A sleeping giant may finally be awakening for Team USA at the Rio Olympics.
The men’s boxing team, which has been mired in an embarrassing decline over the past two Summer Games, is guaranteed to put at least one athlete on the medals podium this time.
That’s faint praise for a team that holds the record for most total boxing medals at the Games and most golds, with 111 total and 49 gold. But that’s where the U.S. men stand after getting shut out for medals at the 2012 London Games. And 2008 wasn’t much better, with only one medal: a bronze.
The guaranteed medalist in Rio is light flyweight Nico Hernandez, who upset Russian Vasilii Egorov in the round of 16 but lost to Uzbekistan’s Hasanboy Dusmatov in the semifinals. Olympic boxing awards bronze medals to both semifinal losers, and Hernandez will receive his in a Sunday ceremony.
But America still appears to have a long way to go before it reminds anyone of the glory years. And what years they were.
The teams of 1960, 1964 and 1968 delivered three gold medalists who went on to professional reigns as heavyweight champions of the world: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
The 1976 team, led by Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers, Leon and Michael, won five golds and added a silver and a bronze.
And the 1984 team at Los Angeles (boycotted by Soviet Bloc nations) ranks as the best ever, with nine golds, a silver and a bronze collected by a squad that had six future pro champs, including Evander Holyfield.
In Rio, U.S. bantamweight Shakur Stevenson is considered a strong medal contender, but other Americans have fallen out of the hunt.
Karlos Balderas lost in the lightweight division quarterfinals on Friday to Cuban Lazaro Alvarez, who was a bronze medalist at the 2012 Olympics. Another American eliminated earlier was middleweight Charles Conwell, who lost his opening match to India's Krishan Vikas.
Light welterweight Gary Russell takes on Wuttichai Masuk of Thailand in the round of 16 on Sunday, and flyweight Antonio Vargas fights Brazil's Juliao Neto in the round of 32 on Saturday.
If the progress continues, much of the credit will be directed toward new coach Billy Walsh, an Irishman who was hired in 2014 after guiding his homeland's team to four medals in London. Technically, Walsh is listed as Team USA’s coach for women, but that is just a bookkeeping issue.
Walsh was hired at the urging of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is paying his salary. He is expected to be named men’s coach after Rio.
“I’d like to see this coaching staff stick around,” Ward said in a telephone interview this week. “I don’t agree with our coaching staff changing every four years, and sometimes two or three times in four years.”
Ward said that lack of coaching continuity is largely to blame for the U.S. downturn.
“I’m very close to the program and close to the athletes, and I just think it’s hard to build on a faulty foundation,” Ward told me. “If you look at the top teams, they have a coaching staff, and that staff is there for multiple Olympics.”
Ward added emphatically: “It’s not the talent. We have some of the best talent in the world, if not the best.”
When Ward won his gold, he studied video regularly with Al Mitchell, then the team’s technical adviser. Mitchell also was the head coach of the 1996 team that won six medals, including one gold, and was the technical adviser again at London in 2012.
“I can tell you everything that went wrong,” Mitchell said of the 2012 team, in a telephone interview. “They didn’t have the coaches who were going to be in the corners until a week or two before we went to London. … They didn’t have the competitions they should have had, and they didn’t have the camps they should have had.”
Mitchell, who is not on the Rio team's staff, avoids blaming any individuals and says the system was broken, from the top of USA Boxing all the way down to the marginally funded Junior Olympics, where many young boxers get their start.
Mitchell didn’t name Walsh, but regarding the coaching changes, he said: “I think now the national office [of USA Boxing] has the right idea, but we should have had one of our own.”
Both Ward and Mitchell see other problems for the future of Olympic boxing in the U.S., starting with the decision to allow professionals into Rio’s tournament.
Amid widespread criticism of the IOC’s decision to allow professional boxers into the Olympics, only three entered—across all nations—and all were eliminated before the medal rounds. It seems the Games are not a tempting prospect for pros. But Ward says the inclusion of professionals could end up putting U.S. amateurs at a disadvantage.
Ward also is concerned the decision to get rid of protective headgear will discourage young fighters from aiming for the Olympics, particularly in the U.S., where there's already a drive to go pro. The thinking is that if you're going to get beat up without the headgear, you might as well hasten to take the punishment for money and leave the Olympics to amateurs.
“If they had removed the headgear when I was fighting, I’m pretty sure my coach would have pulled me aside and said, ‘Why are we still fighting as amateurs?’”
Ward told me that he has been to several amateur tournaments where headgear wasn’t worn, and he also said: “I saw way too many cuts. I also saw a lot of knockouts. Not stoppages, but outright knockouts. … I’ll take the headgear any day of the week.”
Mitchell believes the removal of headgear is making more potential U.S. Olympians jump into the professional ranks, making the team's climb back to respectability even steeper.
“Every one of them I talk to, they say, 'Why should I keep boxing for trophies when I can go professional?'” the coach said. “You’ve got to remember that most international veterans are 25, 27, and most of our guys are 17, 18 or 19. You’ve already got a mature man going against a kid.”
Tom Weir covered 15 Olympics (eight Winter, seven Summer) as a columnist for USA Today. All quotations were obtained firsthand.