BEIJING — The United States used to be really good at boxing. There was something oddly comforting about that, something solid about knowing that while our nation was competing against the world in serious stuff like economics and technology and military might, when it came down to it Americans also could go old school, lace up the gloves, step into the ring and bust up some noses.
Friday in Beijing, in an old relic of Mao's time called Workers Gymnasium, a likeable young American heavyweight named Deontay Wilder fought in a boxing semifinal against the defending world champion, Italy's Clemente Russo. This was newsworthy because Wilder was the only American left in the boxing tournament. All the others had been pounded out. Well, one passed out while trying to make weight. The others lost to boxers from: Korea, Great Britain, Bulgaria, France, Mongolia and Romania.
Combined, those countries had won a grand total 27 boxing gold medals.
The United States had won 48 golds.
Then, when you talk about American boxing, you are really talking in the past tense, you are talking about Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay and Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya and other Olympic ghosts from that less complicated past when kids wanted to grow up to be the undisputed champion of the world. In 1988, the United States won three gold medals and should have won a fourth when Roy Jones Jr. was cheated out his gold medal by judges who were eventually suspended.
Since 1988 - over the last five Olympics now - the United States has won three gold medals. Total. That's it. Something fundamental changed, pretty much everyone agrees about that. But what? That's where the disagreements begin. Some say that when professional boxing began to lose its glamour, the kids in the United States stopped boxing. Some say that boxers are more dedicated and determined in other places, like Cuba. Some say that once amateur judging started to be about the cold act of counting punches rather than power and finesse, American fighters could not adapt. Some say judges do not like the American style.
Whatever the reason, it's gotten bad for America in the ring. In 2000, the United States didn't win a gold medal for the first time in more than 50 years (not counting the boycotted 1980 Olympics, of course). The team managed only one gold in 2004. This time around, the U.S. boxing folks decided that what the team lacked was a singular focus, and the coach, Dan Campbell, set up a year-long training camp to change the atmosphere.
And it worked. It made the atmosphere worse. First, light flyweight Luis Yanez was thrown off the team and Campbell called him "One of the biggest liars I've ever met." Motivational. Yanez was reinstated and after he lost, Campbell said that he was doing the opposite of what he was told. Yanez did not disagree.
Then Gary Russell Jr. - viewed by many as a legitimate gold medal contender - collapsed in his room when he was trying to make weight. "Sometimes they cut corners," Campbell said. "What we believe is he did not increase his fluid intake after we told him to."
OK. Then there was welterweight Demetrius Andrade, the defending world champion, who lost a close fight and in an astonishing fit of bad sportsmanship stormed out of the ring in tears before the referee could even raise his opponents hand. "It was just pointless for me to be in there," he told reporters.
Pointless. Sure. All Olympics the American boxers and coaches have split their time griping about scoring and getting beaten in the ring. The only survivor of the bloodbath was a 22-year-old with a heartwarming story. Deontay Wilder first walked into a boxing gym three years ago. He had wanted all his life to play sports, especially to play big-time college basketball. Trouble is, he wasn't especially good at it - not good enough for a big time college - and anyway when he was 19, his daughter, Naieya, was born with spina bifida.
"It was time to grow up, man," he says. He quit school and got two jobs to support his daughter. Wilder says he spent much of his time traveling from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, and the rest of the time he drove a beer truck, he cleared dishes at a restaurant, he felt his childhood dreams slipping away from him. Maybe that's why he walked into the Skyy Boxing Gym in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and asked someone to train him. They put him in a corner and said, "Yeah, sure kid, hit this bag." Then they ignored him.
Only, he was tough to ignore. They noticed after a while that the kid just kept hitting the bag, and he hit it harder when he thought no one was watching. Interesting. They decided to train him, and they could not believe how hard he worked. Two years later, the guy won the Golden Gloves. Then he was on the Olympic Team. Then, he put himself into the medal round. The story got crazier and crazier.
"Everything I do, I do for my daughter," he says.
This was the last American standing. Nobody really thought he had much of a chance against Russo, who had so much more experience and success. And he did not. In a four-round bout, the judges determined that Wilder landed exactly one punch. One. The final scored was 7-1. Wilder thought modestly that he had landed more than one, but he also understood that he was outclassed this time. "I would love to have more experience to show what I can do," he says. "But this is what it is, man. I came a long way to get here."
He did. He handled it all with class. He promised good things. He's the one good story here. He walks away with a bronze medal, the only boxing medal for America at these Games.
As for the rest, well, it is the first time ever that an American boxing team did not win a gold or silver medal. After the Wilder fight, Campbell moaned about the scoring, pretty much like he has been the whole Olympics. Someone asked him to talk about the whole U.S. Olympic boxing performance and, quick as a member of special service, a public relations person jumped in front of the question and said that Campbell would not answer general questions like that. Campbell smiled contentedly.
Great. Now American boxing people are too weak to even answer questions. Something went very, very wrong somewhere along the way.