Stevenson, who also won the gold medal at Munich four years ago—and says now he'll try to make it three straight in 1980 at Moscow—cautiously pursued Mircea Simon, a terrified Romanian, for eight minutes and 35 seconds before knocking him out. It was the Cuban's fourth KO in as many fights, and in all he couldn't have thrown more than half-a-dozen hard punches.

In recent years, Iron Curtain countries had dominated amateur boxing. Since 1952, when the Communists first became seriously involved in the Olympics, their fighters had won 98 medals, including 30 gold. In that span the Russians won 34. Since 1968 the Russian-taught Cubans had taken seven.

Elected national AAU boxing chairman four years ago, Schwartz, the team manager, began setting up an ambush. Historically, American fighters had never fought more than two international matches a year. More often they fought none. What the U.S. fighters were going to get, Schwartz ruled, was a dose of tough experience. Last year he scheduled 33 international matches against the hardiest foes he could find. Nine matches, for example, were with the Russians; four each with Poland and West Germany; three with Hungary.

"To beat that Eastern European bloc we had to fight them often," said Schwartz, an ex-Army major and the first U.S. referee to qualify for international boxing. "We had to learn their styles and how to cope."

As a stratagem to hide the U.S. strength, Schwartz under-gunned his teams, giving them no more than four or five quality boxers at any one time. The rest were less talented fighters gaining experience from their defeats.

"It was the old shell game," Schwartz said. "We let them stay cocky."

From there, Nappi and Johnson, both ex-career Army men, took over. The coach of the Army boxing team since 1953, Nappi, a short-lived amateur fighter, has been teaching soldiers to box since 1940. He retired in 1962 as a master sergeant, but has been going back to coach the always strong Army team every year. A retired first sergeant, Johnson is now a boxing coach in the Job Corps at Indianapolis. As a ring technician, Nappi says, Johnson has no peer.

"We knew what we were up against—maturity and experience," said Nappi. "Our kids would be outexperienced 10 to one. When a man becomes a champion in an Iron Curtain country you can bet he's good. Look at Russia. The last time I was there, in 1971, they had 480,000 amateur fighters. We had 10,000. We knew how to beat that advantage. And we knew how to beat their styles."

Nappi knew, for instance, that European-style boxers—and that includes the Cubans—cannot fight going backward. Retreat turns them helpless.

"What they do best," said Nappi, "is drive straight ahead, pressing our kids into a corner or against the ropes and then using their vast maturity against them. Our kids simply aren't experienced enough to stay in very long against that. That's why we've never done well."

The Eastern European fighters also move with one foot far in advance and most of the weight on the rear foot, gaining power but reducing mobility almost to nil. And when they punch, it is often to the temple area. Unlike the Cubans, who hook with gusto, Iron Curtain fighters seldom stray from jabs, uppercuts and straight right hands.

A battle plan was devised. Nappi and Johnson schooled their fighters in moving forward with power jabs followed by combinations of punches. Force a retreat, they ordered. And keep the hands higher than usual to protect the temples. When U.S. boxers found it necessary to retreat, it was to be a lateral movement—a step to the right or to the left, never straight back. The next step was to counteract Iron Curtain maturity by superb conditioning.

"Our kids had the know-how," Nappi said. "What they needed was the time and the place to work. They had to get into top physical shape."

On June 13 the U.S. fighters went to training quarters at the University of Vermont. They started slowly, first working only one minute at a time on the heavy bag. At the end they were going full bore for three minutes. Then there were Nappi's push-pull engagements. Two fighters, each with an arm around his partner's head, would push and pull one another about the floor; first for three minutes, ultimately for nine. Meanwhile, normal training went on.

"They got in pretty good shape," Nappi said, grinning. "Another good exercise was two of them punching each other to the body—up to six minutes. Our kids gave us everything they had. We couldn't ask for more."

They came to Montreal with bodies hard, skills honed, confidence high. They knew that they had been put down as a second-rate entry behind the Eastern Europeans and the Cubans. And they were enjoying their little private joke.

"They are all computerized fighters," said Leonard, who quickly became the personality star of the team. "Especially the Russians. You don't have to wind them up because they come with lifetime batteries. You just push a button and away they go. All we have to do is keep them off balance."

Leonard, who hails from Palmer Park, Md., has been fighting since 1971, working his way up through the Golden Gloves and the AAU to national championships. At Mexico City he was a Pan-American Games gold medalist. For him the Olympics was the last pit stop. Two years ago he promised his mother and his girl friend, Juanita Wilkinson, to whom he writes all his poetry, that after the Olympics he would never fight again.

He is a slender youngster, and handsome, with a deep interest in working with children. This fall he will enter the University of Maryland, to which he was given a two-year scholarship by the people of Glenarden, Md. Over his bed in the Village he had hung a huge Maryland state flag.

Before the final he sat on his cot and stared at his fragile hands, which pain him. The knuckles of his right hand are always swollen. An injury to the outside edge of his left hand prevents him from making a solid fist.

He flexed the slender fingers of both hands. "One more fight," he said in a low voice, "then it is over. I've been fighting here with one hand. Now I'll let go with everything." He looked up and smiled. "What do I have to lose?"

Howard Davis is even more skilled as a fighter than Leonard. A remarkably clever boxer, he thinks people who take a punch to deliver one are foolish. Soon, he hopes, he will carry that philosophy into the professional ranks.

"I'm no brawler," Davis said. "The Europeans take a lot of punches. They get cut up, and looking ugly is just part of the day's work. But I don't want to be ugly. I'm not crazy."

None of the U.S. fighters carries marks of his craft. Mike Spinks has a scar on his cheek, but it was put there by his brother Leon years ago. One day they were playing hooky from school and they got into a battle over a bologna sandwich. Leon pulled down a curtain rod and bent it around one of Mike's knees.

"I called for time out," said Mike, making a T with his fingers. "That's when he let me have it in the head."

The Spinkses are more than brothers; they are close friends. One is seldom without the other.

"We haven't seen anything outside the Village," Leon said.

"All we know is that downtown is that way," said Mike, pointing out a window. "And we only know that 'cause we can see the big buildings."

"Just like when we were kids," said Leon. "Our mother used to keep us in the house because we were always getting beat up. Guys would push us around, take our money. They called us 'messovers' because we were easy to mess over."

"We got tired of it," Mike said. "So we'd go out on the porch of our house and hit each other in the ribs. We'd go to the recreation center and watch other fighters and try it out on each other. When the kids heard how good Leon was doing they started leaving us alone."

Still, they fought each other. Almost hourly.

"Fought like madmen," said Mike, grinning at Leon. "Almost to kill. We were always mad about something. I thought I was the toughest in the house. I fought with everybody—my four brothers, my sister. I thought I was real good, so one day I boxed my sister and she busted my nose. Made me mad as hell."

"He never fought with Mother," Leon said. "She could whip him good."

"Still can."

At home in St. Louis, Kay Spinks had watched her sons' Olympic bouts on TV. The set was borrowed and not working very well. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried a story on her plight. The next day an anonymous benefactor in Webster Groves, Mo. called the paper.

"That woman deserves to be there to see her sons fight for the gold medal," he said. "I'll pay all her expenses."

"I felt like someone had just given me a diamond ring," said Mrs. Spinks. "God bless them. God bless them."

The first American to fight on Saturday was Leo Randolph. He was announced as Leon Rudolph. No matter. In the balcony, fans had draped three large American flags over the railing. Two of them were backward, stars on the right. In spite of all that and a Polish referee, Zanislaw Kozak, who was a third arm for Duvalon, the Cuban, Randolph hauled in his gold medal.

Then Mooney lost to the North Korean.

Next it was Davis, and all he lost was the official number on his back. He came in with a homemade 333, and a smashing, dancing attack that overwhelmed the game Cutov. Score: two gold, one silver.

Later, Davis fingered the gold medal around his neck and smiled. "So far I haven't had any pro offers," he said, "but now when they see the medal I may get a few."

Immediately, John Condon of Madison Square Garden offered to let Davis make his debut on the Sept. 28 Ali-Norton card in Yankee Stadium. Davis said he thought it would be too soon. Still, he and the other gold medal winners will be guests at the fight.

Now it was Sugar Ray against the southpaw Aldama, who had hit Bulgaria's Vladimir Kolev so hard in their semifinal bout there were fears that Kolev might have a broken neck. Taken away unconscious on a stretcher, the Romanian awoke in the dressing room with nothing worse than a headache.

Always circling, never letting the Cuban get set, Sugar Ray went to work, using both hands with a fury. Ignoring his aching knuckles, he began getting to Aldama in the second round, dropped him just before the bell. Midway through the third round he caught the Cuban flush with a hook, banged four rights to the head, and with only a few seconds to go had him out on his feet. The referee, an Iranian named Karapet K. Kouchar, stepped between the fighters and stayed there until the bell. It was a unanimous decision, although two of the judges (an Egyptian and a Peruvian) gave it to Sugar Ray by only one point (59-58).

Mike was the first of the brothers to go on. He had drawn Riskiev, a 27-year-old Russian with a face that looked as though it had been rented out as a target for Cossack swords. Riskiev came in wearing a white patch above his right eye. Adopting his brother's style, Mike went inside, hooking with both hands in long bursts. By the end of Round One the Russian was hanging on. In the next round he went down, floored by a looping overhand right. Rising, he took a count of eight, and at the bell staggered to his corner.

He should have stayed there. In the third, Mike really went to work. Slowly the Russian came apart. Then, with just a little over a minute to go, Spinks hooked hard to the midsection, catching Riskiev right on the belt and driving his stomach halfway to Kiev. Clutching himself, the Russian cried foul. The referee said that would win him a silver medal. Riskiev took it.

Near the back of the sold-out Montreal Forum, Leon had watched the fight anxiously. "I wanted him to win more than I wanted me to win," he said. "I kept asking the Lord to watch over him."

Now it was Leon's turn, against the hard-hitting 22-year-old Cuban. Sixto Soria, a muscular man with a stunning right-hand punch. From the bell it was a war, neither man backing off: the Cuban faster, Spinks the harder hitter. Near the end of the first round, Spinks staggered the Cuban with a right, turned him around with a second and dropped him with a third. The second round was a repeat, only this time the Cuban managed to stay on his feet, battered but erect at the bell.

Then, bam! It was over. Early in the third round a right hand spun the Cuban again and Spinks chased him across the ring. A long right to the temple put Sixto on his face. He got up, took the count and then, with 1:51 to go, was pushed to his corner by Referee Boris Savin of the U.S.S.R.

Later, Sugar Ray was saying, "My journey has ended, my dream is fulfilled. I want to thank the people of Montreal, the people of Maryland, the people of the United States and the people of the world for everything. Now I want to go to school. I have been an example for the young people as a fighter. Now I want to show them that you can be a champion at school, too."

He smiled and then he added, "And I'll always remember the beautiful and wonderful feeling when they played the national anthem and they put that gold medal around my neck."

A lot of people will also remember the beautiful feeling this group of young men inspired all over the U.S.

PHOTOTo get to the victory stand, this Marine lance corporal, Leon Spinks, outgunned a Cuban, Sixto Soria. PHOTOLeon's little brother Mike battered a Russian, Rufat Riskiev, to win the middleweight title. PHOTOHoward Davis dedicated his gold medal to his mother, who died just before the Olympics started. PHOTO"It's the greatest thing to happen to me since I turned Christian in 1962," said Leo Randolph. PHOTOThough he has plenty of pro potential, Sugar Ray Leonard will hang up his gloves and go to college. THREE ILLUSTRATIONS