OLYMPIAD MEMORIES 2008 OLYMPIC
THE MOST UNFORGETTABLE
U.S. OLYMPIC BOXERS
At left, Big Ed Sanders, who won gold in 1952 when future world champ Ingemar Johansson was disqualified for refusing to fight. Center: Cassius Clay, left, the future Muhammad Ali, in Rome with Eddie Crook, both Gold Medal winners in 1960. At right, Pete Rademacher winning gold in Melbourne in 1956. He then fought
Floyd Patterson for the world heavyweight title in his first professional fight.
American boxers have rich
history to uphold in China
By RON MILLER
If you ask somebody to name the most unforgettable boxer to ever represent the United States in the Olympic Games, most likely they'll come up with the name Cassius Clay, who won gold in Rome in 1960 then went on to ring immortality as a professional under his new Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.
But what about Eddie Crook, who went to Rome with Clay and won gold as a middleweight? Crook lost in the Olympic trials, but made the team as a substitute in a different weight division after Ray Phillips was removed from the squad. He went on to make America proud. Eddie Crook was unforgettable, too, in his own special way.
You see, he never turned professional, but remained an amateur all his life. When he finished, he had amassed an awesome record--more knockout victories as an amateur than Archie Moore racked up as a pro--and Moore, in case you didn't know, was the all-time kayo king among professional boxers with a total of 141. Eddie Crook died in 2005 at age 76, virtually unheralded despite a lifetime of service as a U.S. Army sergeant-major and one of the greatest amateur boxers in American history.
Some also might be pushing forward the name George Foreman, who won lifelong fans all over America when he waved a tiny American flag to the crowd after winning gold in Mexico City in 1968. That was Foreman's answer to the "Black Power Salute" that several U.S. track team members gave from the medal stand, touching off a furor back home.
But was he a better Olympian than Hayes "Big Ed" Sanders? Sanders was the 1952 heavyweight gold medal winner, who knocked out virtually everyone he faced at the games, but won the gold when his opponent--future world heavyweight champ Ingemar Johanssen of Sweden--was disqualified for refusing to put up a fight against him. In fact, Johanssen ran from the huge American through the first two rounds and thoroughly disgraced himself before the world.
Sanders turned pro, but was listless and ineffective in his last few bouts and was knocked out by Willie James in the eleventh round of their fight for the New England heavyweight title. He lapsed into a coma and died on Dec. 12, 1954. It was only his eighth professional fight. Later investigation suggested Sanders had suffered a brain injury in training that was fatally aggravated in that last fight.
Still others might clammor for consideration of Oscar de la Hoya as best ever U.S. Olympic fighter. He was the only U.S. boxing gold medal winner on the 1992 U.S. team and went on to a spectacular pro career as the "golden boy" who won title after title in several weight divisions. When he came home with gold, millions of dollars were just awaiting his signature.
But what about Pete Rademacher, the hard-punching heavyweight who won gold at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, then surprised the world by fighting for the world heavyweight championship in his very first professional fight, challenging another former Olympic star, Floyd Patterson.
Rademacher had a dazzling 72-7 amateur career and kayoed all his opponents at the Olympics. He was no joke as a pro prospect, though he was considered pretty old to be starting a pro career at 29. In the much-criticized fight, which several boxing commissions refused to approve because of the challenger's inexperience as a pro, Rademacher actually knocked Patterson down in the second round, then was knocked out in the sixth. Undeterred, he then began fighting his way down through the top 10 until he finally started finding contenders he could beat.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this. I think what makes some fighters unforgettable isn't just what they achieve, but the way they achieve it. Call Rademacher a fool for choosing an impossible goal to achieve in his first pro fight, but don't forget he was already balding and looked like somebody's dad when he sought the title. He might not have had time to work his way up the ladder until he really deserved a title shot. The way he did it gave him a huge payday right away and he must have felt a certain surge of glory when he actually saw he was good enough to put the champ, a prohibitive betting favorite, on the canvas, scoring the first knockdown of the fight. Ultimately, he hung up his gloves with a record of 15-7-1. He had a long and successful career in business. retiring in 1987 as president of the McNeil Corp. in Akron, Ohio.
Anyway, I've made a tour of the life stories of all the U.S. Olympic fighters since the competitions began in 1904 and here are the ones I consider truly unforgettable...for a wide assortment of different reasons:
1. FIDEL LA BARBA
Gold Medal, Flyweight, 1924
Fidel LaBarba was still a high school kid when he won the gold medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as a flyweight, a division seldom dominated by American fighters. In the following year, LaBarba turned pro and beat Frankie Genaro for the U.S. flyweight crown. In 1927, he took the world flyweight crown from Elky Clark, knocking him down five times and winning every round.
LaBarba retired seven months after becoming world champ and enrolled at Stanford University, determined to make something of himself outside the prize ring. But he returned to the ring a year later as a featherweight. In 1931, he failed in a bid for the world title against Battling Battalino. In 1932, fighting with a detached retina suffered in training, he lost a decision to boxing legend Kid Chocolate, whom he had beaten before. Corrective surgery on his eye failed and he eventually lost the eye. He retired again and this time earned a journalism degree from Stanford, became a popular sportswriter, wrote screenplays and served as a technical advisor for boxing movies. His overall record: 72-15-7. He had true fighting spirit.
2. JACKIE FIELDS
Gold medal, Featherweight, 1924.
Jackie Fields, a Jewish fighter whose real name was Jacob Finkelstein, was only 16 when he won the gold medal as a featherweight at the 1924 Olympic Games, making him the youngest fighter ever to win a gold medal. He turned pro soon after the games and in 1929 earned a shot at the national welterweight title against champion Young Jack Thompson, scoring a points win. With that title under his belt, he challenged Joe Dundee for his world welterweight crown and thoroughly dominated the champ in their brief fight on July 25, 1929. He knocked Dundee down once in the first round and three times in the second before Dundee fouled him with a punch below the belt and the referee stopped the bout and awarded the title to Fields.
Fields lost the world title back to Young Jack Thompson in 1930, then regained it in 1932 with a decision win over new champ Lou Broulliard. That year Fields was injured in an auto accident and lost his sight in one eye, but kept it a secret. Hampered by his poor vision, Fields lost the title to Young Corbett III in 1933 and soon retired. His total amateur record was 54-3 and his pro record 74-9-3 with one no contest bout.
After he left the ring, Fields went to work for 20th Century-Fox and then MGM, where he was a film editor. He later became a part owner of the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas and served as vice-chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. He died in 1984.
3. FLOYD PATTERSON
Gold Medal, Middleweight, 1952
Floyd Patterson won the Gold medal in 1952 as a 165-pound middleweight.
In his subsequent professional career, Patterson set his sights on the world heavyweight title when Rocky Marciano retired in 1956. In 1955, light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore had given Marciano a hard fight before being knocked out in Marciano's last title defense, so Moore and the undefeated Patterson were matched for the vacant world heavyweight crown in 1956. Patterson won by knockout, becoming, at 21, the youngest man ever to hold the heavyweight crown. After a number of defenses against mediocre foes, he lost the title in 1959 by KO to Ingo Johansson, then regained it by KO, becoming the first man to ever regain the heavyweight crown. Finally, he faced No. 1 contender Charles "Sonny" Liston and was knocked out in one round. He met the same fate in the rematch.
Humiliated, Patterson still stayed in the race, had some impressive wins, but never again regained the crown. After retiring from the ring with a record of 55-8-1, he became a New York boxing commissioner. Much later, his adopted son, Tracy Harris Patterson, became a world boxing champ twice, winning first the WBC bantamweight title, then the IBF superfeatherweight crown. Floyd Patterson died in 2006.
4. CASSIUS CLAY (MUHAMMAD ALI)
Gold Medal, Light-Heavyweight, 1960
From the beginning of his amateur boxing career, Cassius Clay was memorable not only for his boxing skills, but also for his controversial "motor mouth," which gave him an amazing ability to promote himself and his fights. He was nicknamed the "Louisville Lip" even before he became a professional boxer. As an amateur, he was a phenomenon with 100 wins and only five losses. He was the star of the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, winning the gold medal in the 178-pound light heavyweight division.
At 6 foot 3, he was a rangy boxer who fought in a highly unorthodox manner, using his speed and dexterity rather than customary defense tactics, often leaning away from punches and taunting his foes.
Clay turned pro almost immediately after his return from Rome in 1960 and quickly graduated from preliminary bouts to main events, fighting former contenders and veteran "trial horses." In only his 16th fight, he knocked out legendary Archie Moore, the former light-heavy champ, and by 1964 challenged fierce Charles "Sonny" Liston for the world heavyweight title, stopping him in seven rounds. He knocked out Liston in one round in their 1965 rematch.
By this time, Clay had taken the Muslim name "Muhammad Ali" and soon became even more controversial after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, which he opposed. His titles were taken from him and he then spent several of his peak years unable to box anywhere. He eventually was cleared of charges against him by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Ali's subsequent ring career is the stuff of legends: His three fierce bouts with former Olympian Joe Frazier were classic ring battles. Ali lost the first on points, won the second on points, then knocked out Frazier in the rubber match, the so-called "Thrilla in Manila," when Frazier, both eyes battered closed, was unable to come out for the last round. His famous "Rumble in the Jungle" with champion George Foreman in which Ali regained his title. His two split decision fights with Ken Norton also were classics, Ali losing the first and winning the second. (Ali beat Norton again in a third fight by unanimous decision.) His 15th round knockout of "bleeder" Chuck Wepner in 1975 was an epic struggle that inspired the movie "Rocky." His only knockout loss came in 1980 when his trainer refused to let him come out against Larry Holmes after the 10th round.
Ali's pro record was 56-5 with 37 wins by knockout. Afflicted with Parkinson's Disease today, he remains perhaps the most famous and beloved athlete of all time, world-wide. His daughter, Laila, is perhaps the best known and richest female prizefighter of all time.
5. JOE FRAZIER
Gold Medal, Heavyweight, 1964
Joe Frazier was a very lucky man in 1964 when he suddenly was plucked back from the edge of obilivion and awarded a place on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Frazier had been defeated in the Olympic trials by the tubby boxing flash "Buster" Mathis, but when Mathis was unable to fight in Tokyo, Frazier was picked to replace him--and pulverized his opponents on his way to the Gold Medal.
Not quite 6 feet tall, Frazier was undersized for the newer crop of extra-tall heavyweights, but made up for it with his non-stop "smokin'" style of aggressive attack. He dismantled his opponents, racking up 23 knockouts in his first 26 fights, stopping such well-known opponents as Eddie Machen, Doug Jones, George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis and Bob Foster.
(One of his kayo victims was "Buster" Mathis, his old Olympic trials foe, who lost by knockout in the 11th round of their 1968 fight, which the New York State Athletic Commission recognized as a world heavyweight title fight because Muhammad Ali had just been stripped of his title. Mathis remains one of the saddest cases in boxing history. His overall pro record was 30-4, but he ballooned up to 550 pounds after retirement, suffered two strokes and finally died of a heart attack at age 52.)
His greatest fight series began in 1971 when undefeated heavyweight champ Frazier (26-0) took on undefeated heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali (31-0). Ali was coming off an exhausting 15-round decision over Oscar Bonavena and a near three-year layoff before that. Still, the fight was a sensational one, closely contested, with Frazier winning a decision. Both men were hospitalized after the bout.
Frazier's undefeated record came to an end in 1973 when he was demolished by George Foreman. Another tough fight with Ali came in 1974 with Ali winning on points in 12 rounds. But Frazier notched sseveral important wins and in 1975 he fought Ali for the third time. This "Thrilla in Manila" is widely regarded as one of the greatest ring battles of all time, ending in the 14th round when Frazier's corner refused to let him come out for the final round.
In 1976, Frazier fought Foreman again, was knocked out again, and retired. His pro record is still an impressive one: 32 wins, four losses and one draw with 27 wins by knockout.
6. GEORGE FOREMAN
Gold Medal, Heavyweight, 1968
George Foreman was a very inexperienced amateur boxer when he defeated Gus Evans and won the heavyweight spot on the 1968 Olympic team. Big, rangy and tough, he intimidated foes and, when he got to Mexico City for the games, began knocking them out. In his final bout, he knocked out Russian favorite Ionas Chepulis, a much more experienced boxer, and headed home with a much brighter future than even he expected. His final amateur record: 16 wins, 4 losses.
Foreman turned pro in 1969, mowing down a series of foes in 31 fights before challenging Joe Frazier for the world title, stopping him in just two rounds. He defended the title just twice before Muhammad Ali took it away from him in their 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle." He returned to action in 1976 with a kayo of hard-punching Ron Lyle, then defeated Frazier again by knockout. He retired after losing a unanimous decision to clever boxer Jimmy Young in 1977.
For the next decade, Foreman changed his life completely, turning from boxing to religion as a "born again" Christian He became a minister in his Houston, Texas, home area and polished his ability to talk with people to the point that he became a very gregarious and articulate person.
Then, in 1987, Foreman resumed his ring career with a series of fights against dubious opponents, scoring seven consecutive knockouts before he faced his first real test in Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1988, stopping him in seven rounds. He notched another 11 knockout wins before taking on deadly punching contender Gerry Cooney, knocking him out in two.
This campaign finally earned him a title shot against Evander Holyfield, the undefeated heavyweight champ, in 1991. Though he lost a unanimous decision, Foreman kept the fight close, earning him another title shot, this time for the vacant WBO heavyweight crown against top contender Tommy Morrison (36-1). Again, Foreman lost a unanimous decision.
After two failed title shots, Foreman was given little chance to beat undefeated Michael Moorer when they met for the WBA and IBF titles on Nov. 5, 1994. Though behind on points, Foreman uncorked a powerful shot in the 10th round and knocked out Moorer, becoming the oldest man in history to win the heavyweight title. Foreman was then 45.
Foreman refused to fight mandatory challenger Tony Tucker, so the WBA stripped his title. He then won a close, but unpopular decision against Germany's Axel Schultz. The IBF then stripped his title for refusing to give Schultz a rematch. Foreman fought on, but finally retired for good after losing a decision to Shannon Briggs in 1997 at age 48.
Because of his surprising comeback, Foreman became a super celebrity all over again, building a fortune with his bar-b-cue grill sales and working often in television. He's now starring in a new "reality" TV series about him and his large family on the TV Land cable network.
7. RAY LEONARD
Gold Medal, Light Welterweight, 1976
Ray Leonard's goal as a youth was to make the 1976 Olympic boxing team. On his way to that accomplishment, he won three national Golden Gloves titles, two AAU championships and the 1975 Pan-American Games crown, all before he was 20. When he made the Olympic team, he was not favored to win gold because he had to face Kazimierz Szezerba of Poland, who had given him one of his five defeats as an amateur. He knocked out the Polish fighter, but to win gold he still had to face Cuba's powerful Andres Aldama, who had scored five straight knockouts in the competition. In their bout, Leonard outclassed Aldama, forced him to take two standing eight counts, and beat him 5-0.
Though he had planned to enter college after the games, Leonard turned pro instead and was heavily promoted by the ABC TV network as he began to rack up win after win in televised bouts. In 1979, he challenged Wilfred Benitez for the world welterweight crown and, leading on all cards, he knocked Benitez out with just six seconds left in the 15th and final round.
In 1980, Leonard lost his title in a grueling battle with former lightweight champ Roberto Duran in what was later billed as a "superfight" for the ages. On Nov. 25, 1980, Leonard regained the title when Duran quit in the eighth round.
In 1981, Leonard engaged in his second "superfight," this time against undefeated slugger Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns, who had kayoed 30 of his 32 opponents on his way to winning the WBA welterweight crown. Hearns was leading on all cards and Leonard's left eye was swollen shut when Leonard savagely attacked Hearns in the 13th and 14th rounds, causing the referee to step in and stop the fight. Leonard now held both his own WBC title and Hearns' WBA crown.
For a time it appeared Leonard's career was over because his repeated eye injuries had left him with a detached retina. He retired, then un-retired to fight Kevin Howard, who knocked him down, but was ruled a TKO loser after a controversial referee decision to stop the fight. Leonard announced he was retiring again because he just didn't have it anymore.
But in 1986, Leonard shocked fans by announcing he was coming out of retirement for one more "superfight," challenging middleweight champ Marvin Hagler, one of the most savage ring warriors of his time. The bout took place in 1987 over 12 rounds and Leonard eked out a narrow split decision win, becoming the world middleweight champion.
Leonard never gave Hagler a rematch, but did fight both Duran and Hearns again, easily outpointing Duran and fighting to an unpopular draw with Hearns, even though Hearns had decked him twice. Leonard's "retirements" were now a joke in the sports world because he kept "un-retiring" for another pay day.
In 1991, Leonard challenged junior middleweight champ Terry Norris, who knocked him down twice and won an easy decision. Un-retiring for the final time, Leonard came back in 1997 at age 40 and was knocked out by light-hitting Hector "Macho" Camacho.
Still, Leonard's ring career was an extraordinary one because he fought all the toughest men of his era and amassed a lifetime record of 36-3-1 with 25 knockout victories and two of his three losses coming at the very end of his long career. He is active today as a boxing promoter and has never lost his superstar celebrity profile.
8. MICHAEL CARBAJAL
Silver Medal, Junior Flyweight, 1988
No American boxer since Fidel LaBarba had made a significant mark in the flyweight division, so it was a real surprise to see young Michael Carbajal of Phoenix, Ariz., rise to prominence in the even smaller new junior flyweight division. In the 1988 Olympics, Carbajal lost a controversial decision to Bulgarian Ivailo Marinov, winding up with the silver medal instead of gold. He turned pro after the games and quickly rose through the contender ranks, drawing huge crowds. An excellent boxer and heavy puncher, Carbajal won the IBF world light flyweight title with a seventh round knockout of champion Muanochai Kittikasem on July 27, 1990. He became the first junior flyweight in history to be guaranteed $1 million for a pay-per-view title bout against Humberto Gonzalez, who knocked him down twice before Carbajal kayoed him in round seven.
Carbajal lost the title back to Gonzalez, then lost their rubber match, but in the twilight of his career once again became a champion, beating Jorge Arce for the WBO light flyweight crown. His overall pro record: 49-4 with 33 knockout wins.
9. ROY JONES, JR,
Silver medal, Light-middleweight, 1988
Roy Jones, Jr., rode into the 1988 Olympics at Seoul, Korea, as a favorite of just about everyone to win gold. He'd been boxing since childhood and was a Junior Olympics bantamweight champ in 1984. But in his final bout at the Games, Jones was matched with South Korean favorite Park Si-Hun, who won a points decision that touched off a terrible furor that eventually led to changes in Olympic boxing scoring rules. Still, Jones was deprived of his gold medal and never got it back. His amateur career ended with 94 wins and just nine defeats.
Jones' pro career was launched in 1989 and he ran up a record of 17 consecutive knockout wins before anyone went the distance with him. In 1993, he scored a points win over future ring legend Bernard Hopkins to take the IBF world middleweight championship. The following year be heat James Toney for the IBF super-middleweight crown, then decisioned Mike McCallum for the vacant WBC light-heavyweight crown.
Jones suffered his first defeat in 1997 when he was disqualified for hitting Montell Griffith while he was down in the ninth round. He lost his light-heavy title, but regained it with a one-round kayo of Griffith five months later. Then, in 2003, Jones challenged John Ruiz for the WBA world heavyweight title, winning a 12-round decision. This made Jones the first former middleweight king to win a heavyweight crown in nearly a century.
Jones gave up the heavyweight crown without ever defending it and regained his light-heavyweight championship with a controversial decision over new champ Antonio Tarver. In a rematch, Tarver stopped Jones in the second round. Another knockout loss to Glen Johnson and a decision loss to Tarver in their rubber match took much of the luster away from Jones.
But Jones has staged a serious comeback, including a decisive win over Felix Trinidad last January, and is now expected to challenge undefeated Joe Calzaghe of the United Kingdom in a light-heavyweight matchup late this year. Win or lose, Jones will not end up on welfare. He already has launched careers in music as a recording artist and in movies as an actor.
10. OSCAR DE LA HOYA
Gold medal, lightweight, 1992
Oscar De la Hoya was the dream fighter Southern California boxing promoters had been waiting for: Handsome, articulate, a masterful boxer, a powerful puncher and a Latino who could appeal to the vast boxing crowd on both sides of the border.
De La Hoya used the Olympics to propel himself to a truly phenomenal pro boxing career. He had long, careful preparation as an amateur, winning 222 bouts, losing only five, and scoring 163 knockouts before becoming the only gold medal winner from the U.S. team in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992.
Dubbed the "Golden Boy" after that triumph, De La Hoya turned pro in November of 1992 and in only his 12th professional fight won his first world title by stopping Jimmy Bredahl to win the WBO junior lightweight title. Since then, he has won 10 world championships in six different weight classes and has proved his "golden" status many times over by racking up more box office records than any boxer in prizefight history.
Moving up in weight class, De La Hoya won the world lightweight title and defended it six times before moving up to junior welterweight with a bloody knockout win over Mexican boxing legend Julio Cesar Chavez. Then, in 1997, he challenged former Olympian Pernell Whitaker, then considered the best fighter in the world, for the WBC welterweight title, winning a controversial unanimous decision.
In 1999, De La Hoya challenged Felix Trinidad in a welterweight title unification bout, his first mega "superfight." Though he outboxed the hard-hitting Trinidad, De La Hoya, on the advice of his corner, fought defensively in the last three rounds, certain of a points win, and lost a majority decision. De La Hoya challenged for the welterweight title again in 2000, losing on points to Shane Mosley.
De La Hoya again moved up in weight class and outclassed WBC Junior Middleweight Champ Javier Castillejo to win that crown. After a long layoff, De La Hoya defended his junior middleweight title against Fernando Vargas in a long-awaited "grudge fight" and demolished Vargas in 11 rounds. He then lost his junior middlweight crown to Shane Mosley in a rematch of their earlier bout.
In 2004, De La Hoya moved up again and outpointed undefeated Felix Sturm to win the WBO middleweight crown. That set up another "superfight," this time against WBA, WBC and IBF middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins for the undisputed 160-pound crown. Hopkins dominated De La Hoya and gave him his first knockout loss. Both men got rich off that fight--De La Hoya alone pocketed $30 million--and they became partners as fight promoters in De La Hoya's "Golden Boy Promotions."
After the kayo loss, De La Hoya went nearly two years without a fight, then returned to challenge tough Ricardo Mayorga for his WBC junior middleweight crown. De La Hoya beat up on Mayorga and stopped him in six. Then, in 2007, De La Hoya fought the richest fight in boxing history, defending his junior middleweight crown against undefeated welterweight champ and 1996 Olympian Floyd Mayweather, Jr. He lost a split decision in the closely-fought contest.
The pay-per-view box office for that fight alone was $120 million. In his first 18 pay-per-view bouts, De La Hoya generated $594.3 million in sales, dwarfing the performance of any other boxer in the history of the sport.
Still active, De La Hoya remains so popular that even after his peak years are clearly past, he continues to be boxing's No. 1 box office attraction. A rematch with Mayweather was planned for late 2008, but Mayweather retired earlier this year. De La Hoya had announced that would be his last fight. He still looks forward to retirement by year's end, possibly after another box office bonanza challenging for Antonio Margarito's welterweight crown.
©2008 by Ron Miller. This column first posted Aug. 4, 2008.
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