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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BOXING

U.S. Fighters Don't Succeed at First

August 02, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The American boxing fade-out began Thursday night, in three faltering first rounds that left the fighters battered, beaten and bronzed for life.

One by one in their semifinal matches, Terrance Cauthen, Rhoshii Wells and Nate Jones suffered through sleepy first rounds against savvier and quicker fighters, and one by one, the three marched into the interview room, finding it almost impossible to win for losing.

Could they feel satisfied that they had, at least, won a bronze medal?

"This isn't an accomplishment," Wells said, not even trying to hide his tears. "I wasn't in it for no bronze. I was in it for the gold."

Each of the three was told they had to be bold to get the gold, but, for reasons they could not fully explain, each of them failed early, and could not recover.

Wells' tentative opening was, perhaps, the easiest to figure: The quiet 19-year-old was pitted against Cuban middleweight star Ariel Hernandez, generally considered the best amateur in the world.

Wells, who admitted he felt nervous going into the bout, had to take an early standing-eight count--caused by a solid Hernandez left uppercut to the bridge of Wells' nose--before he realized he was not going about the bout in a winning way.

But the slow start by the 20-year-old lightweight Cauthen, who lost, 15-12, to reigning world champion Tontcho Tontchev, and especially by 24-year-old heavyweight Jones, who lost, 16-10, to unheralded Canadian David Defiagbon, were less understandable.

All three fighters--none of whom had major international experience before the Olympics--tried to make up the deficits with active second and third rounds, but none of them could pull it off.

"I knew going in we were young, I knew we were inexperienced," U.S. Coach Al Mitchell said. "But they've got heart, and it showed. And guess what, all three got medals, and I can name you a lot of people who didn't do that.

"They all fought good fights, they just started off too slow."

Today, light-heavyweight Antonio Tarver, light-middleweight David Reid and featherweight David Reid try to move into the finals, but will they find the will to fire early?

"They'll have to, won't they?" assistant coach Jesse Ravelo said. "They know that now."

Jones, a talkative Chicagoan who served a two-year jail sentence for armed robbery but turned his life around in the last three years, was the last to go, the last man to try to salvage respectability for a U.S. team that had been so proud of its unforeseen Olympic success.

Instead, Defiagbon, who got to the medal rounds when highly regarded French heavyweight Christophe Mendy was disqualified for hitting Defiagbon with a low blow, out-thought and outslugged the smaller Jones from the beginning.

"I had a lot of pressure on me to step up, and I couldn't," Jones said. "I couldn't get the jab going in the first. He studied me well--I thought this was going to be a much easier fight than it was."

Jones was down, 3-0, in the first minute, and never could get his favorite punch, an overhand right, landing clean against Defiagbon. Midway through the round, Defiagbon rocked Jones with a double left hook that almost put him down, and caused a standing-eight count.

Jones tried to come back, but Defiagbon's dominance continued through the second round, and he led, 14-7, through two.

"If I had fought the first round like I did the last two rounds, I probably would've beat him," Jones said. "I took that shot and came right back as hard as I could."

For Jones, taking home any kind of medal was a victory he could cherish.

"I guess I'm going home with something," Jones said.

The Wells fight was the least complicated: He showed heart by getting up off the canvas in the first after a Hernandez blast, but he never had a chance.

Wells seemed to bother Hernandez at times with his hand speed, enough, at least, to get Hernandez moving around the ring. But Hernandez never led by less than five points after the first round.

'I wanted to wait, but once he got the lead, he started to run," Wells said. "Once I got started, it was too late."

Hernandez did nothing to show Wells that he was the best in the world, however.

"He ain't like everybody thinks he is," Wells said. "He's got fast hands, but my hands are just as fast. He's just an ordinary boxer, who can move good and he has nice power. That's about it."

Said Ravelo: "After he got dropped with a good shot, he made a quick recovery and he came back fighting. And Hernandez, he didn't want to mix it up with Rhoshii."

Cauthen was the first to go. Matched against the clever Tontchev, Cauthen flopped through the opening round, and trailed, 5-1, when it was over. The left-handed Cauthen, after a lecture from Mitchell between rounds, rallied in the second, and then narrowed it to 9-8 in the early moments of the third.

But Tontchev, landing hard hooks to the head, was too much as the fight wound down, pulling it out in the last two minutes.

"If I felt he beat me, I would take it like a man and say he was the better man tonight," Cauthen said. "But I did what I've been doing since the start--throwing a clean straight jab and landing hooks, and they weren't scoring them.

"That's the way I've won this whole tournament. They've been scoring those shots, so why not tonight?"

Mitchell, who has been adamant and passionate after fights in which he thought his fighter was robbed of victory, did not complain.

"The guys who've won in this tournament, it's no secret, are the guys who have started out fast--and that's what Terrance has done, gone out to three-, four-point leads quick," Mitchell said. "But he sat back tonight and waited."

But it was Cauthen's reaction--anger, then acceptance of his achievement against the odds--that seemed to resonate.

"At least I got something," Cauthen said. "I could've been back home, watching the other guys on TV. I've got to say that third place in the whole world is OK. I know I gave it my all."

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