HAVANA — There were 12 boxing weight classifications at the Pan American Games. One of them was won Sunday by the youngest fighter the United States brought, Steve Johnston, a junior college student from St. Louis, who did not have to fight a Cuban for the championship. Lucky Steve.
Cuba won the other 11.
Fighting with power and for glory, the Cubans made a complete farce of the boxing finals at the Sports City Coliseum. The finishing touches were applied by two-time world champion Felix Savon's manhandling of U.S. heavyweight Shannon Briggs.
Having drawn a bye into the finals, Briggs gained the unique distinction of winning a silver medal in an international boxing competition without ever landing a punch.
Johnston, 18, slugged his way to a lopsided light-welterweight decision over Edgar Ruiz of Mexico at 139 pounds, in front of a large crowd that sided almost entirely with the loser.
Two other Americans settled for silver medals, Patrice Brooks of St. Louis being bloodied by Cuban 132-pound world champion Julio Gonzalez--the final score was 31-4--and Air Force medic Kenneth Friday taking a 15-2 pounding from Cuba's Arnaldo Mesa at 125 pounds.
"No doubt, Cuba was strong as hell," U.S. Coach Kenneth Loehr said, "but you always fight a lot better in your own hometown. And furthermore, we don't keep the same guy around fighting for 12 years."
This was, true, the second-string team from the United States against Cuba's professionals. Savon, for example, has a worldwide record of 222-9, including a decision earlier this year over John Bray of Van Nuys, who recently defeated Briggs for the heavyweight title at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles.
Two American understudies would have come here anyway, both Bray and the winner of Johnston's division at the Festival, Terronn Millett, having been wounded by gunshots since the Festival. Bray accidentally shot himself in the mouth, and Millett was shot on the street in St. Louis last weekend.
Johnston sliced open a finger on his right hand last week while attempting to open a canned ham. He and the other American fighters all mentioned malnutrition or diarrhea from Cuban food as contributing factors in their performances, and Loehr added: "We didn't have one fighter who had trouble making weight, and when you don't have that problem in this sport, that's unusual."
Briggs arrived in Cuba carrying 207 pounds and at one point dropped as low as 191. He also had little exercise, with only three men having entered the heavyweight division. While Savon warmed up by flooring a Canadian, Briggs sat and rusted, unable to spar because his best available partner, an American super-heavyweight, lost his first match and went home.
Not that it mattered. The Brooklyn teen-ager with red dreadlocks was in way over his head, and helped himself little by mimicking Savon before the fight by leaping in the air and blowing kisses during the introductions.
Savon chased the dancing Briggs for nearly two minutes, waiting for him to throw so much as a jab. He lashed out a right-left combination that knocked Briggs to his knees, and when the dazed American got up, a long right hand sent him wobbling into the ropes. One of Briggs' coaches, Tom Mustin, climbed to the ring to call off the fight even before the referee did so, 15 seconds from the end of the round.
"Oh, man, I feel kind of embarrassed that people saw that on nationwide television," said Briggs, who had never been knocked down before.
"I'd like to fight him again, anywhere, any time, because I'm not a quitter and I still plan on being our Olympic heavyweight. But the man hurt me, yeah, I got to admit that."
Briggs then paused and said: "I wish somebody would call my girlfriend in the States and tell her that I'm OK. If she saw that mess, she must be wondering."
Johnston roomed with Briggs at the athletes' village and said that the nervous heavyweight never got a wink of sleep. As for Johnston, his cut finger had mended and felt even better as soon as he tagged Ruiz, who had to go to his corner three times to have his bloody eye examined. The decision went to Johnston, 17-5.
"He through a jab and I came back with a hook, and it landed, and next thing I know, the referee says: 'Stop!' " Johnston said. "I assumed that something was wrong with our shoes, like they were untied or something. Turned out the guy was cut. But Ruiz kept coming back at me, I give him that."
Otherwise, Cuba batted 11 for 11. There were knockouts from Rogelio Marcelo, 106 pounds; Juan Hernandez, 147; Juan Lemus, 156; Ramon Garbey, 165; Orestes Solano, 178; Roberto Balado, super-heavyweight, and Savon. Even the decisions weren't close, such as Enrique Carrion's 16-1 victory at 119 pounds or Mesa's routine 15-2 victory over Friday.
The oldest man on the U.S. squad, Friday, 29, said: "We were never under the impression that the Cubans were invincible." Except they were, on this day in this ring. Before the Savon-Briggs bout, a full house that included Fidel Castro came to its feet with the announcement that no matter what occurred the rest of the day, Cuba had clinched a Pan Am gold medal victory over the United States.
When someone asked Mustin, one of the U.S. coaches, how these experienced Cubans would do against American professionals, he replied: "We'd be too slick for them. I don't think any Cuban would stack up well against our top pros."
Depending on the results of the next Olympics, the time might soon come to find out.