Looking lost, almost Grief-Stricken, Eric Griffin dropped into a chair in a small dressing room at the Olympic boxing arena last Saturday afternoon and leaned forward, absently reaching to untie his shoes. Droplets of sweat beaded at the end of his nose, while his eyes, beginning to fill, were a glistening red. A ring of somber faces surrounded him, as if viewing a corpse; then the body raised its head and spoke.
"Well, you've got to live day by day, brother," Griffin muttered. "I've come a long way.... You have good times, you have bad times.... This is a bad time."
For the U.S. Olympic boxing team, it was something far worse and more ominous than that. Only 15 minutes earlier, in one of the most stunning upsets imaginable in the boxing competition, a blocky, 4'10" Spaniard named Rafael Lozano, unranked in world competition, had won a ludicrously scored 6-5 decision over Griffin, the four-time world amateur champion in the light flyweight division. Regarded by many as the finest amateur boxer in the world, the 24-year-old Griffin had won his first fight, 14-2, against a rangy Dominican, Fausto Mercedes—"He didn't want any part of me," said Griffin—and was expected to march grandly through Lozano to the quarterfinals and on to the medal rounds.
Griffin, the U.S. co-captain, was clearly the rock and spirit of an American team that had come into the Games with considerable hopes for medals. So the decision left Griffin's teammates drifting around the arena in a daze. "We are going to have to put the whole team back together emotionally," said U.S. coach Joe Byrd. "We lost our star, our leader. Now we're out there floating."
August 9, 1992
Griffin himself worked at facing the moment, in public, with equanimity. When the decision was announced, he smiled weakly, patted Lozano on the head, and 10 minutes later, in the dressing room, he successfully checked his emotions as he packed his gym bag. But a few minutes after leaving, he joined his U.S. sponsor and surrogate father, Bob Jordan, in an anteroom of the arena and wept in Jordan's arms. "I love you, and I'm proud of you," Jordan told him.
"They robbed me, Bob," Griffin said. "They robbed me."
Griffin had that right. Indeed, the only question that lingers is the identity of the culprits. After U.S. boxer Roy Jones was flagrantly robbed of a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in his fight against a South Korean by judges who were either corrupt or incompetent, Olympic boxing officials decided to adopt a different scoring system. They chose a computer device with which live ringside judges, their fingers on two buttons in front of them, record each fighter's scoring blows. In order for a fighter's blow to count, at least three of the five judges have to hit that fighter's button within one second of one another.
That meant, in the Griffin-Lozano match, that at least three judges hit Griffin's button only five times and Lozano's six within the mandated interval—a preposterous total on the face of it, given that the two fighters were whaling at each other for the better part of their nine-minute bout. Griffin won the first round 2-1, though he had some trouble figuring Lozano out, and the American appeared to score more frequently in the second. In fact, with 15 seconds left in the round, Griffin landed at least five punches to the head, which forced the referee to give Lozano a standing eight count. In what was perhaps the height of scoring folly, however, the computer registered only one scoring blow for Griffin for the entire round and none at all for the flurry that caused the standing eight count.
"That's ridiculous!" Jordan howled when the score was posted between rounds. The same could be said of the scoring of the entire match. "It stunk!" said the U.S. team leader, Buzz Buzalsky, who filed an official protest immediately after the match, paying the $100 protest fee out of his own pocket. As things turned out, he had more of a case than he realized. All five members of the scoring jury, whose job is to score the match by the old scorecard method in the event of a computer breakdown, had Griffin winning it. Moreover, the computer revealed that the five judges, in total, had hit Griffin's button 81 times over the three rounds, Lozano's button only 50 times. Alas, for Griffin, too few of his blows were recorded in batches of three.
Griffin shook his head in bewilderment. "I felt like I dominated from the first round to the third," he said. "I felt like I scored 25 to 30 points. My shots were cleaner than his. I think they had something set up when I stepped into the ring—I guess I was fighting against a hometown boy. Or maybe the judges were hitting the wrong button sometimes."
What added another fish to this Mediterranean bouillabaisse was the presence among the judges of Ghana's Keith Dadzie. The Griffin-Lozano match was Dadzie's first since coming off a two-day suspension forgoing through two fights without scoring a single punch. Apparently a slow learner, he hit the button for Griffin only eight times in the entire fight, for Lozano only five. "What was he doing there?" asked Jordan. Of course the U.S. team lost the protest on Sunday—in the history of Olympic boxing, no protest of a scoring decision has ever been upheld—and so Griffin lost his chance at the gold.
Sitting in the stands after the match, professional trainer Lou Duva was assessing one giant loss on the ledger. Duva said he had already made a deal with Jordan to train Griffin if he won the gold. The plan was to make a fight, after six months of training, between Griffin and Michael Carbajal, a gold medalist in '88 and now the IBF junior flyweight champion. "You know, the Olympic champion against the world champion," Duva said. "A million-dollar purse. If Eric beats Carbajal, he's an international attraction. But he had to win the gold. Who gives Eric a bonus now? He's the Roy Jones of 1992! He's a $300 fighter now. What am I going to do with a 106-pound fighter? Fight a Filipino in Manila or some small guys in Sacramento? This cost Griffin over $1 million."
But it was more than just a devastating financial loss for Griffin. "This has emotionally destroyed this kid's life," Jordan said. Four years ago Griffin was suspended from the Olympic Box-offs alter testing positive for marijuana. Jordan disowned him for a few months, but they reconciled after Griffin promised to change his life—to be drug-free and to attend church and lecture young people on the perils of drugs. Griffin says he did all those things. He worked every day to get a second chance at the Olympics. "Six miles every day," Jordan says. "I've seen him in the winter come home from running, with ice coating his sweat suit. Never missed a day. And now this...."
On the afternoon that the protest failed, Griffin was back at the boxing pavilion, urging on the U.S. fighters. "Coming here on the plane to Barcelona was the greatest moment I ever had," he said. "I wanted to win the gold so bad."
For want of a sane and reasonable scoring system, he never made it to the medal round.