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For Now, U.S. Boxing Lacks Knockout Punch

Not much is expected from team at next year's Olympics, but that could change in 2008.

August 15, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Emanuel Steward, coaching coordinator for the U.S. Olympic boxing team, foresees gold for his squad in the Summer Olympics.

The 2008 Summer Olympics.

Steward, best known for training professionals from Tommy Hearns to Lennox Lewis, doesn't have high hopes for the 2004 team, conceding that 152-pounder Juan McPherson, who is in the finals of the XIV Pan American Games tonight, is the only strong contender for a gold medal next year in Athens.

"He is the best fighter we have," Steward said. "He is the complete international package. He has style. He punches well. He stands above everybody else and he will definitely be favored to win the gold. We also have several good fighters at 112 pounds. With the rest, you hope they get the luck of the draw to give themselves a chance to win a medal."

When talk turns to the 2008 Olympics, however, Steward's spirits improve noticeably.

"We have a great Junior Olympic program," he said. "We've got these 15- and 16-year-olds fighting quite a bit internationally. That's why I think our first good showing in the Olympics since 1988 will be in 2008."

Only McPherson, super-heavyweight Jason Estrada and featherweight Aaron Garcia advanced to the Pan Am finals from the 11 U.S. boxers in Santo Domingo.

But that should be a cause for hope for this team, not alarm. It's been 24 years since more than two U.S. fighters have won gold at the Pan Am Games. The U.S. won four gold medals in boxing in the VIII Pan Am Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1979. In three of the last four Pan Am Games , the U.S. has settled for one boxing gold.

Win or lose, McPherson and Garcia have earned a berth for the U.S. in their respective weight classes in next year's Olympics by reaching the finals since the top two finishers qualify. It's different for the super-heavyweight division, in which Estrada would have to win the gold to qualify the U.S. in that weight class.

Even if he fails to do so, there will be two additional qualifying events early next year.

Steward spoke from his office in Detroit. Although he is an overseer of the U.S. team and not the Olympic coach, who has yet to be chosen, he acknowledged that he should have been in Santo Domingo with the squad.

"Lennox wanted me to meet with him to decide on his future, whether he should retire," Steward said. "I should have been there at the Pan Am Games."

The bigger concern for Steward and the program has been the Olympic Games, which, after all, is the ultimate goal of every fighter here. Since 1988, there have been only two gold medals won by U.S. fighters, Oscar De La Hoya in 1992 in Barcelona and David Reid in 1996 in Atlanta, and Reid needed a knockout punch to pull out a gold-medal match in which he was struggling. In the 2000 Olympics, no U.S. boxer won gold.

There are several reasons why the U.S. has been fighting so many losing battles at the amateur level:

* The lure of money.

"Amateur boxing has fallen by the wayside because so many kids are turning professional so much sooner," Steward said. "The kids are not staying around to get the seasoning. So what we are left with is kids who don't have the physical strength, are not physically matured."

* A lack of money.

USA Boxing, governing body of the sport, has suffered severe budgetary problems. In the last two years, its budget has dropped 10% to 15%.

"We have also had a 20% loss in revenue because of a tremendous increase in insurance rates required to protect our liability," said Dr. Robert Voy, head of USA boxing.

USA's budget is down to between $250,000 and $300,000 a year. One-third of that comes from an annual membership fee of $27. Another third comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee, with the final third coming from sponsorship money.

"We hope to sign up new sponsors soon," Voy said.

In the meantime, though, serious damage has been done, Steward said, because the shrunken budget has forced the U.S. to pass up various international tournaments.

"Because we haven't participated in these tournaments," Steward said, "it has caused everybody to be so against the Americans, including the judges. They feel we are just snobby, snooty, rich Americans. They think we are uppity. As a result, we don't get the benefit in close fights."

Steward, who receives no money for his efforts, has gotten heavily involved in fund-raising for USA Boxing.

One possibility that excites him is yet another possible addition to the current craze for reality television. Steward is talking to a producer interested in focusing on amateur division fighters, following them all the way to Athens, sort of a "Survivor With Gloves."

"That would be tremendous for our sport," Steward said.

And it would help alleviate the next problem.

* A lack of exposure.

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