Matt Mosley takes a look at amateur boxing's recent changing of the guard as we head into the 2012 Olympic games in London.
* * * * *
There was a time when amateur boxing was dominated by two nations the USA and Cuba.
Having won a total of 47 and 32 Olympic golds in all Games, respectively, they lead the pack by quite a way when talking about the most successful amateur boxing nations of all time.
Great Cuban amateurs like Teofilo Stevenson ('72, '76, '80) and Felix Savon ('92, '96, '00) both won three consecutive golds each at heavyweight and ruled their weight class for years, and names from the lower weight classes like Guillermo Rigondeaux and Mario Kindelan are right there in the discussion when the greatest amateur boxers ever are debated.
US fighters who have won golds and gone on to achieve elite level (and in some cases legendary) status in the pro ranks include Andre Ward ('04), Oscar De La Hoya ('92), Pernell Whitaker ('84), Sugar Ray Leonard ('76), Joe Frazier ('68), George Foreman ('64) and Muhammad Ali ('60). Floyd Mayweather Jr won the bronze in Atlanta ('96) and Roy Jones Jr was criminally robbed in South Korea against a South Korean ('88) of a gold and had to make do with silver.
There has been a noticeable drop off for both nations in more recent times though and a steady shift of power over the last decade or two. In Beijing four years ago both Cuba and the US failed to record a single gold medal, with the Cubans still managing four silvers and four bronze, and the US only the lone bronze won by heavyweight Deontay Wilder. At the same games, nine different countries split the golds on offer in eleven weight categories and at the most recent World Amateur Championships last year in Azerbaijan, the golds in ten weight categories were taken by six countries, with only the Ukraine coming anywhere close to domination by winning the gold in four divisions. Cuba got two.
While both Cuba and the US have slipped from what they once were, the regression has been much more noticeable in the American squads of recent years. Cuba still do reasonably well in general, when compared to most other countries (just not by their own standards), but the US decline has been steep and has failed to show any real signs of recovery. I'm not buying at all Freddie Roach's recent quote that "most of our pros would lose in the amateurs, because they don't understand the scoring system."
I was a little disappointed in Freddie when I read that. Here's this great nation that has dominated almost every sport at one time or another and Roach has to make excuses about the scoring?
We know how bad the scoring can be at times, and the computer scoring system is set to be done away with after this year's Games, but in most cases, if you land solidly with the knuckle part of the glove, you usually score. The other countries have adjusted so why can't the US?
I think anyone who follows amateur boxing to even a small degree knows that there are many problems in the US amateur system that need fixing. One of them is that top fighters just don't seem to be coming through the ranks anywhere near the rate that they once did, most likely tempted by the riches being offered in other much less dangerous sports, and who can blame them for that, really? Another factor is that some of the best amateurs are lured by promoters to the pro game at a young age, before they have a chance to fulfill their potential in the unpaid ranks.
Fightes are no doubt tempted by the potential of big money in the pros, but an extensive amateur career in boxing is like laying solid foundations for a house. That base really does give a fighter something strong with which to build his pro career from, should he choose to turn over to the paid game. The fundamentals learned in the points building system of the amateur code will stand a fighter in great stead for the pros, where the focus tends to be much more on aggression and KOs. After all, the boxer usually (but certainly not always) beats the fighter and a boxer who has mastered the basics, the art of boxing, nine times out of ten will take a crude, wild swinging brawler to school.
In my opinion the only serious US contender for gold in London is flyweight Rau'shee Warren, who is a former World Amateur Champ (2007) but has not yet managed to get onto the Olympic medal podium. This will be his third games (having debuted in 2004 when only 17). However he is still only 25 and will no doubt turn pro after London. Who knows though, maybe one or two other young guns will break out this summer for the US. I will be previewing the US and GB squads within the next few weeks.
Of course, while some struggle, others thrive, and this has been the case for nations like Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan (although these nations have really always been close to the top since their USSR days), China, Italy, the UK and Ireland.
Brazil, a nation never before noted for amateur boxing, last year gained its first world champion in the form of light-welterweight Everton Lopes.
A lot of the success of these nations has to do with money spent by governments and time invested in the sport, and in the UK, for example, top international-level amateur fighters are now salaried and paid expenses which makes their profession quite lucrative when compared to years gone by. It also staves off the temptation to turn pro, at least for a while. They have state of the art training facilities and get top quality sparring too, with pros like Carl Froch.
There's no doubt that the current state of the game is as much about the improvement of these nations as it is about the decline of the former superpowers, but there are certainly contributing factors to this. As writer Chris Mckenna notes in last month's issue of Boxing Monthly, nations such as China and Ireland have, over the last fifteen years or so, brought in former Cuban national team coaches to teach their young fighters, and it has certainly reaped rewards, with China leading the medal table four years ago (two gold, one silver, one bronze) and Ireland producing some highly ranked fighters.
Cuba did gain two World Championship golds last year and Lazaro Alvarez (bantamweight) and Julio Cesar de la Cruz (light-heavyweight) will no doubt be favoured to repeat that success in London, but for the time being at least, the top spots are all up for grabs.
If I was asked which nation is the most likely to lead the medal table after these games however, my answer would be, without hesitation, Ukraine. With top fighters in their squad like the consensus pound for pound best amateur boxer, Vasyl Lomachenko, Denis Berinchyk, Evhen Kyhtrov, and Oleksandr Usyk, they will once again be hard to beat in London.
I hope you are looking forward to watching the best in the world compete this summer, and hopefully witnessing the early stages the careers of one or two future greats in the pro ranks.