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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Morel Sounds the Retreat and the Battle Is Lost

Boxing: In first U.S.-Cuba bout, American flyweight ignores advice to attack Romero and loses, 24-12.

July 24, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — In the first anticipated face-off between American and Cuban boxers at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the American blinked and backpedaled.

Which is not normally the formula for Olympic greatness, but you never know.

About 30 fierce seconds into the bout Tuesday, Cuban flyweight Maiko Romero strode regally forward, unleashed a savage right-left combination that caught all face, and established complete dominance over a rattled American Eric Morel.

Fifty seconds later, another blistering right hand rocked Morel backward, causing the referee to give the American a standing-eight count, which he needed.

"All the Cubans are the same, they have two legs, two arms," Morel said after losing the bout, 24-12. "They're a little bit smarter, but if you're intimidated when you step into the ring, you've already lost."

Though Morel, a 20-year-old originally from Puerto Rico who moved recently to Madison, Wis., denied he was intimidated early, he veered completely from the coaching staff's game plan of going at the Cuban.

So, even before the hard chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" that greeted the introductions for this fight were finished, Morel was careening around the ring at the end of Romero's shots and the Cuban was powering his way to an insurmountable, 9-1 first-round lead.

Since the road to the gold medal in almost every division eventually winds through the Cubans--who are 9-0--the Romero performance served as a statement even the Americans didn't deny.

"I wanted this bout bad," said U.S. Coach Al Mitchell, whose team had started the tournament with six consecutive victories. "And I had the person with the talent to do it. But he just didn't listen to what we told him.

"We knew this fight was about styles. Whoever won the first round was going to win the fight. With the way Eric fights, it's real tough for him to come back when he's down."

About an hour later, American light-middleweight David Reid picked the U.S. mood back up, ripping his way to an easy victory over South Korean Lee Wan-Kyun, who perhaps ought to slide over to the judo competition.

As Reid's hand speed piled up a large lead, mostly with hard shots from the outside, an obviously frustrated Lee grabbed Reid by the shoulders in the third round, then kneed Reid hard in the chest as he backed into a corner.

"That's my first time getting kneed," said Reid, a 21-year-old Philadelphian who is one of the team's better medal prospects. "It hurt."

Lee was given a two-point penalty, and Reid, who joined fellow Philadelphians Terrance Cauthen and Zahir Raheem in the tournament's second round, went on to a 20-4 victory.

"I wanted to go in there and lift everybody up, lift the whole team, because the only team we've lost to so far is Cuba, and I wanted to show the U.S. team that we're still the best," Reid said.

Mitchell said he thought the other team members--starting with Reid--learned from the Morel loss. Instead of depressing the team, Mitchell said, it made sure they pay even closer attention to what the coaches say.

"Just before he got into the ring," Mitchell said of Reid, "he told me, 'What happened to Eric just happened, Eric did all he could. I'm not going to let you down.' "

Surrounded by reporters, Morel repeated over and over that he blew it by not paying strict attention to his coaches' orders that he march directly at the Cuban to take away Romero's reach advantage and power.

Though Morel--who was a medal underdog, especially when he drew the Cuban in the first round--was far more aggressive in the second round, which was scored as a 6-6 tie, he started backing away again in the third.

"I was trying to mix the things they taught me with the things I do best, and it didn't work at all," Morel said. "I stepped it up in the second round because I realized I was losing.

"I started thinking that I had to jump on this guy but he was too quick for me. I was going forward and thinking, 'Hold on, I don't want to get hit too many times.' I was trying to hurt him, but it wasn't possible.

"If I would have listened to my coaches, I probably could have gotten the decision. I just didn't listen, and that's what cost me the fight."

Said Mitchell: "When athletes have styles they've been using for years and years, it's hard to get them to change. We tried to adjust his style, tried to get him to be more aggressive. But Eric is not a person who likes to go forward."

The American coaching staff, which has been forceful in its opinion that the Cubans, who won seven gold medals in the 1992 Barcelona Games, are ripe for the taking this year, did not back down after losing the first face-to-face matchup.

"Romero's a tough fighter, but I still say Eric Morel has the talent to beat the Cuban any time, anywhere," U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo said. "Eric broke one of the cardinal rules of boxing--he allowed the Cuban too much room, gave him too much respect.

"He let the Cuban take charge of the fight. You could see Eric had the talent to win it, because in the second round, when he was coming at Romero, the Cuban looked like he was running out of gas.

"If Eric would have fought in the first and third rounds like he fought in the second, he probably would have stopped the Cuban."

Mitchell found a way to find inspiration in the way Morel came back: "He didn't go out like a guy in a pink outfit. He went out like a Philadelphia guy."

Today, light-heavyweight gold-medal favorite Antonio Tarver and light-welterweight David Diaz will complete the American first-round matches. Tarver fights Dmitri Vybornov of Russia in the afternoon session, and Diaz faces Jacobo Garcia of the Virgin Islands at night.

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