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U.S. Boxers Fight Team Training Methods, to Little Avail

November 06, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | David Wharton is a regular free-lance contributor to The Times' Valley View section.

Breakfast was tense. The boxers gathered around a patio table outside their Sacramento hotel as a strong wind blew through the pine trees.

In a few hours these young fighters, America's best amateurs, would be going up against an experienced Soviet team. A national television audience would be watching.

The boxers spoke quietly, but angrily, among themselves, away from the national team coaches. They talked about the training camp where the team had spent two weeks preparing for the Soviets.

"In two weeks, we only sparred three times and only two rounds each time," super-heavyweight Alex Garcia said. "I went to the coaches myself and told them I wanted to spar every day, but they have their routine down and they're not going to let anyone change it."

Another boxer, Kenneth Gould, complained about being kept away from his father and coach, Nathaniel, during the crucial days before the bout. The fighters' personal coaches weren't allowed in the national team camp.

"Not to take anything away from them, but the Olympic coaches haven't been training with you, they don't know what to tell the boxers," said Gould, a world champion at 147 pounds and probably the United States' best amateur boxer.

"I'd rather train at home," Garcia said.

On that Saturday last July, the Americans won only two of eight matches against the Soviets. Even the team's winners, Gould and Darin Allen, complained of fighting sluggishly.

Months have passed since the USA-USSR bouts in Sacramento, but the boxers remain bitter.

"We should have beat them," said Allen, the world amateur champion at 165 pounds. "We were in good shape, but we were rusty. We needed that ring work and we didn't get it."

Garcia, a Los Angeles boxer ranked No. 2 in the world, was so frustrated by the experience that he has vowed never to fight for the United States again.

Although United States national team coaches saw gold in the 24-year-old fighter's future, and Garcia himself said he was training with an eye on the 1988 Olympic Games, he says now: "I won't fight for the U.S. anymore," adding that he will soon turn professional.

Such grumblings are nothing new to the amateur boxing scene in America. They have revived a lingering controversy surrounding the way this country's amateur fighters prepare for international competition.

The boxers selected to represent the United States are brought together to train as a team in the weeks leading to a tournament. They are kept away from their personal coaches and work instead with national trainers.

But boxing is more an individual than a team sport, and each fighter has his own preferences and needs when it comes to training. Some require daily sparring, others strategy work. Some must be constantly encouraged, others harangued.

At camp, the team members run through an unvarying routine of drills. There is little accommodation for individual needs, and that has angered the boxers.

The national team coaches say that fighters have been complaining about camp for as long as anyone can remember. The problem came to a head most recently before the 1984 Olympics, when several of the top American boxers left the Olympic Village to train in a Santa Monica gym with their personal coach. Their complaints were similar to those of today's amateurs.

"It's hard to train at home for so long and then all of a sudden go up there and do things differently with Olympic coaches," said Mark Breland, a gold medal winner at the 1984 Olympic Games. "Whatever is going to make the fighter the best fighter he can be, let him do it."

The USA Amateur Boxing Federation selects and prepares the teams that represent the United States in competition ranging from the Olympics to dual-nation meets like the one in Sacramento. For years, the ABF's training camps were set up at the competition sites. In 1981, the federation moved into the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

ABF officials say it is impossible to bring 15 or 20 fighters into camp and accommodate all of their needs. They say somebody is always going to be unhappy about something.

"You get put in a position where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Bruce Mathis, the assistant to the ABF's executive director. "Our program has always been controversial and it probably always will be."

National coaches Pat Nappi and Roosevelt Sanders have handled the American teams for years. Their teams have always won gold medals. Yet, they have had to listen to fighters' gripes.

"They have to go to camp to get ready," Sanders said. "If they didn't, we'd just be getting a bunch of guys together and hoping for the best. I'm responsible for these guys and I have to make sure they are ready."

At Colorado Springs, fighters are taught the nuances of international boxing, Sanders said. They view videotapes of opponents. There is a sports medicine center and a team psychiatrist. Visiting experts offer tips on what to expect concerning living and competing conditions in foreign countries.

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