THE United States heads the all time boxing medal table at the Summer Olympic Games. One hundred and eleven in total, comprised of 50 gold, 23 silver and 38 bronze. The United States has been present at every Games since 1896, Moscow (1980) apart, and boxing was first introduced in to the Games programme in 1904. However in 1908 in Stockholm, boxing was not competed for, as at that time, Swedish law prohibited the sport. This particular article takes a look at some of the many medallists, mainly gold medallists, who went on to become world professional champions as well.
It is not imperative that a gold medal or indeed a medal of any colour will ensure professional boxing success or indeed a shot at one of the plethora of world titles which exist these days; but statistics and this article on American amateur boxers show that it is a great grounding for future ring success; which is not at all surprising to me and no doubt not to some others too. As we shall see some of America’s greatest amateur ring talent progressed to fantastic feats in the paid ring. No real coincidence I would suggest!
At the St Louis Games in 1904, the US was the only country entered in the boxing event and it secured all nineteen medals, seven gold, seven silver and five bronze. Only eighteen boxers took part and bronze medals were not awarded in the fly, bantam and middleweight divisions
However, controversy followed at these Games and in some respects often follows the sport today. About the 1904 event, four boxers each won two medals; Oliver Kirk (two golds), George Finnegan (gold and silver), Harry Spanjer (gold and silver) and Charles Mayer (also gold and silver). However, the fun doesn’t stop there. A boxer named, Jack Eagan, sometimes referred to as Jack Egan, won silver at lightweight and also a bronze at welterweight. However, a year or so later it was discovered his real name was Frank Joseph Floyd and America’s AAU disqualified him for having boxed under an assumed and false name and requested the return of all his boxing trophies, including his two Olympic medals. Some very respected statistical sources have apparently and somewhat logically documented boxers from the Games moving up to assume Eagan’s medal silver and bronze slots; although the Official Olympic Boxing medal database for these Games still lists him as a silver and bronze medallist. (Did I hear someone just say “Only in America!”?) Well boxing entered the Games in a controversial and somewhat curious way. Things did, thankfully, quieten down, quite a bit as we shall see in subsequent Games.
In 1908, the USA did not compete in the boxing events.
They were back with a vengeance in Antwerp in 1920, netting three golds and one bronze. One gold medallist, flyweight, Frankie Genaro, went on to win the NBA flyweight crown.
Four years later in 1924, six medals were claimed, two gold, two silver and two bronze. Flyweight, Fidel LaBarba won gold and later became world flyweight champion. Jackie Fields, real name Jacob Finkelstein won gold at featherweight and later became a world welterweight kingpin. Fields at just sixteen years and 162 days, became the youngest boxer ever to win an Olympic gold medal. His record will never be beaten. However in view of the current higher age limit imposed these days on amateur boxers, another American, Leo Randolph is apparently, at present, the youngest ever Olympic gold medallist of the modern era. But more of him later on.
Two silvers and one bronze became the medal tally in 1928.
1932, saw two golds and three bronze gained and bronze medallist, Louis Salica, at flyweight later became the NBA world bantamweight champion.
Berlin in 1936 and London in 1948 were fairly modest Games medal wise for the USA, one silver and one bronze were achieved in Berlin and a mere silver obtained in the London “Austerity” Games in 1948.
Helsinki, Finland in 1952, saw five golds return “across the pond”, middleweight, Floyd Patterson announcing his own particular presence on the world boxing stage with a gold medal. Patterson has his own particular piece of professional boxing history in that he remains the youngest ever undisputed professional world heavyweight champion and he was a mere seventeen and-a -half years old when he won his gold medal. A little more on the late great Floyd, later on.
Melbourne in 1956 saw two American golds and one silver medal. Middleweight Jose Torres gained silver losing out to the legendary Hungarian master, Laszlo Papp on points in their Olympic final. Torres went on to win WBC and WBA light-heavyweight crowns in the paid ranks. One of the gold medals went to heavyweight, Pete Rademacher who knocked out the Soviet Union’s, Lev Mukhin in the opening round. Later in his first professional contest, Rademacher met Floyd Patterson for the latter’s heavyweight crown. Although flooring Floyd “of the brittle chin” in the second round, Pete was knocked out in the sixth round. What a strange mix two Olympic champions, one then a world professional heavyweight champion and the other the then reigning Olympic heavyweight champion, once more “only in America” as they say!!
The next three Olympic Games, threw up arguably three of the greatest world heavyweight champions of all time. Cassius Clay won in Rome in 1960 at light-heavyweight, he was joined by two other American gold medallists and one bronze medal winner. Clay, who later became, Muhammad Ali is arguably the most well known and celebrated boxer of all time and in many peoples’ books the greatest boxer also.
1964 saw, Joe Frazier win the Olympic gold medal at heavyweight, there were three bronze medals achieved too. What can one say about the late great “Smokin Joe”, he was awesome in his prime and will never be forgotten, he will be remembered as one of the greatest world heavyweight champions of the modern era.
If Clay and Frazier were not enough to whet ones boxing appetite, along in 1968 came George Foreman, who too won an Olympic heavyweight gold medal. America also won another gold medal and four bronze ones in Mexico City. Foreman too was an immense world heavyweight champion and will rightly be remembered thus.
1972 was the time of Marvin Johnson who won a bronze medal at middleweight, later win in the paid ranks, WBC and WBA light-heavyweight championships. USA won one gold and another two bronze medals at these Games.
1976 was a superb Games for the States with five golds, one silver and one bronze. These Montreal Games were the most successful for the Americans since Helsinki in 1952. Leo Randolph, Howard Davis Jnr, Ray Leonard, Michael and Leon Spinks, each won gold and Davis also was awarded the Val Barker trophy. A silver medal was also acquired and heavyweight John Tate won a bronze. All of the American gold medallists went on to box for and win world professional tittles and all succeeded with the exception of the late Howard Davis Jnr. Leonard and the Spinks brothers need no further introduction, but the least well known of the gold medallists, Leo Randolph who won at flyweight, won the WBA super-bantamweight crown. He apparently is the current youngest Olympic gold medallist (with the existing entry structure) and the youngest retirement ever by a former professional world champion , losing his title three months to Sergio Palma, after taking the title from Ricardo Cardona. The Spinks brothers remain the only brothers to date, to both win both Olympic titles and World heavyweight crowns, although their Olympic triumphs were at middleweight for Michael and light-heavyweight for Leon. Bronze medallist, John Tate later won the WBA world heavyweight title. Not a bad return for the USA in 1976, although political ramifications prevented them competing when the Summer Games were to be staged for the first time in the then Soviet Union in 1980.
Moscow in 1980 was boycotted by the USA and many other countries too, including a number of its western allies and friends, but not by Team GB. Then four years later in Los Angeles with a Soviet, Cuban and also a large mainly East European boycott in place, the USA had their best ever Games gold medal tally, They acquired nine out of the twelve gold medals up for grabs and also one silver and one bronze medal too. A massive gold medal haul which is unlikely ever to be matched in the future. It might be easiest first to record the three gold medals which went elsewhere. They were at bantam, middle and light-heavyweight.
So let us see where the medals went and how their owners fared later on in their individual careers. First up, Light-flyweight, Paul Gonzales went on to win the IBF bantamweight belt; Steve McCrory at flyweight failed to land a professional crown. Featherweight, Meldrick Taylor, won light-welterweight and welterweight world crowns, while the phenomenal southpaw, Pernell Whitaker won four different world titles from light-middleweight, welter, light-welter and lightweight.
Light-welterweight, Jerry Page didn’t challenge for a paid world crown. Mark Breland at welterweight, won the paid welterweight crown twice, while light-middleweight, Frank Tate, later won the IBF world middleweight belt. Heavyweight, Henry Tillman is an interesting case, challenging but never winning a professional world title. But he did meet his Olympic final heavyweight opponent as a professional in 1990, namely Canada’s Willie DeWitt, with DeWitt, prevailing this time on points. Tillman had won their Olympic duel, with all five judges awarding him the decision and the gold medal. Readers will recall that Wladimir Klitschko met and twice beat Tongan Paea Wolfgramm in first an Olympic final and later in the paid ring with no title at stake. I said in a previous article that I would endeavour to find a parallel with Klitschko; Wolfgramm and I have managed to deliver with Tillman and De Witt. I will continue to look for other examples and report back on my findings in due course.
Tyrell Biggs became the first ever Olympic super-heavyweight champion , but never won a paid world belt, “Iron” Mike Tyson putting paid to that dream and ambition.
Middleweight, Virgil Hill, won silver in the middleweight division, losing a very close judges decision (3-2) which went the way of South Korea’s Shin Joon-sup. This did not deter Hill who went on to have a fabulously successful paid career winning WBA light-heavyweight, IBF and Lineal belts also in this weight category as well as the WBA cruiserweight title for good measure.
This brings us to the one and only “Real Deal”, Evander Holyfield, who took a bronze in Los Angeles. Holyfield was controversially disqualified in the semi- final against the New Zealander, Kevin Barry. The American actually knocked out Barry, but the referee ruled that the punch came after he had called “stop”. Barry was subject then to the twenty-eight day suspension and the Olympic title went to Anton Josipovic (Yugoslavia) on a walk-over. Evander later became a colossus, both at cruiserweight and also at heavyweight, so a bronze medal did not affect his later ring career one little bit.
1992 was a much quieter Games for the USA, with three medals one of each colour. Gold went to lightweight star, Oscar De La Hoya, silver to Chris Byrd in the middleweight ranks and a bronze to Tim Austin at flyweight.
De La Hoya “The Golden Boy” had a phenomenal paid career winning ten world titles in six different weight categories, what more can be said about that, other than truly awesome. Byrd did alright for himself as well becoming a two-time world heavyweight champion and Austin won the IBF bantamweight crown, defending it many times.
1996 was another quiet Olympic Games, although six medals were won, one gold and five bronze. The gold went to light-middleweight, David Reid, who later won a WBA world crown at this weight.
Of the five bronze medallists, the most famous and undefeated as a professional is Floyd Mayweather Jnr, who was subject to a very bad points decision which went in favour of Bulgaria’s Serafim Todorov and had to settle for just that colour medal. He has had an unbelievably successful paid career, remained undefeated and among other championship credentials was a world champion in five weight divisions. A fantastically successful multi-champion and regarded by many as “the greatest boxer of his time”, and a view not too many would disagree with I believe. Mayweather announced his retirement from the ring in September 2015 after outpointing Andre Berto in yet another world championship encounter.
Lightweight, Terrance Cauthen received bronze and later won the IBU world super-welterweight championship as a professional. Middleweight, Rhoshli Wells got bronze and never boxed for a world title, very sadly he was shot and killed in Las Vegas in 2008, a young life cut short, what a loss for his family and friends.
Heavyweight, Nate Jones also won bronze but did not box for a world crown, someone from 1996 who did eventually, was light-heavyweight, bronze medallist, Antonio Tarver who eventually won WBC, WBA and IBF world light-heavyweight championships.
Athens in 2000, saw two silvers and two golds won by the USA. Ricardo Juarez took silver at featherweight and later became WBC Silver featherweight champion. Light-welterweight, Ricardo Williams also won silver, but never challenged for a paid world belt. Similarly, bronze medallist, Clarence Vinson at bantamweight, did not contend for world championship honours in the paid ranks. However, light-middleweight, Jermain Taylor, also a bronze medallist, excelled in the professional code when he became the former and last middleweight champion claiming, IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and Ring Titles, beating the legendary Bernard Hopkins in 2005.
2004 saw another modest medal return, Andre Ward won gold at light-heavyweight and Andre Dirrell gained bronze at middleweight. Ward is a tremendous boxer, one of only a few men to defeat England’s Carl Froch. Ward, still undefeated as a professional, has won Ring Magazine, WBA (Super) and WBC super-middleweight titles. Dirrell who won bronze in Athens at middleweight, has not so far succeeded in winning world honours. He was beaten, in May 2015, in a world title bout by our very own James DeGale, a former Olympic gold medallist himself in Beijing in 2008 at middleweight.
In 2008, it seemed that the American medal machine was running out of steam as a sole bronze medal was their only return. It came via, heavyweight, Deontay Wilder, who is the current WBC world heavyweight champion.
2012 proved to be the turn of and the time for the ladies as they showed the American men the way to Olympic medal glory on this occasion. Ten male boxers from the States boxed in London and there was not one medal achieved, the first time ever that the men from the USA had drawn a blank at any Games that they have competed in as far as Olympic ring medals were concerned. However, two women rescued “Uncle Sam’s” reputation and here is a little bit about each of them. The United States thus having maintained their record of winning at least one and often many more Olympic ring medals in all of the Games that they have competed in.
Women’s boxing featured in the London 2012 Games for the first time, three weights were contested; flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. Claressa Shields won the middleweight gold and Marlen Esparza gained a bronze in the flyweight category. Shields beat Russia’s Nadezda Torlopova 19- 12 in their final, while China’s Ren Cancan beat Esparza 10-8 in their semi-final, with Team GB’s Nicola Adams outscoring the Chinese woman in the Olympic final to become the first ever woman gold medallist at the Olympic Games.
So what does the medal future hold for the USA, especially their men in the ring. Is the American medal machine grinding to a summary halt or will they bounce back and be among the medals more regularly in future years? A fascinating question and I do not know the answer, time will tell, if the American glory days are now gone, or whether recent Games have just signalled a temporary blip. Perhaps Rio 2016 will give us some clues. The United States have six qualifiers for Rio, two of them women, so let’s sit back and see how they perform. American boxers have a great deal to live up to, will they be up to it in Brazil?