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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

They're Overlooked, Not Overmatched

Boxing: Out of spotlight, Cauthen, Jones and Wells advance to the semifinals. All three are guaranteed at least a bronze.

July 31, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — On the backs of the unlikely, unappreciated and unforgiven, the green and mostly unseen U.S. boxing team forged its way into the medal round Tuesday.

"Guys are coming out of the woodwork," said U.S. Coach Al Mitchell, whose team, with three more quarterfinal bouts today, already has matched the 1992 team's total of three semifinalists, "and proving us right."

The predicted American stars have either already lost or they fight today, and NBC is all but ignoring the entire sport, but on Tuesday, before a sellout crowd at Alexander Memorial Stadium, after light-flyweight Albert Guardado lost early in the afternoon, the lesser lights came to fight.

Left-handed lightweight Terrance Cauthen, shaken up and booed in his previous, narrow victory, controlled the pace and tossed in some power shots to skate past Veongviact Phongsit of Thailand, 14-10.

Later, heavyweight Nate Jones, who was serving a jail sentence during the Barcelona Games and still feels the sting of his past mistakes, surged past Jiang Tao of China, 21-4.

And to top off the day, middleweight Rhoshii Wells, perhaps the least-respected member of the team heading into the Olympics, continued to embody the U.S. team's up-from-nowhere personality in a grueling bout with Dilshood Yarbekov of Uzbekistan.

Only with a last-moment surge, and by the skin of a tiebreaker count, Wells tip-toed into the semifinals. He will fight Cuba's Ariel Hernandez, perhaps the best amateur in the world, pound for pound.

By winning, all three Americans are guaranteed at least a bronze medal.

Egged on by his mentor, Evander Holyfield, his family and his teammates, Wells, trailing by one point for most of the last minute of the fight, swarmed Yarbekov in the final seconds.

He earned the tying eighth point with a straight right at 2:53, then won the tiebreaker, which totals up the five judges' cards (throwing out the high and low cards), 49-45.

"This kid came out of nowhere," said assistant coach Pat Burns of Wells, from Riverdale, Ga. "All the work he's done, it's just perfect it came down to this. He won it with his heart, by throwing more punches.

"First of all, he shouldn't have even made the Olympic team, but he made it. Then, he was the most improved guy in our camp. Coach [Mitchell] has told the guys there was going to be one fight that came down to the last 15 seconds, and it's going to go to the guy who wants it most. Rhoshii wanted it most."

Wells got into trouble early by sitting back, waiting for Yarbekov to make the first move. But after Yarbekov went ahead, 8-7, with 40 seconds left and the U.S. corner screaming for him to let his hands fly, Wells responded.

"They were yelling for me to pick it up, and I picked it up," Wells said. "I won it with my heart, I guess."

Jones, who still lives in Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green housing project, had no such worries against Jiang, who got slammed by a Jones uppercut for a standing-eight count in the first round and never was the same.

"What I'm enjoying about it most is to those that doubted me," Jones said, when asked his emotions about guaranteeing himself a medal. "I ain't no angel, but a lot of people said things about me--that I can't fight, can't do this or that. . . . I'm enjoying winning."

Four years ago, Jones, in jail serving a two-year sentence for armed robbery and auto theft, watched his friend Montell Griffin earn a spot on the Olympic team.

"I thought, 'Damn, look at him. He's going to Barcelona and look where I'm at,' " Jones said. "And it wasn't guaranteed when I'd get out, because you never know what happens in prison."

Jones' hot run continued to the fight after his: France's Christophe Mendy was disqualified for a questionable low blow, so Jones avoids the No. 2-rated heavyweight in the world, and instead faces Canadian David Defiagbon, who may or may not have been seriously wounded by Mendy's low blow.

"It probably would've meant more to beat Mendy," Jones said. "Everybody expected him to beat [Cuban gold-medal favorite Felix] Savon. But it doesn't matter. The better fighter probably won that fight."

Cauthen, from Philadelphia, had a slow start against the straight-ahead style of the squat Phongsit, also a left-hander, but accelerated early in the third round and consistently found the Thai with heavy hooks that lit up the scorecards.

"I just outsmarted him," Cauthen said. "I didn't go out there looking for all those pretty combinations, that kind of stuff. I just wanted to start with the jab and throw the left hook behind it.

"I was too slick and too tall for him. They were counting my shots because it was clean, they were picture-perfect clear."

But Cauthen, who wasn't considered a medal contender, either, said he would not be satisfied with merely making it to the medal round.

"I'm not happy--I'm not settling for bronze or silver," Cauthen said. "I'm here for one thing, that's a gold medal."

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