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BILL PLASCHKE

U.S. boxing heavyweights come away battered

The days of dominating big men are long past. A last-minute coach swap and mistakes in the ring make for a frustrating day.

August 01, 2012|Bill Plaschke
  • American Michael Hunter battles Russia's Artur Beterbiev in a heavyweight bout Wednesday in London.
American Michael Hunter battles Russia's Artur Beterbiev in a heavyweight… (Scott Heavey / Getty Images )

LONDON — The giant American boxer dances into the ring, chants of "USA" fill the dark and crowded arena, and immediately you think of former Olympic champion George Foreman.

Until the kid gets popped in his grill.

"My legs got fatigued really fast," says Michael Hunter II, bloodied and exhausted in the blink of a watery eye.

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Another large American boxer enters the ring, bigger, stronger, rippled and tattooed, and immediately you think of former Olympic champ Joe Frazier.

Until the kid gets smoked.

"I've only got 31/2 years under my belt, and it showed," says Dominic Breazeale, and you shouldn't have seen the other guy.

Where are the heavyweights? I've come to London's ExCeL Arena on a Wednesday afternoon to examine a question that has dogged the U.S. Olympic boxing team for nearly 25 years, a question whose answer has knocked the program into the ropes of irrelevancy.

Where are the heavyweights? Where are the guys who once made U.S. Olympic boxing a glamour team such as the former Cassius Clay, Leon Spinks, Frazier and Foreman? Where are the dudes who used to brawl with the Cubans and battle the Russians and turn the Olympic boxing event into one long scene from "Rocky"?

We haven't won a gold medal in the top two weight divisions since 1988, and that was Ray Mercer, and does anybody remember him? We don't produce bruisers anymore. We don't build giants anymore. While all of USA Boxing is in a funk after winning only one bronze medal four years ago in its worst Olympics ever — and already losing five of its nine male competitors in early rounds this year — the most noise is coming from the thumping of our big guys on history's canvas.

Where are the heavyweights? As I watch the carnage occurring in front of me Wednesday, I know only one thing for certain — they're not here.

In the heavyweight match, smiling and juking Hunter takes an early lead against Russia's Artur Beterbiev but then tires, his soft body essentially falling into Beterbiev's embrace for much of the third and final two-minute round. He's not boxing, he's hanging on to Beterbiev for dear life, at which point the Russian pops him in the nose, blood everywhere, and that is that. The fight ends in a 10-all tie, but Beterbiev wins on a points tiebreaker that Hunter doesn't even argue.

"He's the better man, he deserved it," says Hunter, shrugging, later adding: "I'm turning professional."

Sure enough, underneath the stands waiting for Hunter is Mustafa Ameen, a boxing handler, and I ask if he is Hunter's manager.

"I am now," he says with a grin.

Hunter's trainer is also there, a guy named Kenny Croom, and he's upset because Hunter didn't seem to have any idea what he was doing in the ring.

"That is not the Michael Hunter that we know; he was not doing the things we taught him, that was not him," Croom says.

Maybe that's because the coach who devised Hunter's strategy wasn't even in his corner. Basheer Abdullah was just named the USA Boxing coach six weeks ago, at which time USA Boxing was informed by international officials that because Abdullah used to train professionals, he was banned from working the Olympians' corner for six months.

"Small rule they threw in there at the last minute," says Olympic assistant coach Charles Leverette.

Small rule? The boxing folks hired an Olympic coach who couldn't coach?

"They don't have a head coach until six weeks ago, you don't think that's a factor?" Ameen says. "Then they get a head coach and he's not allowed in here? Are you kidding me?"

Actually, Abdullah is allowed in the arena, but only as a spectator. I know this because I think hear him shouting instructions — "Move your feet! Thirty seconds!" — from the upper level during the USA's second big-man bout. The fight features super-heavyweight Breazeale, an Alhambra native and former Northern Colorado quarterback who trains in a Carson gym called "The Rock."

Better rename it "The Rocked." Breazeale is knocked silly by Russian Magomed Omarov in the first round, falling behind 5-0 with no chance to come back in an eventual 19-8 defeat.

"The trainers said stick to my game plan; it was my fault for not sticking to my game plan," Breazeale says.

Maybe it would have helped if his game plan wasn't being shouted from the stands, and even Leverette, who was in Breazeale's corner, thought it was tough that the coach was in the cheering section.

"Of course it is; if you don't know who's leading, how do you know where to go?" he says.

It's pretty clear where our heavyweights are going, and it's not to this circus. It's to the NFL and NBA, high-paying professions with one distinct advantage.

"Playing some other sport, you can make $100 million and not get punched. Why would you go into boxing?" manager Ameen asks. "We have a lot of Americans who are [Vitali] Klitschko-sized, or bigger, but they're all in the NFL or the NBA."

The afternoon ends with Leverette making a plea for big men, little men, any sort of men who can knock some credibility back into USA Boxing.

"We've got to stop the bleeding," Leverette says.

Um, er, literally.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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