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The American Olympic Team that Wasn’t

As the Olympic boxing competition steams into the medal rounds, it is a good time to reflect on the only American boxing team not allowed to compete. Thirty-two years ago, American politicians destroyed the life’s work of hundreds of patriotic athletes, crushing dreams and rendering years of training inconsequential. Among them 11 boxers, their futures negatively impacted by not participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics. Politicians decided America would not participate in the Moscow Olympics because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. There was no “Miracle on Ice” (where was the moral objection to competing against Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics, hosted by America?)-type victory by American boxers against formidable rivals from Russia and Cuba. Imagine how James Broad’s career could have skyrocketed with an upset of legendary Cuban heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson.
An Olympic gold medal does more than elevate the fighter in the eyes of the public; it is a virtual guarantee that the boxer is put on a higher pay scale during the developmental phase of his career. Take the failed pro aspirations of 2000 American Olympian Ricardo Williams as an example. The 2000 Olympic silver medalist signed a million-dollar contract (reportedly 1.4 million), after which his career sputtered out with a 19-3 (10) professional record. It is easy for promoters to secure TV dates for a “former Olympian” vice a hard-working kid on the way up named Marvin Hagler. Even communist boxer Slobodan Kacar, of Yugoslavia, won a world title in the professional ranks, thanks largely to the negotiating power his 1980 gold medal afforded him.

Sugar Ray Leonard became an American hero at the 1976 Olympics and companies flocked to him with lucrative endorsement deals as soon as it was announced Leonard would turn pro. Evander Holyfield and Pernell Whitaker received similar career boosts in 1984 despite not facing the available competition at the 1984 Olympics (which Russia, Cuba and other prominent Communist boxing nations boycotted). Their histories leave no doubt that an Olympic medal greatly influences the subsequent career trajectory of a boxer. Sadly, so do the stories of the 1980 Olympic boxing team that did not get a chance to earn such a head start.
The era in which these fights would have taken place must be considered. The Cold War was a hot topic around the world and the Russians were the sporting enemy that Sylvester Stallone imagined for his sensationalistic “Rocky IV” movie. There were only three national television channels and America’s sporting focus was solely on the Olympics. Boxing was not limited to 3 p.m. replays on obscure and hard-to-find cable channels. The boxing finals were prime time Saturday night viewing (especially in view of the success of the 1976 American Olympic boxing team) that gave Super Bowl-level exposure.
All of this was lost by the 11 men of this team through no fault of their own. A recap of their careers shows they sorely needed a positive push out of the starting gate to ignite said careers. One should not generalize but maybe this whole team was born under a bad star. Nearly the entire squad suffered ill-fated careers of one sort or the other; even the boxers who fought and won world titles had their worlds crash around them abruptly.
Here are their stories.
Robert Shannon (junior flyweight, Seattle, Washington) - The baby of the team, Shannon was a 17-year-old who remained an amateur to compete at the 1984 Olympics. Unfortunately, Russia boycotted those Olympics, affecting the competition and thus the aura of the winners. A second strike against Shannon was getting knocked out by future pro champion Sung-Kil Moon of Korea. In the pros, Shannon faltered again; lacking a big punch, he was held to two draws in his first 13 fights. His management panicked and pushed Shannon into a fight with mirror-image, but more mature, Greg Richardson to quickly lose a 12-round majority decision. The fight broke Shannon, ending his career with an 18-6-2 (8) record and never fought for a world title.
Richie Sandoval (flyweight, Pomona, California) - This dynamo learned from the mistakes of his older brother, star-crossed Alberto “Superfly” Sandoval, avoiding the pitfalls Richard witnessed his brother fall into repeatedly. Sandoval won his world title by beating the best bantamweight of the era in a torrid 15-round punch-up. Sandoval used his all-around skills to knock out Hall-of-Famer Jeff Chandler despite facing weak competition en route to the title shot. Sandoval’s career came to an abrupt end, two years later, suffering a brain injury in his third title defense. Everyone rejoiced when he survived the injury but Sandoval never fought again and remains involved with boxing as the manager of the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas.
Jackie Beard (bantamweight, Jackson, Tennessee) - Fought for 14 years as a pro but had the unenviable task of facing Hall of Fame road warrior Brian Mitchell in his two world title shots. A fantastic amateur, the 20-year-old decided not to wait for the ’84 Olympics though he would have been a medal favorite. Lost in his first step up in competition, beaten by former title challenger Jose Caba, Beard lacked consistency and struggled maintaining his weight. The Caba loss set a precedent for the Kronk Gym speedster, losing his most important bouts when the lights shone most brightly on him. After losing 10 of his last 11 fights, Beard retired and still works as a trainer in the Detroit area.
Bernard Taylor (featherweight, Charlotte, North Carolina) - A 23-year-old who waited four years after failing to make the 1976 team, Taylor might have been the most affected by the boycott. A stylish boxer, Taylor used speed and his legs to defeat more physically imposing featherweights. This showed in his first title fight when Taylor faded late and drew with rough-and-tumble champion Eusebio Pedroza. After another winning streak, Taylor traveled to Ireland, losing to another unrelenting banger in Barry McGuigan. If Taylor had known about the 1980 boycott, he would have surely turned pro at bantamweight in 1976, when his style and body would have held up better allowing him to exploit quick combinations.
Joe Manley (lightweight, Toledo, Ohio) - An Army boxer who defeated future champion Frankie Randall to earn the spot on the team and waited another year to fulfill his obligation to the Army before turning pro. Lacked the overall hand and foot speed to become an outstanding pro but was fundamentally sound enough to win the IBF title. Knocked out ordinary titlist Gary Hinton to win that belt, losing it the same way in England against Terry Marsh in his first title defense. Manley was a hard-working gatekeeper, hovering around the lower top 20, stinging contenders or prospects if they came unprepared. A true blue-collar boxer who got the most out of his abilities.
Johnny Bumphus (junior welterweight, Nashville, Tennessee) - A stylish southpaw whose major flaw was that he lacked a world-class chin. Known as “Bump City,” he quickly traveled up the rankings under the tutelage of Lou Duva. Probably would not have won the WBA junior welterweight title had Aaron Pryor’s personal demons not derailed his career, forcing Pryor to vacate the title. Bumphus survived a fourth round knockdown against light-hitting Argentinean Lorenzo Garcia to win the title but was stopped in the 11th round of his first title defense against rugged Gene Hatcher. The fight was The Ring magazine’s “Upset of the Year” and Bumphus rebounded with seven wins before being knocked out in a title challenge of Lloyd Honeyghan. By that time, Bumphus was addicted to cocaine and no longer a peak performer. Always a fighter, Bumphus kicked his addiction and is now a successful trainer.
Donald Curry (welterweight, Fort Worth, Texas) - This sensational boxer had the skill, style and smile to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard. As it was, Curry had an excellent career and, at one point, was considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport. “The Lone Star Cobra” had a reported amateur record of 400-6, unified the welterweight titles and was voted The Ring magazine’s “Fighter of the Year” for 1985. Nothing was beyond Curry’s capabilities in the ring and it is generally accepted that weight-making difficulties lead to his downfall. While Curry moved up and won a junior middleweight title, his body was no longer capable of absorbing the punishment needed at the higher level, suffering stoppage losses to Terry Norris, Mike McCallum and Michael Nunn. I can’t help but wonder if Curry’s career might have been managed better if he had come back from Russia with a gold medal.
James Shuler (junior middleweight, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) - Philly fighter earned the moniker “Black Gold,” employing a blend of speed, power and a willingness to engage opponents head on to unleash those attributes. In only his 13th fight, defeated aging 1976 Olympian Sugar Ray Seales, proving he was a top contender by handing fellow prospect James Kinchen his first defeat. Had the misfortune of being knocked out by a near prime Thomas Hearns in Shuler’s lone fight on the big stage and died one week later in a motorcycle accident. The James Schuler Memorial Gym in Philadelphia is a lasting memorial to Schuler’s unfulfilled life and potential.
Charles Carter (middleweight, Yakima, Washington) - A volume-punching middleweight whose whirlwind style was ideal for the short distance, three-round amateur format, one that helped keep Carter’s vulnerable chin hidden as well. Carter was exposed after only six pro fights; knocked out in his first pro test, Carter never lived up to his “Machine Gun” nickname when it came to stopping opponents. He suffered two more knockouts in 1983 but did manage to go 10 rounds against a brawling Chong-Pal Park in South Korea. Fought valiantly for six years without any notable victories, retiring with an 18-9 (8) record and six stoppage losses.
Lee Roy Murphy (light heavyweight, Chicago, Illinois) - Made the best publicity-related move as a pro, giving himself the nickname of “Solid Gold” in lieu of actually winning the gold medal. A powerful light heavyweight, Murphy’s punching power diminished as he moved up in weight. No opponent was going to beat Murphy while backing up. Those who could stand up to Murphy’s pressure found he could be beaten by forcing a high pace or willing Murphy to move in a direction other than forward. Murphy knocked out a past-his-prime Marvin Camel to win the newly established IBF cruiserweight title, successfully defending it three times. The equally powerful (and flawed) Ricky Parkey took the title from Murphy via kayo, after which Murphy became a useful heavyweight trial horse.
James Broad (heavyweight, Greensboro, North Carolina) - The second representative from the Army boxing team whose defensive reflexes and pinpoint countering was ideally suited for the amateur game. Beat Marvis Frazier, son of Joe Frazier, for the Olympic berth, then waited a year-and-a-half to fulfill his Army contract before turning pro. Dedication to the sport was not what it should have been, which a 25- pound weight gain between his pro debut and third fight indicates. Broad rededicated himself to training and got his weight into the 220s for a rematch with Marvis Frazier but lost the fight via close 10-round unanimous decision. It was the last time Broad seemed focused or was within 20 pounds of his optimal weight for a contest, losing bouts against Tim Witherspoon, Tony Tucker and Razor Ruddock.
High profile defeats, a brain injury, addictions and death followed in the wake of the infamous 1980 Olympic boycott. Of course, not everything can be blamed on the boycott but I find a good initial surge is a positive dynamic for any venture, a factor politicians should investigate before they put their egos and ambitions ahead of the athletes they should be representing.
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