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Dirrell Floats Like a Butterfly, Stings Enough to Get a Medal

August 26, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Andre Dirrell heard the voice from the seats at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall, imploring him to dance away the remainder of his 165-pound Olympic quarterfinal match against Yordani Despaigne of Cuba.

With 25 seconds remaining, Dirrell had a one-point lead.

That voice, belonging to his grandfather, Leon "Bumper" Lawson, had been with him in the ring since he was 10 years old.

So once again, Dirrell listened. And once again he won, this time by a 12-11 score that guaranteed him at least a bronze medal.

It was the second consecutive night a U.S. fighter had clinched a medal. Dirrell and 178-pounder Andre Ward will box in semifinals Friday, Dirrell against Gennadiy Golovkin of Kazakhstan and Ward against Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan.

In his previous match, Dirrell had dominated Nabil Kassel of Algeria from the opening bell. With one second remaining in the second round, the match was over under the mercy rule, Dirrell leading by 20 points.

On Wednesday, Dirrell and Despaigne could have gone eight rounds with neither fighter earning 20 points. It was more chess match than boxing match. Neither fighter was given a point in the first 75 seconds.

Dirrell broke the drought with a left hook to take the lead.

Each fighter was cautious based on the knowledge that the other had beaten him. Despaigne won their first meeting, 21-20, a year ago at the Pan Am Games in the Dominican Republic. Dirrell took the rematch, 41-28, in a pre-Olympic tournament here in May.

"The Cubans always adjust," U.S. Coach Basheer Abdullah said. "We believed that they would respect Andre's power."

Abdullah was right. When Despaigne failed to come forward, Abdullah kept warning his fighter to be patient, to avoid the trap the Cuban fighter was setting, hoping Dirrell would step into his range.

And so they circled each other, round after round, two predators sizing each other up, using their gloves to point and counterpoint rather than punch and counterpunch.

Dirrell led, 2-1, after one round, 5-3 after two and 7-6 after three.

By the third round, Despaigne had more to worry about than Dirrell. A cut had opened around his left eye, serious enough for referee Guliyev Niftali to twice stop the bout to assess the damage. The second time, Niftali asked a ringside physician to examine the bleeding.

The bout was allowed to continue, but the injury left Despaigne distracted and Dirrell with a prime target.

"He had a blind spot," Dirrell said. "I knew that he was vulnerable so I kept throwing jabs at him."

When the fight was over, Dirrell went to look for his grandfather, a former amateur boxer who had been a sparring partner and bodyguard for Muhammad Ali.

Lawson encouraged both Andre and his brother Anthony to box. In tribute, Andre had a tattoo of Lawson's face put on his back before the Olympics.

"He might as well be on my back," Dirrell said. "He's been on my back since I started boxing."

Good thing, as it turned out.

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