IN THE summer of 1984, the gaze of the sporting world was on the Olympics that took place in Los Angeles. America aimed to deliver a spectacle that would strike an ideological blow in its Cold War with the communist, Soviet Union, who led a boycott of the event in reply to America staying away from the Moscow games, four years before. Their withdrawal was followed by Cuba, East Germany, Bulgaria, and other Eastern Bloc nations.
Carl Lewis was the star-spangled superstar who dominated the headlines as America got behind his audacious attempt to emulate the great Jessie Owens and win four gold medals in track and field. Lewis delivered in style and his country lavished praise on him, viewing his feat as heroic and best of breed, like Owen had been in the face of Nazism at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
On the boxing side there was the anticipation of more American dominance, especially with the absence of Cuba and the Soviet Union. It seemed most eyes were focused on Mark Breland, who had been the most celebrated amateur in the world for two years leading up to the Olympics. Such was Breland’s brilliance in the amateurs and the expectations that he would graduate to superstardom so lofty, he had already been cast in a Hollywood movie, The Lords of Discipline.
Global audiences also got their first extended viewing of future legends, Pernell Whitaker and Evander Holyfield and world champions in waiting, Meldrick Taylor, Frank Tate and Virgil Hill.
Amongst such rich talent the British team appeared to have little hopes of winning a medal, and so it turned out. But I kept a close eye on the progress of the British representative at super-heavyweight, a lanky 23-year-old called Bobby Wells. The division has served as fertile ground for members of Team GB in the 21st century; Audley Harrison and Anthony Joshua have won gold, while David Price, Joe Joyce, and Frazer Clarke, have bagged bronze, silver, and bronze medals. But it was Bobby that got the ball rolling for Britain’s super-heavyweights on the Olympic stage.
Bobby and I had boxed in the same Southwest Divisional Championships, in Battersea, five months before the Olympics; He won it beating Gary Mason, who was my Wandsworth ABC clubmate, and I lost in the heavyweight finals by disqualification. Gary and I entered those championships believing we were the best and most dynamic heavy and super-heavyweights in the country and could make a late push for the GB Olympic team. Youthful hubris often provides the rosiest tinted glasses.
After my disappointing loss to Graham Best, a fighter who I had stopped in the first round, a few months prior, I was certain that Gary would win his final, and for the first two rounds it seemed likely that he would, as he dropped Bobby heavily and battered him with rapid and heavy combinations. But to his credit Bobby weathered the storm and came firing back, and in third round Gary was bent over from exhaustion and gasping for breath, unable to continue.
That humbling evening served as a real eye opener for Gary and me, even more so when we saw Bobby on television fighting for a place in the Olympic final. It turned out that we hadn’t truly grasped how close a place on the ’84 Olympic team actually was. Back then an ABA title was enough to qualify for major tournament. Bobby went on to win the ABAs that year and book his seat on the plane to Los Angeles. Gary and I were left to spend our summers weighing up whether to turn professional or wait for another Olympic cycle. We made our professional debuts in October 1984.
Bobby didn’t have his first fight until the quarter-finals – after receiving a bye – winning it by knocking out Tonga’s Viliami Pulu, which guaranteed him the bronze medal. I thought he might actually go all the way, but the rugged Italian, Francesco Damiani, who was the world number one going into the games, proved too strong in the semi-finals.
On reflection, Bobby did manage to go further in the tournament than Lennox Lewis (albeit a very young version), who came up short in his quarter-final with eventual gold medal winner, Tyrell Biggs. His bronze medal was the only British boxing medal in 1984 and the first ever Olympic medal of any description to be won by a British super-heavyweight.
It would likely have been a struggle for Bobby to make it onto the podium if the full quota of nations had been present. The super-heavyweight division was loaded: aside from Damiani and Biggs it included the legendary Teofilo Stevenson, who was aiming to win his fourth gold medal and his first in that division, prior to Cuba’s withdrawal. East Germany’s Uli Kaden, who had won three out of nine fights against Stevenson, and the Soviet Union’s, Aleksandr Miroshnichenko, both of whom registered wins over Lennox Lewis in the amateurs were established world top-10 talents. In spite of those hypotheticals, Bobby’s bronze medal can never be denied.
I was delighted to catch up with him at the London Ex-Boxers Association awards, last month. We probably haven’t seen one another since we were active boxers more than 30 years ago. He remains fiercely proud of what he did as an amateur, achieving what he set out to do: follow in the footsteps of his late father, Billy Wells. Wells Sr was also an ABA champion, winning at heavyweight in 1965 – representing my old club, Wandsworth ABC – and 1968. His second ABA triumph qualified him for the Olympics that year in Mexico – at the ripe old age of 32.
Maybe emulating his dad as an amateur was near the limit of Bobby’s aspirations in the sport, as he chose not to turn professional after the Olympics, even with a bronze medal in his back pocket. He only had five fights once he did turn over. Just two months after medalling at the Olympics he took on Lennox Lewis in an England v Canada invitational. Lewis’ trademark right-hand settled their duel brutally in the third round.
It wasn’t until January 1986 that he made his professional debut. It was at Merton Civic Hall, a proper small hall show, and I was also on the bill. It would be unthinkable now for an Olympic bronze medallist from the UK to make their debut on the small-hall circuit and with such little anticipation surrounding them. Matchroom, Queensbury, or a reputable promotional outfit would’ve signed Bobby and had him fighting regularly. Nowadays, just being an Olympian, even without a medal, comes with instant marketability.
Bobby’s lack of success as a professional is probably why his performance at the Olympics is largely forgotten. Then again nearly 40 years have since passed. But in a single meeting we were back in 1984.