Give credit to the myopic TV programmers, the classless coaches,
the hapless judges and the absolutely friendless scoring system.
Credit the sharky promoters who cruised the floor of Alexander
Memorial Coliseum in Atlanta, and--just so he doesn't feel left
out--credit Snipin' Joe Frazier. Credit overhyped American light
heavyweight Antonio Tarver, who allowed himself to get fat and,
when it mattered most, stupid. Credit all those whose colliding
self-interest nearly combined to kill boxing as an Olympic sport.
How close was it? Let's just say they had the knife on the neck.
For the first 16 days of the Atlanta Games, the sport that
produced magic in Rome, in Mexico City and in Montreal had all
the cachet of a Gomer Pyle rerun. NBC shunted boxing highlights
into a late-night ghetto, while the Games' power brokers seemed
to trot out Muhammad Ali at every venue except the one that
needed him most. There was Ali lighting the torch, mixing at the
Athletes' Village, meeting Monica Seles; there was Ali the night
before the Games ended, receiving a replica of his lost 1960
gold medal--at a Dream Team game. "Why was that done on a
basketball court?" asked USA Boxing president Jerry Dusenberry
at Alexander Coliseum. "Why wasn't it done here?"
Dusenberry's anger was telling: When your most sought-after
athlete hasn't competed in 16 years, something has gone wrong.
In Atlanta, Ali served as the sport's perfect symbol--all
glorious past and shaky present--and by Sunday's last gold medal
bouts, international boxing had endured its most humiliating
fortnight. Yes, a Tongan super heavyweight, Paea Wolfgramm, who
describes his real job as "clerk, mild-mannered clerk," emerged
as a saving grace. But most of the subplots were disheartening:
A U.S. judge resigned in protest over the scoring, the Cuban
team refused to speak to the press because of recent defections,
and U.S. coach Al Mitchell's boxers were just one loss from
their worst performance in 48 years. And this time few observers
seemed to care. On Sunday, Ali entered the boxing building for
the first time and got his thunderous due. But it all seemed too
little, too late.
Certainly a first look at the last U.S. fighter didn't offer
much hope: There was unheralded light middleweight David Reid,
chasing top-ranked Alfredo Duvergel of Cuba around the canvas.
Reid's right eye was scraped and swollen from the Cuban's
slicing jabs. And there was Duvergel, dancing in and out,
cuffing Reid into the ropes, leading 15-5 after two rounds and
sailing toward Cuba's fifth gold medal. Reid lunged after
Duvergel, trying to draw him into a rumble, and right then U.S.
assistant coach Jesse Ravelo, a Cuban expatriate and an expert
on his former team, saw something he couldn't believe. Instead
of running away and protecting his lead, Duvergel was wading in.
And just as Ravelo thought What the hell is he doing? Duvergel
opened up his guard like a party invitation, and Reid drove his
right fist down into the Cuban's face.
Duvergel dropped like a sack of stones, flat on his chest. He
tried to get to his feet, wobbling as the referee counted eight.
"I was going to try and finish him off," Reid said, "but I saw
that he was out. Gone." Reid leaped high. Duvergel started
weeping. It was, simply, one of the great comebacks in Olympic
history. Only 11 times before had an Olympic boxing final ended
in a knockout. And only once, with Reid's crushing hook, did
boxing seize center stage in these Games. "People can say all
they want, but when that big punch lands, this sport is out in
front," Mitchell said.
Reid raced to his corner and hugged Mitchell and his assistant,
Pat Burns. Mitchell stunned Reid by saying he loved him. For a
decade, ever since Reid walked into Mitchell's variety store on
the North Side of Philadelphia at age 10, the two had been
close--like family, given the absence of Reid's father. But the
49-year-old Mitchell had never told Reid that he loved him.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Mitchell said of Reid's victory.
"For a while it looked like our flag wasn't going to go up, and
of all the persons to be there [on the medal stand]... my own
son. I started crying. It's hard for me to cry, but tears rolled
out my eyes. You couldn't have a happier ending. Dave took this
The night before, after Mitchell and Reid had done their laundry
and Reid had gone to sleep, Mitchell wandered about. "I couldn't
sleep," he said. "So I watched tapes for four or five hours, and
I thought about Dave when he was a kid, and all the great times
At first, the relationship was one-way: Mitchell bought Reid
shirts and shoes, trained him with a pack of other kids in the
gym, sat with Reid for hours to watch film of Sugar Ray Leonard
and Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Reid would often stay at
Mitchell's house. "He took me under his wing," Reid said. "There
were five of us, and he'd take us out and buy us things, take us
to the movies, come and get us every night to go running. We'd
say, 'Man, why's this guy putting his time into us? Doesn't he
have anything better to do?'" Eventually all the other boys
dropped out of boxing. And after Mitchell lost his two kids in a
custody battle and was injured in a brutal robbery attempt that
left him in a coma for five days and with a plate in his head,
he found himself attached to Reid.
"He was special to me," Mitchell said. "When I divorced my first
wife, he was with me all the time. He picked me up when I was
Mitchell went to Marquette, Mich., in 1989 to run the U.S.
Olympic Education Center boxing program, and later he persuaded
Reid to follow him and get his high school diploma in Marquette.
When Reid considered turning pro two years ago, Mitchell told
him not to. Whenever Reid needed prodding to work out on winter
mornings, Mitchell was at the foot of his bed at 5 a.m.
screaming, "Come on, chump! Get up. It's time to run!"
So it was perfect when on the Olympics' final weekend, Reid and
Mitchell again found themselves alone together. As unlikely as
it had seemed three weeks earlier, they were the U.S. boxing
team's last hope. Though five other U.S. boxers--Tarver,
heavyweight Nate Jones, lightweight Terrance Cauthen,
middleweight Roshii Wells and featherweight Floyd
Mayweather--won bronze medals, none fought the last two days.
Reid clattered around the emptying Athletes' Village, waiting.
"I felt lonely, very lonely," he said. "Just me and Al. I'm
like, Hello! Hello! Where you all at?"
Good question. When the Olympics began, most observers figured
the young U.S. team could win four gold medals: World champion
Tarver was considered a lock, while Mayweather, super
heavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey and welterweight Fernando Vargas
were given good chances. Reid was known mostly for the muscle
damage he suffered in his left eyelid during the Olympic trials
and for a bizarre episode in June when he was arrested for
assaulting his girlfriend. The charges were subsequently dropped.
But Clay-Bey and Vargas bombed in the second round, losing tight
decisions that the coaches, starting an unseemly trend, whined
about to no avail. When Mayweather, perhaps the finest pro
prospect in the bunch, lost a questionable decision in a
semifinal bout with Bulgarian world champ Serafim Todorov,
Mitchell accused the judges of corruption, and longtime U.S.
referee Bill Waeckerle resigned as an international boxing
official. Tarver, meanwhile, fattened up on hamburgers before
his first bout--which he won, but with such a flaccid effort
that he was booed--and then broke curfew the night Centennial
Park was bombed. Ravelo was so angry that the next morning, as
he was yelling at Tarver, he drove his fist through a wall.
"He was walking around like he had already won the gold," Ravelo
said of Tarver. "I do a good job, and I'm not going to allow
anybody to pull my reputation down because he thinks he's a
Tarver's lack of focus caught up with him in the semifinals.
After the first round against Kazakhstan's Vasilii Jirov, Tarver
abandoned the defensive style that had made him one of the most
decorated amateur boxers in U.S. history. He panicked and
slugged himself into exhaustion, so that he could barely raise
his fists for the third round. Tarver survived the round but
Though the U.S. would win twice as many medals as in Barcelona
(six to three), the team underachieved. Meanwhile, the world's
other boxing power, Cuba, was steamrollering the field. And when
Cuban super heavyweight Alexis Rubalcaba entered the ring for
his quarterfinal bout with Wolfgramm on July 31, the Tongan's
defeat seemed inevitable.
Why not? The 23-year-old Cuban stands 6'6" with muscles
seemingly carved from obsidian. The 26-year-old Tongan is a
309-pound building with feet, who had just 23 fights to his
credit before Atlanta. Wolfgramm, a former rugby player who grew
up mostly in New Zealand, trained at Michael Carbajal's Ninth
Street Gym in Phoenix for three months before the Olympics.
Those who had seen him in previous bouts weren't taking him
lightly, for he has quick hands and moves surprisingly well. But
Rubalcaba hadn't ever seen Wolfgramm fight. Within 30 seconds
the Cuban was on the ropes, getting pummeled, and the crowd was
chanting, "Tonga! Tonga!" Wolfgramm won the bout 17-12.
It was the first time Cuba had lost a super heavyweight fight in
the Olympics. Beating Rubalcaba, Wolfgramm said, was his gold
medal match. (In the semifinals Wolfgramm would outpoint Duncan
Dokiwari of Nigeria but suffer a broken nose and wrist, and he
would lose in the finals to Vladimir Klichko of Ukraine.) When
the Tongan was asked if Alcides Sagarra, the gruff Cuban boxing
coach who sometimes hands out gifts to opposing fighters, had
given him anything after his upset win, he said, "A bad look. I
went to shake his hand, and usually a coach will give you a
smile or a nod. He didn't."
It was that kind of Olympics for the Cubans: they won four gold
medals and three silvers yet suffered their two most disastrous
boxing losses of recent times. When Mitchell shook Sagarra's
hand after Reid stunned Duvergel, Sagarra didn't bother
chatting. "He was mumbling," Mitchell said. "I don't think he
was saying hello."
Mitchell laughed at this; funny how one gold can make five
bronzes seem just fine. "It's unbelievable," he said on Sunday.
"A storybook, me and Dave." He looked over at Reid, who was
surrounded, having his picture taken with anyone who asked, and
signing hats and pieces of paper and shirts. A woman reached
over to fondle his gold medal. "I'm going to shower and throw it
right back on!" Reid said. "And I'm going to wear it
Now Mitchell nodded. "That's what boxing is," he said. And
nothing NBC or anyone else does can deny the day's simple truth:
In boxing it only takes one punch to keep a man--a sport--very