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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Don't Fear, Underdogs Are Here

Boxing: Overlooked U.S. squad remains undefeated after easy victories by Mayweather and Wells.

July 23, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Little by little, point by point, victory celebration by victory celebration, the upstart U.S. boxing team is stealing its way into the spotlight.

How long will it belong?

There are far harder tests in front of the U.S. team and many days left of battle, but the coaches and boxers who have endured the jaded evaluations and NBC programming snubs know that they will wake up this morning as one of the hotter properties in these young Games.

"We're 6-0, who can complain?" Coach Al Mitchell said, beaming late Monday night after featherweight Floyd Mayweather and middleweight Rhoshii Wells slammed their way to two more rousing American first-round victories before a sold-out crowd of 9,500 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

So far, the Americans have avoided the massive challenge that the also-undefeated Cuban team poses. That run ends this afternoon, when flyweight Eric Morel faces Maiko Romero in the first U.S.-Cuba square-off.

Either way that bout turns, the Americans are off to a blazing start in the wake of 1992's fizzling three-medal total--and they know it takes a rush of victories to seize the imagination of the public.

"People are waking up to this team," said U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo. "But we knew what we had all the time, and we kept saying that we were ready. We knew what we could do.

"It's going to keep on building. What we have to do now is talk to our guys and make sure this isn't going to their head and they lose focus.

"We're off to a great start, one of the best starts we've ever had in our Olympic history. But it's just a beginning, and they have to realize that."

The excitable Mayweather, 19, who lost in the trials and had to defeat Augie Sanchez twice in the box-offs to earn his spot in the Olympics, charged into his bout with Bakhitiyar Tileganov of Kazakhstan looking for the one-shot knockout.

Mayweather, from Grand Rapids, Mich., landed a couple of hard overhand rights, but admitted his timing was off in the first round, which he won, 6-1.

"I was hyped, I admit it," Mayweather said. "The coaches told me beforehand that I shouldn't let the crowd and the noise get to me, and I thought there was no way. But it got to me.

"I went out there and I wanted to tear the guy's head off, to tell you the truth."

In the second, a calmer Mayweather went to work, forcing a standing-eight count when one right-hand shot landed clean about 30 seconds into the round, then getting a stoppage at :57 when Tileganov's bloodied nose was ruled to be too wounded to continue.

In the bout immediately preceding Mayweather's on Monday, the favored Cuban and the man Mayweather will face if both win their next bouts, Lorenzo Aragon, struggled to score and took a sluggish 9-6 victory over Algeria's Noureddine Madjhound.

"Aragon doesn't impress me at all now," said Ravelo, a Cuban emigre who is a U.S. citizen. "To be honest, Mayweather is too strong for him. He was running out of gas. I think Floyd will walk right through him.

"I think the Cuban could be a lot easier than this guy tonight. The Cuban is open for right hands all day, and Mayweather's got one of the best right hands in the tournament."

Mayweather had always been considered a medal contender, but middleweight Wells, who lives in the Atlanta area, made the team as a surprise and has always been considered too even-tempered and light-hitting to make an impact at 165 pounds.

Monday, against little-regarded Iranian Sefid Dashti Mollal, Wells was in total control, tossing in fluid combinations on his way to 24 points (to Dashti's seven), the highest total so far.

In the third, already with a huge lead, Wells put it into higher gear, lashing at the Iranian's face as the home crowd roared.

"Some folks don't think I have the power to be at this weight," Wells said, "but I hope I showed them I do tonight."

Wells credits the U.S. coaching staff for pressuring him to keep firing.

"In the beginning of camp, I was just running and dancing, dancing a little too much," Wells said. "I was just trying not to get hit. But Pat [Burns, an assistant coach] and the other coaches have just kept on me to stay aggressive."

Said Mitchell: "The first thing I read about Rhoshii, right after he made the team, was that he has no chance for nothing, that he won't win one bout in the Olympics.

"The other coaches and I, we focused on the guys the papers said wouldn't do much. And we worked on all the weaknesses, and these guys listened.

"Rhoshii always had the skills, he's just doing the right things at the right time."

And now the persistent Cuban question: If he faces him in the medal rounds, can Wells beat 1992 gold-medalist Ariel Hernandez, who coasted to an 11-2 victory over Salim Kbary of Egypt on Monday night?

"Definitely. Ariel Hernandez, he's a great boxer, but he doesn't know me," Wells said. "He'll take me lightly. He's beaten everybody, he must be bored, probably wants to lose once in a while."

This afternoon, after the Morel-Romero fight, light-middleweight David Reid, one of the team's most talented fighters, faces Lee Wan-Kyun of Korea.

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