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It's a Big Step for Ward to Golden Bout

With a narrow victory in the semifinals, he's the only hope for the first U.S. Olympic boxing title since 1996.

August 28, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Score tied. One round to go. A shot at an Olympic gold medal at stake.

Except U.S. Coach Basheer Abdullah didn't know his 178-pound boxer, Andre Ward, was even with Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan at 13 points apiece after three rounds in Friday night's semifinal match at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall.

Abdullah thought his fighter was comfortably ahead. So he told Ward to box and dance, a dangerous tactic when a few punches could turn gold into bronze.

Because scores are not made available to the fighters' corners during a match, Abdullah wouldn't learn the truth until just before Ward escaped with a 17-15 victory to send him into Sunday's gold-medal match against Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus.

Seven of eight Cubans, three Russians and British upstart Amir Khan at 132 pounds advanced to the finals. The Cubans are trying to improve on their four gold medals at the Sydney Games.

With 165-pound Andre Dirrell of the U.S. having lost his semifinal match, 23-18, earlier in the day to Gennadiy Golovkin of Kazakhstan, with the other seven U.S. fighters having lost earlier in the tournament, it is up to Ward to try to bring the U.S. its first Olympic gold in the ring since the 1996 Games and only its third since 1988.

"It still hasn't sunk in that I'm going to be fighting for a gold medal," a sweat-soaked Ward said after Friday's fight.

He was close to losing that opportunity. The 20-year-old Oakland fighter has won more than 100 consecutive amateur bouts spanning six years, but rarely has he come up against as tough an inside fighter as Haydarov, who kept his head low and repeatedly tried to bore into Ward's chest.

"He was a physical fighter," Abdullah said of Haydarov. "He tried to be rough and dirty."

The score stayed as close as Haydarov did to Ward -- 5-3 after one round and 9-8 after two for Ward, who was booed throughout the match.

Ward couldn't shake loose long enough to do much dancing in the fourth round. The score was tied at 14, then 15.

The clock kept moving. Down to 20 seconds remaining in the bout. Down to 15.

Somewhere in the crowd, Ward heard someone from his rooting section yell that the score was tied. By that point, Abdullah had also been informed of the deadlocked score.

Ward backed away, got some room to swing his arms and landed a left hook.

That moved him in front, 16-15.

Down to five seconds. Another left hook.

Ward on top, 17-15.

And then time ran out.

"I feel a little relief," said Abdullah, a smile finally crossing his face after the shock of learning how close his last remaining fighter had been to elimination.

"Looking back," Abdullah said, "telling him to use his speed turned out to be the right thing even though it was the wrong advice."

It wouldn't have been bad advice for Dirrell, either. The 20-year-old from Flint, Mich., who had been so effective in reaching the semifinals, froze against Golovkin, a fighter Dirrell had beaten, 16-15, more than a year ago in a dual meet in Tunica, Miss. Gone was the aggressiveness and the jab that had powered him into the medal round.

"I don't know what happened to my jab," Dirrell said. "It didn't come out like I wanted it to."

Still, he insisted, he was proud to be taking home a bronze. "Mostly, it will stay around my neck," Dirrell said.

For Ward, it will be silver or gold. But who's counting?

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