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The Drop-Off

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Another Olympic Games has come and gone and in a historic low for the U.S. men’s boxing team, they failed to medal. Zippo, zilch, nada. Not so much as a bronze medal was to be had by this squad who not only had dreams of gold placed around their necks but pro debuts to be televised nationally on CBS. “Dan and Dave” of Reebok infamy weren’t this big of a disappointment. There are a lot of reasons why, from the flawed computer scoring system to what amateur boxing has devolved into and perhaps the corruption of AIBA.
 
All those are valid reasons.
 
But this also has to be stated: perhaps the reality is that the U.S. talent pool simply isn’t what it once was. Yeah, to paraphrase Rick Pitino (which I love to do if you haven’t noticed), Meldrick Taylor ain’t walking through that door. Kennedy McKinney ain’t walking through that door. Hell, Jermain Taylor may not be walking through that door.

Yeah, I said it. And the facts don’t lie.
 
And what happened in London over the past couple of weeks is part of a disturbing trend that has seen America’s success in the squared circle at the Olympics dwindle throughout the years. There used to be a time when the United States was always good for at least a couple of gold medals and several future world champions at the next level. From the legendary teams of 1976 and 1984 (when things reached a highpoint) to the stacked squads in 1988 which produced the likes of Michael Carbajal, Kennedy McKinney, Roy Jones and Riddick Bowe to the team in ’92 featuring Oscar De la Hoya, Chris Byrd, Montell Griffin, Tim Austin and the late Vernon Forrest. The latter was followed by the ’96 edition with Eric Morel, Floyd Mayweather, David Diaz, Fernando Vargas, David Reid and Antonio Tarver. The 2000 U.S. contingent - which I saw first-hand in Sydney, Australia - included Brian Viloria, Jermain Taylor and Jeff Lacy.
 
Through this most recent era, the United States was still able to either produce a steady stream of medalists, future world champions - and some pay-per-view draws - or all of the above from their teams. But from then on though, this well seems to be running dry. The only world champion from the 2004 team is Andre Ward, who has clearly established himself as an elite boxer and the best super middleweight in the world. Vanes Martirosyan and Andre Dirrell have become contenders in their respective weight classes but their careers have stalled for one reason or the other. The 2008 American boxing squad is still getting into the thick of its professional run as Gary Russell Jr. and Demetrius Andrade look very promising with Deontay Wilder, Shawn Estrada and Sadam Ali all building records and going through the developmental stage.
 
Make no doubt about it; as much as boxing has become a niche sport in our country, it’s safe to assume it will be reflected in shrinking numbers in terms of participation. This country will always be among the leading producers of boxing talent, regardless, but like America found out with basketball in the 1988 Olympics, the rest of the world has slowly but surely caught up to them in boxing. As sports like football and basketball can at least provide the premise of a college education and certain built-in infrastructures, boxing lost out on getting the best athletic material to work with and mold a long time ago.
 
As for this current squad, the word from the insiders (who follow the amateurs and have been bidding for the services of this crop) is that Errol Spence, Marcus Browne, Jose Ramirez and Joseph Diaz have the most professional upside. I happen to think Terrell Gausha could make a good pro. It will be interesting to see who they sign with and then how they are developed at the next level. Olympic success isn’t always a precursor to professional triumphs or vice-versa. I still remember Miguel Cotto being eliminated in the first round in the 2000 Olympics by Muhammad Abdullaev (considered one of the best amateurs of his era) but in the paid ranks, it was Cotto who became a star and a pay-per-view attraction (even gaining revenge on Abdullaev on his way up the ladder five years later at Madison Square Garden).
 
There may be multiple world champions and maybe even a transcendent star from this lot but can you argue with the data? What happened in London is not just an aberration. In fact, you could state that, to a large degree, it’s more than just a trend and it shows you how far USA Boxing has fallen.
 
Pat Nappi is probably rolling over in his grave. Kenny Adams is probably shaking his head in disgust.
 
RANDOM THOUGHTS
 
-  I have a theory that nowadays, with what amateur boxing has become, the better amateur boxer you are, the harder time you will have acclimating to the professional game (should you choose to pursue it). Just look at some of the highlights of the ’76 and ’84 Olympics; other than the tank-tops and later on the headgear, the bouts look much more like professional contests - just much shorter in duration. Today, the amateur and pro game couldn’t be more different.
 
I draw the parallel with Tim Tebow, who was a fantastic college quarterback at the University of Florida (arguably the greatest ever) but as a Gator, he played in the spread offense, meaning he was never under center and rarely had to read defenses as a passer. To see him now try and play quarterback in a pro-style system is, well, “entertaining” to say the least. He simply doesn’t have the skill set to transition to playing QB in the National Football League. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it takes nothing away from his achievements as a Gator (two national titles and a Heisman Trophy) but that’s his ceiling as a quarterback. If you disagree, well, there’s a reason why he was on the punt coverage team for the Jets this past Friday. Not even Browning Nagle did that.
 
But back to my point; I think a lot of standout amateur boxers nowadays are akin to that spread offense, read-option quarterback who is a product of the system and may not do particularly well as pros.
 
There aren’t a lot of Cam Newtons out there.
 
-  I kept hearing that the U.S. team was hampered by the fact that most of them were trained like pros. Honestly, I saw a lot of good athletes who were taught how to hit the pads with fancy combinations (most of which will never be utilized in a real contest) but not necessarily build solid fundamentals. Again, I do think the scoring system has hurt the Americans probably more so than any other country (or so I’ve heard) but to focus the blame solely on that is a bit of convenient scapegoating.
 
If you watch Claressa Shields, the young female from Flint, Michigan who won the gold medal, she sets her feet and punches with more authority than any of her American teammates, male or female (although Mr. Gausha may disagree with that). Many folks believe there is a coaching deficiency that exists. OK, maybe it does but I just wonder: if in the attempt to win fights in the era of computerized scoring and, in essence, trying to game the system, has teaching basic rudimentary skills - such as a hard, consistent jab - been lost in the process?
 
-  Despite the shortcomings of this team in London, over the long haul, if they perform well in the paid ranks, this will be a blip on the radar. The simple truth of the matter is that Americans define their boxers by what they do as professionals. Case in point, Howard Davis and Mark Breland were perhaps the two most decorated and lauded amateurs ever from the United States. Unfortunately, the way they are looked at historically is really for their professional résumés.
 
-  There used to be a time when coming out as a pro with Olympic glory was the fastest track to stardom. But the days of Howard Cosell anointing stars on primetime in ABC are long gone. Boxing, unfortunately, is now relegated to one of the sister networks of NBC (which has found that programming the Olympics - even on tape delay - for the most casual of sports fans and females is a sure way to grab ratings) and quite honestly, is not seen by all that many people in the States.
 
Back when I was growing up, I remember when ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” would televise dual meets between the U.S. national team and other countries like Cuba. So even before the Olympics, there was a certain familiarity with our team. You could literally see them grow up right in front of your eyes. That type of exposure no longer exists for today’s amateurs. And with Olympic boxing relegated to CNBC, you wonder if even capturing a gold medal was the boost it once was for American boxers.
 
-  Just remember this: as Top Rank’s legendary matchmaker, Bruce Trampler, told me long ago, no matter how good or bad someone is an amateur, we really don’t know much about these guys till we see them with smaller gloves and without headgear. It’s akin to seeing a young prospect in baseball who can drive the ball using an aluminum bat but it’s a whole different ballgame with wood. Some boxers simply aren’t the same without the headgear and one of the first things managers and matchmakers want to know about boxers is their ability to take a punch.
 
Then you have other variables such as the longer fights and boxing against men who are perhaps older and physically more developed than you are.
 
Yeah, it’s a different world once you start getting paid (over the table and not just under it).
 
FINAL FLURRIES
 
I’ll have more on this later but I thought Sergio Mora did more than enough to beat Brian Vera in their rematch in San Antonio...Couple of non-American boxers that really caught my eye and look forward to seeing at the next level are Vasyl Lomachenko (who already has upper body and head movement superior to most pros), Felix Verdejo (who’s just 19 and comes from the boxing hotbed of Puerto Rico) and Mexican Oscar Valdez (whose pressure style and body punching is built for long fights)...The Olympics will be very good for the British boxing business in the upcoming years. Just don’t know how many of their guys will really make good professionals...Thought Darley Perez made some nice late-fight adjustments against the crafty left-hander Bahodir Mamadjonov. Perez could be on the Oct. 27th edition of HBO’s “Boxing After Dark.” A name thrown around for Perez is Anthony Peterson...Also on that card, we could see a welterweight tussle between Thomas Dulorme and Carlos Abregu but Dulorme still has to take care of business against Ivan Hernandez, 29-3 (23), at the end of this month...Andrew Luck, I know it’s only August but seriously, doesn’t he just look like a 10-year veteran?...As much as I like Cam Newton, that Panthers “D” might really hinder his development as a player...Oh, I can’t wait for the next episode of “Hard Knocks” with Chad Johnson and his wife going all Koko B. Ware on each other...Are the Olympics over yet?...I can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com and I tweet at www.twitter.com/stevemaxboxing. We also have a Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/MaxBoxing.


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