As the gold flowed from the Olympic ring into the U.S. dressing room Saturday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, amateur boxing seemed about as competitive as shooting craps with a blind man. Sorry, baby, snake-eyes, you lose. What do you want to roll for next? Your Seeing Eye dog?
And it doesn't hurt any if you're playing on your home turf. Like, say, in the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, where the Venezuelans got more decisions than they deserved. Or at the World Cup in Rome last October, when the Italians celebrated Christmas two months early—gifts and all. Or in Los Angeles, where the American kids mined the mother lode for nine gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
O.K., before you start humming Francis Scott Key's heart-thumper, which ain't a bad thing to do, forget for a moment the record number of gold medals and give a thought to Evander Holyfield, who might have been the best of the 359 boxers who entered the tournament 345 bouts and a couple of weeks ago. When they gloved up the 22 survivors for the finals, Holyfield was at a concession stand ordering a hot dog and a Coke. That's not exactly the place you'd expect to find a light heavyweight who blasted through his four opponents the way the First Marine Division took Inchon. The last guy Holyfield fought, on Thursday night—a tattooed New Zealander named Kevin Barry—is still wondering who bopped him with a baseball bat. That was just a few seconds before Holyfield was mugged by a Yugoslav referee named Gligorije Novicic.
At this point you may want to hum a few bars from O Slavs, Our Ancestors' Words Still Live, the Yugoslav national anthem. Novicic's slick work—in contrast to the less sophisticated but equally effective daily miscarriages delivered by the inept judges—deserves background music. The Novicic-to-Evers-to-Chance ploy was set up by the light heavyweight semifinal bout preceding Holyfield vs. Barry—that one was won by Anton Josipovic, also a Yugoslav.
August 19, 1984
Enter Holyfield, the gold medal favorite, who thought the only guy in the ring he had to beat was Barry. After being soundly whipped in the first round, Barry narrowed his attack to holding Holyfield with one hand while rapping him on the back of the neck with the other. Novicic should have thrown Barry out of the ring. Instead, he issued a series of warnings and cautions, six in all, enough to disqualify most amateur boxers.
"Novicic blew it," said John Holaus, one of four American officials who worked the competition. "He was going from cautions to warnings and then back to cautions. It's against the rules. Once you issue a warning [which deducts a point at the judges' discretion] you can't go back to cautions. I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
Holyfield took matters into his own hands. Near the end of the second round, with Barry grabbing him around the neck with his right arm, Holyfield pulled back and—just as Novicic yelled "Stop!" from long distance—slammed a right to the body and a savage left hook to the head. Barry dropped as though shot.
After sending Holyfield to a neutral corner, Novicic counted out Barry, who had regained his feet at six. Exit one semifinalist—because he was stopped by a head blow, Barry was medically ineligible to fight for 28 days. Then Novicic made it a sweep by disqualifying Holyfield for hitting on the break. As it turned out, Barry became the only boxer in Olympic history to fall a bronze medalist and arise to win the silver. With no one left to fight, Josipovic had a free ride to the gold medal.
Pat Nappi, the U.S. head coach, considered storming the ring, but quickly left the arena floor instead. "I had to get out of there," said the normally composed Nappi, who has been coaching amateur boxers for 30 years. "I was afraid if I didn't, I'd hit the guy."
The U.S. filed an immediate protest. To do that you have to lay out $50, which may tell you the value the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) places on such actions. No protest in history has ever been upheld. This one wasn't, either. But the AIBA people, who didn't even bother to quiz Novicic, aren't without heart. Said Anwar Chowdhry of Pakistan, who headed the protest committee, "The committee recommends that the U.S. boxer, although being disqualified, should be awarded the [bronze] medal due him."
Still, if that decision went against the U.S., there were several others that should have but didn't. The South Koreans were particularly incensed when Jerry Page, the U.S. light welterweight who went on to win a gold medal, was given a 4-1 quarterfinal decision over Kim Dong Kil, though it was clear to all in attendance that Kim had fought well enough to win. After filing a useless protest, the South Koreans, who'll host the Olympics in 1988, threatened to take their boxers and go home.
"There's too much influence for the United States," said Kim Seung Youn, president of the Korean Boxing Federation, who is also a vice-president of the AIBA, repeating a complaint that was aired almost daily during the 13 days of boxing. "We are over here not only to win but to learn for 1988. The way things are going, there's nothing to learn. They say they pick the judges by computer, but no one seems to know how to run the computer. As you can see, when the Americans get in the ring they always win, and personally I believe some of them lose. They [the officials] should be fair.
"But I have a very small voice, and nobody listens to me, and that's why I went public. I'm personally upset. If they run it like this here, then should we run it the same way in Seoul in 1988? Should I just give 12 gold medals to the Korean fighters?"
Asked if the Koreans' threat to pull out was meant to intimidate the judges at these Games, Kim grinned and admitted it was.
"Then," a second question went, "you have made your protest known. Is there any more to gain by actually pulling out your team?"
"I think not," he said.
The Koreans weren't the first to threaten to leave. On the night of Aug. 3, Nappi, tired of a long-running feud with professional trainer Emanuel Steward, grabbed his luggage and headed for the United Airlines terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. The manager of world champions Thomas Hearns and Milton McCrory, Steward, who runs the Kronk Gym in Detroit, also trains Mark Breland, Frank Tate and Steve McCrory, one-third of the eventual U.S. gold medal winners.
Steward claims the latest exchange between the two began when Nappi barred him from the Hamilton High gym, where the American team trained while it was in Los Angeles. "He actually told the kids he never heard of Emanuel Steward," said Steward. "He embarrassed me in front of the kids. He wouldn't let me in the door."
No matter. Round 2 came when Breland, after a listless first-bout welterweight victory over Wayne Gordon of Canada, went to Nappi and asked if he could train with Steward at the Muhammad Ali Gym in Santa Monica. "If you think it will help you, then go ahead," Nappi told him. "Just cool it."
Breland trained with Steward on July 31. The following day McCrory and Tate came in for private tutoring. The trouble started when two reporters arrived at the gym on Aug. 2.
"I need this," Breland told Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post. "I need to do more than shadow-box and skip rope. I need to work with the pads like I do with Emanuel."
Tate reportedly said, "Shadow-boxing and jumping rope ain't gonna get it. I have to do what's best for me. I feel 200 percent better right now than I did after my first fight. I wasn't sharp then. Nobody was."
Added McCrory, "There's nothing Pat Nappi can do about it. He can't kick us off the team. He just can't handle everybody. We're tired of the b——."
When the reports of what had been said got back to Nappi, he decided it was time he went home to Syracuse, N.Y. He was more hurt than angry. When team manager Ed Silverglade learned Nappi had left the athletes' village on the USC campus, he called Jim Fox, executive director of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation. Fox, who's 6'4½", set off for the airport. With him went Col. Harvey Schiller, the director of Olympic boxing competition, who stands 6'4". Nappi is only 5'8".
Later, when all had been resolved, Fox laughingly told a friend, "If worse came to worst, Harvey and I had decided we'd just pick up Pat and carry him back until he cooled off."
At the airport Fox and Schiller persuaded Nappi to return. At 1:45 a.m. they arrived at Fox's room on the fourth floor of the University Hilton, where the two tall men got Nappi to cool off under a shower.
Meanwhile, Shelly Finkel, Breland's agent, discovered that Nappi had left for the airport. He hurried over to the athletes' village to talk to his 21-year-old fighter.
"Oh, no," said Breland, shaken by the news. "I've got to talk to Pat. We've got to find him."
"Where?" asked Pernell Whitaker, Breland's closest friend on the team, who would be the gold medal winner in the lightweight class. "That's a big airport. He could be anyplace."
The following morning, after his three-mile run, Breland went to Nappi and apologized, saying that he didn't want to see Steward again until after the Olympics.
Mollified, Nappi said later, "We're winning, the team is doing terrific, and things like this keep happening. I shouldn't let it get me down. I've been slapped in the face so many times I should be used to it."
By Aug. 5 the U.S. team had run its record to 16-0; then Robert Shannon, the bantamweight, ran into the angry fists of Moon Sung Kil of South Korea. It was Shannon's second bout. A pure puncher, Shannon shocked everyone, including himself, when he turned boxer and built a commanding lead through the first two rounds. But Shannon, reverting to slugging form in the last round, was outgunned by Moon and stopped with a little less than two minutes to go in the fight.
"I had to look at the tapes to find out what happened," Shannon said. "He caught me with an overhand right at the end of the second round, and I don't remember a thing after that. I'm hazy about what was said in the corner and I remember nothing of the third round. After I got hurt I went back to being a slugger, and that was my big mistake. But I went out like a man; I went down swinging."
Misfortune didn't strike again until Novicic thumbed Holyfield out of the Olympics and—as sort of a silver (or bronze) lining—to greater national exposure than if he'd gone on to win the gold medal. "It looked to me like the referee was pulling for him," Holyfield said quietly. "He warned him about nine times for holding, and usually after a couple of those a boxer is disqualified. I don't know why the referee did what he did. I was throwing a combination. Barry even threw a punch. I never heard the referee say anything until after the guy went down. Even if I had heard him, there was no way I could stop a punch in midair. I knew the way we were going that somebody would get a raw deal down the line. I just never thought it would be me. But there's nothing I can do about it. I did my best."
And so, the U.S. put 10 of its boxers into the finals. Leading off was Paul Gonzales, the light flyweight who had only to walk into the ring Saturday afternoon to pick up his gold medal. His opponent, Salvatore Todisco of Italy, had broken his right thumb in a semifinal victory over Keith Mwila of Zambia, and couldn't fight.
Then, after Maurizio Stecca of Italy defeated Hector Lopez of Mexico 4-1 to win the bantamweight gold medal, came Whitaker, the American team showman. He'd run off four impressive 5-0 victories, and now he closed the show by forcing the corner of Luis Ortiz of Puerto Rico to toss in the towel with three seconds remaining in the second round.
Up stepped Breland, the 6'2½" welter with a 109-1 record, who is more Hearns than Sugar Ray Leonard, although most people seemed to prefer comparing him to Leonard, winner of the light welterweight gold medal at the '76 Games. Despite the early Olympic bickering, which bothered him deeply and led to poor showings in his first two fights, Breland did have his positive moments.
For one, he got to turn down a $15,000 offer from an athletic shoe company to wear its product in just one fight. (McCrory and super heavyweight Tyrell Biggs were offered $40,000 each to wear the shoes of another company, but the American Boxing Federation has an exclusive agreement with Adidas to have its boxers wear only that brand. That deal nets more than $300,000 a year for U.S. amateur boxing.)
Then there was the advice that Breland received during the past two weeks from three former world champions.
Muhammad Ali: "Throw a lot of punches to build up points in the first round, coast but score some points in the second round, and then come on strong in the first and last minute of the third round."
Sugar Ray Robinson: "Do a lot of running for stamina and throw double and triple hooks. A guy will pick off that first hook, but he won't be looking for a second and third one."
Leonard: "I've been reading all this stuff in the papers and you got to put it out of your head. You've got one goal and you can't let anything or anyone get between you and that goal. Just go out and do your thing and forget about everything else."
With those words in mind, Breland went out and gave a very convincing boxing lesson to An Young Su of Korea. That, his 111th fight, was his last as an amateur. He'll turn pro in November or December, starting off as a welter but then moving up to the junior middle-weights.
"I'll fight for three years," said Breland, who has appeared in one movie—The Lords of Discipline—and has an offer to make another with Goldie Hawn. "No longer. Hopefully I'll be a champion within about 18 months. I have other things to fall back on: my education and my career in the movies. I don't like to get marked up too much in the face but for a couple of million dollars I'll let them mark me."
The Americans' only silver medal went to Virgil Hill, the middleweight from North Dakota who came up short in a 3-2 fight with Shin Joon Sup of South Korea. Hill did nothing; Shin, the favorite, did just a little bit more. "I hope the loss will make me a better man," Hill, 20, said. "Stars give 110 percent, not 100. I only gave 105. I could have pushed more. But I can't take anything away from the Korean. He's really a great champion."
The morning session's final bout, a second rematch of Henry Tillman and Canada's world champion, Willie deWit, was a mild shocker. Eighteen months ago Tillman wasn't even ranked, and he had already lost twice to deWit, once by knockout. But this time the 6'2½" American was ready, and he stole the thunder of deWit, who was all set to sign a $1 million bonus contract with a Texas group immediately after winning the gold medal but who was having a poor tournament. Quick for his 201 pounds, Tillman has a snake jab, and he used both his speed and his left hand to win a 5-0 decision.
They went back to the smaller men to start the night shift, with McCrory, he of the sunburst smile, standing flat-footed and grim to hammer out another controversial American victory, this one 4-1 over Redzep Redzepovski of Yugoslavia, which sat well with the Sports Arena crowd.
Then the youngest member of the U.S. contingent, 17-year-old featherweight Meldrick Taylor, who was well schooled while sparring against professionals in the tough gyms of Philadelphia, scored a hard-fought 5-0 victory over Peter Konyegwachie, a 5'4" civil servant from Nigeria.
Controversy sprang up again, this time when the lightly regarded Page battled to a 5-0 decision over Dhawee Umponmaha of Thailand. "I was a little arm-weary," said Page. "If there was a flaw in what I did today, it was that I let it be a slugfest. I had five fights and none of them was a cakewalk."
Then came the showdown that a lot of boxing purists had been waiting for: Frank Tate against Shawn O'Sullivan of Canada for the light middleweight gold medal. In at least one fight earlier in the tournament, Tate and O'Sullivan each had been treated most kindly by the judges.
As expected, Tate came out on a bicycle and jabbing, a hallmark of Nappi-coached fighters. O'Sullivan packs a wallop in both hands, and there are few who are unwise enough to stand in front of him. The first round was close and could have gone either way. But in the second, O'Sullivan blasted Tate from his bike, twice catching him for standing eight counts, and was within one solid shot of a third and victory. But Tate gamely held on to carry the fight into the final round.
The second was an overwhelming round for O'Sullivan, but—astoundingly—four of the judges (Keith Walker of New Zealand, Han Dong Jin of South Korea, Noureddine Addala of Tunisia and Muili Ojo of Nigeria) gave him the round by the slim margin of 20-19. Where do they find them? Better yet, why?
"O.K., you know what he's going to do in this round," coach Peter Wylie told O'Sullivan. "He's going to run around and jab. I want you to just go out there in the center of the ring and wave at him to come in and fight."
Instead, the baby-faced 22-year-old O'Sullivan went out for the kill and wound up chasing Tate and catching jabs for three minutes. And then he stood in shock when Tate got the 5-0 verdict.
"It was an unfortunate decision," said the obviously distressed O'Sullivan. "I think you can tell that by the applause given Tate and by the applause given me. There seem to be about 15,000 people out there who disagree with the judges. I dearly wish things had gone different, but they didn't, and there's no gain in crying over spilled milk."
Then, after Josipovic suffered the undeserved boos of some boorish fans when he appeared for his walkover, Tyrell Biggs, the super heavyweight, closed his amateur career with a stylish if unexciting 4-1 defeat of an old rival, Francesco Damiani of Italy.
Nine gold medals? Yes. But a bit tarnished by some of the referees and judges. Perhaps they'd like to shoot a little craps for their white canes?