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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BOXING

Savon of Cuba Looking Golden

September 26, 2000|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — Some things never change. The sun rises in the east, ice is cold, and Cuba produces the best heavyweight boxers in the world of amateur fisticuffs. Probably pro too, if Fidel would let them go that route.

It was only the quarterfinals but Cuban Felix Savon probably won the gold medal--it will be his third--here today in the Olympic boxing tournament, outclassing American hopeful Michael Bennett.

The two-time defending champion Savon was rumored to have slowed a step and thought to be was ripe for the picking. Instead, he did the picking, building an early lead while Bennett, who learned to box in prison, tried to figure out what had become of his speed.

"Savon was a better warrior today," Bennett said. "I did my amateur best, my professional best, but he was just better. I gave up too many straight shots. I let my heart take over. He's a one-punch guy, but I stood there and was a target for him."

Savon battered the Chicago fighter with stinging jabs and hammering uppercuts and had Bennett holding on from the beginning. At one point in the first round, a frustrated Bennett accidentally threw Savon to the canvas, then moments later they both tumbled to the floor.

Bennett picked up the pace in the second round but that only brought out the beast in Savon, who responded with point-building flurries, and, with three seconds left in the third round and Savon leading, 23-8, the referee invoked the mercy rule, sending the fighters to their corners.

The outcome was hardly an upset but it was at least mildly surprising, because Bennett had been touted as the heavyweight who would end Savon's decade-long reign.

In an earlier quarterfinal bout, middleweight Jeff Lacy of St. Petersburg, Fla., turned in a sluggish performance and was being solidly outpointed by Russian Gaidarbek Gaidarbekov when the fight was stopped.

Lacy came out defensively, the Russian came out swinging and never the twain did meet. Gaidarbekov ran up a 12-3 lead in the first two rounds and was scoring heavily in the third when the referee decided Lacy had had enough and halted the proceedings, declaring Lacy outclassed.

Bennett's personal history, and a controversial gold medal in last year's world championships, lent intrigue to his bout with Savon.

They were supposed to meet, for the first time, in the heavyweight championship match at Houston, having each advanced through the preliminaries, but Savon, a legend in amateur boxing circles, refused to fight, protesting what he said was the unfair loss of another Cuban boxer, and Bennett was declared the winner on a walkover.

Savon, 33, is a two-time Olympic and six-time world amateur champion at 201 pounds and generally looked upon as a worthy successor to Teofilo Stevenson, probably the most famous heavyweight in Cuba's proud and formidable boxing history. The Cubans have won 23 Olympic boxing medals, despite having missed two Olympics--Los Angeles in 1984 and Seoul in '88--because of political boycotts.

Savon even caught the eye of Juan Antonio Samaranch, International Olympic Committee president who has sometimes been critical of boxing. Samaranch showed up to watch Savon's first-round bout, an easy victory over Rasmus Ojemaye of Nigeria. Savon was leading, 18-3, with 35 seconds left in the second round when the fight was stopped by the mercy rule.

Samaranch left before the next fight, Bennett's. Bennett won, beating Wojciech Bartnik of Poland in an ugly bout, Bartnik running for the first two rounds, then holding Bennett in the last two.

Being held is nothing new to Bennett. He was held in prison for seven years for armed robbery, learning to box under the guidance of inmates he knew only as Papason, Pharoah and Mongoose.

He turned to boxing so he could get another prisoner to stop harassing him.

Bennett, 29, said his crime was a one-time mistake. A part-time student at Northpark College in Chicago, where he was a linebacker on the football team and worked at a job on the side, he and a friend decided to score some quick money by robbing a toy store. They were caught and Bennett was eventually sentenced to 26 years. The sentence was later cut to 15, and Bennett was released early on good behavior.

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