The first fighter in the ring for last weekend's U.S. Olympic Box-off at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was James Harris, a 106-pounder from Washington, D.C., who was a substitute for Brian Lonon, who couldn't make the weight limit, and who, if he had made the weight, would have been a substitute for Eric Griffin, who was told to go home because he, along with two other U.S. fighters, had tested positive for drugs after the Olympic boxing trials the previous week in Concord, Calif. If that seems confusing, just imagine how it felt to the 12 kids who are going to be fighting for flag and country in Seoul come September as they watched the process for selecting America's best young boxers dissolve into bitter in-house fighting among the mature older fellows who run the show and never get hit in the nose, except by each other.
Shoot, them old guys got rid of their first selection for head coach, a career soldier, and replaced him with a bartender. It seems that Sgt. Ken Adams, the Army's top boxing coach and the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team until last month, erred when he grabbed an official of the USA Amateur Boxing Federation (ABF) by the neck to emphasize a point during a debate last May. Then Tom Coulter, the newly appointed head coach, who owns a tavern in Syracuse, N.Y., came under scrutiny for allegedly urinating on a Moscow street during a two-week tour of the Soviet Union with a U.S. boxing team last March. One wag immediately named the American team the Whiz Kids. At that point, another Army coach. Master Sgt. Hank Johnson, announced that he wouldn't work as Coulter's assistant in Seoul because Coulter didn't have enough experience—although the bar-keep has been coaching for 38 years and has run at least eight coaching clinics for the Army. Some observers were moved to speculate that surely only the Pentagon, miffed at the dismissal of its man Adams, could have ordered Johnson to say something that dumb.
Jumping gleefully into the fray, the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), with a general secretary from East Germany and a president from Pakistan, who knows which side of the Iron Curtain his bread is buttered on, launched an attack against Col. Don Hull, president of the ABF and the man who runs amateur boxing in this country. The AIBA said it was suspending Hull, its president from 1978 to 1986, for alleged financial improprieties, a charge that seems to be as phony as the men who made it. Adding injury to insult, the AIBA said it wouldn't even issue Hull a credential for Seoul. Hull said the charges were made by a bunch of in-grates he had attempted to befriend. "If they keep up with these wild lies, I'm going to have to go to court," he said.
The last volley was fired by Sugar Ray Leonard, the former world champion in three divisions and an Olympic gold medal winner in 1976. Stung by criticism that he had been using his position as special adviser to the U.S. Olympic boxing staff to gather talent for his own pro boxing stable that he manages, Leonard angrily resigned from the staff the day before the Box-off began in Las Vegas. Leonard said one of the reasons he was walking away was that no one would tell him what his job was supposed to entail. "I have been giving advice through a soundproof wall," said Leonard. "No one listens. People ask me what I am doing. I couldn't answer because I didn't know and they didn't know. Nobody knew."
It hardly helped the mood of the U.S. boxers when they learned on Friday, the day Leonard departed, that three of the challengers for the Box-off had been ordered home after testing positive for drugs. Griffin, light welterweight Lavell Finger and middleweight William Guthrie all denied use of drugs, but to no avail. Called as a replacement for Griffin in the 106-pound division, Lonon said thanks a lot but he now weighed 116. In came Harris, only to lose to Michael Carbajal on a disqualification the first day. Finger's replacement, Charles Murray, lost 5-0 (a unanimous decision by the five judges) to Todd Foster. Anthony Hembrick had it even easier than Foster; he won without even fighting when Guthrie's replacement, Darin Allen, said he would need at least a week to get ready.
The wonder of it all is that, even with the distractions, the U.S. came out of the two-day Box-off with a team that should carry itself well in Seoul. The Box-off was structured so that, in each of the 12 weight divisions, the champion from the previous week's trials was pitted against the most worthy challenger, as chosen by a committee of the ABF. The challenger had to win bouts on both Saturday and Sunday of the Box-off to earn an Olympic berth; the champion needed to win only once to secure a spot. Only four trials champions were forced to fight again on Sunday; three of the challengers made the final team.
Winning on Saturday, along with Carbajal, Foster and, by default, Hembrick, were trials champions Arthur Johnson (112 pounds), who defeated Chris Carrillo 4-1; Romallis Ellis (132), a 5-0 victor over Lyndon Walker; Kenneth Gould (147), who won over Gerry Payne, 4-1; Roy Jones (156), a 3-2 winner over Frank Liles; and Ray Mercer (201), who defeated Michael Bent 3-2. After losing 4-1 to challenger Michael Collins on Saturday, trials champion Kennedy McKinney gained the 119-pound berth with a 4-1 victory over Collins in the Sunday rematch.
Challengers Andrew Maynard, Kelcie Banks and Riddick Bowe, all losers in the trials, made the team the hard way. Banks (125) had to beat tough little Ed Hopson, a 17-year-old from St. Louis, twice, 4-1 and 3-2. Hopson, 5'3¼" of flash-and-flurry, had won admirers with his victories as an underdog in the trials; the decisions in favor of the 5'11½" Banks were less than popular with the Vegas crowd. Super heavyweight Bowe won two narrow 3-2 decisions from Robert Salters. And Maynard (178) had a pair of 4-1 victories over Alfred Cole.
"Now, hopefully, we can put all this other stuff behind us and start preparing for Seoul," said Coulter, who claimed that the accusation of his alleged indiscretion in Moscow was absurd. "In fact, if all this had to happen, it was better that it happened now before the team goes to camp. This is going to be a fine team, and it is going to be in condition and it is going to be ready for anything the rest of the world has. We have the talent. Now we have to become a family and have fun. If we take the fun out of it, it will be an agonizing 12 weeks. I won't let that happen."
Alas, if the Vegas follies of last week are any indication, the coach may be in for more agony than ecstasy.