U.S. boxing was once a dominant force on the international boxing landscape, tallying 105 Olympic medals from 1904 to 2004. The sport’s icons were molded on the Olympic stage: Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in Rome, Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal, Joe Frazier in Tokyo, George Foreman in Mexico City, Oscar de la Hoya in Barcelona.
The Games were a rite of passage when the sport still had a grip on the American sporting public’s imagination. The decline for USA Boxing has been sharp, though. The Americans accounted for six medals at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, four in Barcelona in 2000 and then only two in Athens four years later.
Heavyweight Deontay Wilder was the lone medalist in Beijing in 2008, prompting calls from critics for sweeping changes. The myriad problems that plague the sport — from a shrinking pool of athletes to the lack of organization and resources — could hamper efforts for the sport to rebound in quick manner, particularly at the heavier weights.
“I’m looking for the answer, too, so we can make it right again,” said Charles Leverette, an assistant coach for the United States team in London. “If anybody finds the answer, please let me know.”
The problems for the U.S. boxers in London have been compounded by the fact that the team’s head coach, Basheer Abdullah, has no Olympics credential. He enters the Excel center with a ticket each day and sits in the stands. Assistant coaches instead work the corner of each fighter.
USA Boxing opted to uproot its personnel in the weeks leading to the Olympics, which means the slapdash operation hit London with no semblance of stability. In May, the board of directors voted to remove Hal Adonis as USA Boxing president, and Charles Butler replaced him just six weeks ago.
Joe Zanders was hired as head coach last August and then canned nine months into the job. Abdullah was named head coach six weeks before the start of the Summer Games. Two of his assistants lasted less than a week, and the entire coaching staff has been in place for barely a month.
The organization hired Abdullah knowing that because he has worked with professionals, the International Amateur Boxing Association rulebook barred him from coaching ringside in London.
“Any sport you go to, if you don’t know who’s leading, then how do you know where to go? So that was unfortunate,” Leverette said. “Pray that it’ll never happen again.”
While Abdullah is still working out the fighters and helping develop game plans for each bout, Leverette has the task of working the corners. On Wednesday that meant he had a prime seat for three tough losses: bantamweight Joseph Diaz Jr., heavyweight Michael Hunter and super heavyweight Dominic Breazeale.
Four American fighters are still alive in the Olympic tournament. Lightweight Jose Ramirez and middleweight Terrell Gausha fight for a second time Thursday, both trying to reach the quarterfinals. And flyweight Rau’shee Warren and welterweight Errol Spence hit the ring Friday.
They’ll try to fare better on the scorecards than Wednesday’s fighters. Diaz was perhaps the most impressive, falling, 21-15, to the skilled Cuban fighter Lazaro Alvarez.
“I thought the scoring should have been a closer, but the judges didn’t see that unfortunately,” Diaz said. “But hands down, Lazaro is a really great fighter.”
Hunter, the heavyweight, plodded around the ring for three rounds, and though the final score was 10-10, judges awarded the decision to Russian Artur Beterbiev.
“If I feel like I got a tie, I lost,” Hunter said. “It’s like if you come on time, you’re late. . . . It’s hurting me now, just to know that I got here, and I failed real early into the tournament.”
The most lopsided score was Breazeale’s 19-8 loss to Russian Magomed Omarov, in which the former quarterback for the University of Northern Colorado failed to register a single point in the opening round.
While all three of Wednesday’s losers say they’ll now pursue professional careers, U.S. boxing officials will continue to work on improving the amateur ranks. The recent upheaval is all part of a long-term plan, they say, and the new regime is only a few weeks into mapping the future for USA Boxing. While the aim is more medals, with more than half the men’s team already ousted, sights will soon turn toward the 2016 Games.
“We’re rebuilding,” Leverette said. “We’re gonna get this blueprint together, get this foundation down and we’re gonna go from there.”