IT’S arguably boxing’s ultimate dress rehearsal. A showcase of competitors from a variety of backgrounds warring for the most privileged prize that
the amateur game offers: the Olympic gold medal.
As well as providing significant proof of superiority, the Games gong also enhances a fighter’s strength at the negotiating table as meetings with potential promoters become far more frequent once the Games wind down.
Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather were all Olympic medallists and each later served as the face of boxing for sustained periods during the best part of their careers, but Olympic success or participation does not always equate to championship reigns and lavish luxury when the vest comes off.
The 2000 Games, held in Sydney, Australia, came during a positive period for boxing. Expectation was rife as the new millennium dawned, the close of the nineties bringing hope via a stellar cast of performers. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield had delivered huge numbers for their heavyweight two-parter, whilst Felix Trinidad and the aforementioned De La Hoya enjoyed vast earnings at 147lbs.
It should be highlighted that scoring controversies surrounded these meetings, but boxing’s appeal was strong in 1999 and that allure was not only projected by a handful of star fighters.
Britain’s Naseem Hamed toyed with fight fans’ emotions on both sides of the Atlantic, Mexican interest was prevalent with super-bantamweight pair, Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, about to embark on one of the all-time great rivalries, Roy Jones was boxing’s superman at light-heavyweight, dominating the division with relative ease, Shane Mosley had complete authority at lightweight, and then there were Mayweather and Diego Corrales occupying the top spots a weight class south at super-feather.
Boxing fans, often negative, had a lot to be optimistic about and the same buoyancy was reflected towards the amateur code, as a number of young starlets aimed for the riches and prizes garnered by those who went before them.
Ricardo Williams harboured such dreams. A product of the tough Cincinnati fight schools, Williams was described as being “the best 17-year-old boxer I ever saw” by leading promoter Lou DiBella. After collecting light-welterweight silver at the 2000 Games, taking a win over future ‘world’ title challenger Ajose Olusegun in the process, Williams inked a professional deal with DiBella, with both parties confident that a fruitful relationship would develop. That shared aspiration soon dissolved.
“Ricardo Williams taught me a vital lesson and that lesson is, boxing is about character, not talent, and Ricardo Williams didn’t have the character,” DiBella revealed to Boxing News. “Early on in his career he was not doing the weight properly and missing weight for his fights, and he was too busy being on the street with his friends back in Cincinnati, which is a very bad spot to be in as Cincinnati is one of the toughest places in the whole of America. Ricardo was paid a lot of money by me and he could’ve been world champion without any doubt, but that’s not what he wanted to be and that’s why character is so important in this sport.”
Williams’ professional spark failed to ignite and despite a resounding win over former IBF belt-holder Terron Millett at the back end of 2002, his was a career that failed to gather any momentum as a trio of defeats against opposition holding a fraction of Williams’ ability deterred any hopes of the Ohio southpaw fulfilling his potential. In 2005, he was sentenced to three years in prison for drug trafficking, but made a return to the ring following his time inside. The well-travelled Carson Jones halted Williams emphatically in four rounds in 2011, and Ricardo’s final fight three years later came against out-of-form Guillermo Sanchez, who’d lost his previous 11 going into the Williams bout. “Slicky Ricky” won in four but like the majority of his career, it was unspectacular.
“Ricardo’s ambitions were not in boxing,” DiBella continued. “They were in the Cincinnati streets. He came from a really good, strong family with two parents and his dad had a job working for the city, but he couldn’t get away from that street mentality and it’s a real shame because he could’ve been a huge success. He reminded me so much of Marco Antonio Barrera at a young age, but he didn’t have the required character. If a fighter is going to miss weight then he hasn’t got the character. If a fighter fails to get away from the streets then he hasn’t got the character. Ricardo had both of these faults and that’s why it didn’t work out for him.”
Williams wasn’t the only teenage sensation promoters had eager eyes on in Sydney. Mexican featherweight Francisco Bojado was 17 when the Games’ opening bell rang, and the sport’s premier recruiters were well aware of his burgeoning talent. Bojado’s youth and promise could not compare to the experience other fighters in his weight category possessed, however, and that was evident as he said his farewell to the competition in only the second round when narrowly ousted by eventual bronze medallist, Kamil Djamaloudinov, of Russia. This didn’t alter the stampede to capture his signature, and the race was eventually won by Main Events.
Carl Moretti, now vice president at Top Rank, had the same position with the Duva family outfit and can recall his time dealing with Bojado.
“He was certainly one of the top targets we wanted from the Olympics,” Moretti remembered. “He was definitely in the top two or three who we had kept an eye on, along with Rocky Juarez [who won silver at Bojado’s weight in 2000]. He was someone we definitely thought could be guided to a world title and we believed that he could also be a really popular figure who could hopefully cross over.”
Bojado’s star qualities were conspicuous early on in his pro career when he had his own way with most of his opponents and premature De La Hoya comparisons abounded. These claims came to a shuddering halt as Bojado ran into Juan Carlos Rubio in his 10th fight, surrendering his flawless ledger in 2002. Jesse James Leija inflicted a second career defeat two years later, and his final fight came in 2007 when Bojado, by now being promoted by De La Hoya’s Golden Boy, lost to the capable Steve Forbes. In 2011, Bojado was involved in an incident at the US-Mexico border that resulted in a number of shots being fired by police. The handsome Mexican’s career had reached an ugly end.
“It’s sad with Francisco as there’s no doubt whatsoever that the potential was there,” reflected Moretti. “We had an amicable split when he went to Golden Boy, but by then I was convinced that whatever potential was there had definitely fizzled out. There was a lot of expectation on him and maybe some of it was unfair and at times he found that hard to deal with.
He could’ve been so such more but ultimately he’ll go onto the list of boxers who could’ve done so much more with their careers.”
The alarming lack of fulfilment displayed by the Class of 2000 isn’t only evident on American shores. London super-heavyweight Audley Harrison collected gold with a minimum of fuss down under, and his transition to the pro game was forecast to be a lucrative one. The apparent heir to the throne occupied by countryman Lewis, Harrison was handed a £1m deal by the BBC and opted to promote himself. His success when representing his country had captivated a new boxing audience and the public service broadcaster was convinced that their new heavyweight hope could regain the audience that had brought huge terrestrial viewing figures for the likes
of Frank Bruno, Barry McGuigan and Chris Eubank. BoxNation pundit, Steve Lillis, covered Harrison from day one.
“It must rank as the most stupid TV deal in the history of sport, £1m for 10 fights for a novice professional and you’re giving him all the control as well?” Lillis exclaimed. “It was mental. Someone at the BBC absolutely loved Audley, but what’s he to do when something like that is offered to him? No one would’ve turned it down, but he could’ve done things a lot differently. Jess Harding was there with Audley, but he wasn’t allowed to run the show, so maybe someone with a bit more experience like Frank Warren, Barry Hearn or Frank Maloney should’ve been brought on and I think a big difference could’ve been made in the early stages. A few fights into his career and he was a millionaire beating average opposition yet saying he could win a British title in so many fights. They were some of the main reasons why people turned on him and he failed to win that support back.”
Audley’s first defeat came in his 20th outing when he was dropped and outpointed by domestic rival Danny Williams for the vacant Commonwealth title. Five years later and with a further three defeats on his slate, Harrison challenged David Haye for the latter’s WBA heavyweight title, but surrendered after three rounds void of any memorable action. The fight was the catalyst for scorn being poured over the boxing PPV model in Britain.
Heavyweight hopefuls David Price and Deontay Wilder both erased Harrison in seconds rather than rounds in the years that followed the Haye fiasco, as a professional career launched from loud expectation drifted away with nothing left to say.
“I remember watching the London ABAs about two years before the Olympics and he didn’t fancy it all, and there’s no way I believed I was watching an Olympic champion,” Lillis noted. “After that, he went around the world learning how to fight the computer [scoring] style and he mastered it in the end by winning gold in Sydney. As a professional, he took too much on too early and his career as a top prospect was over when Michael Sprott knocked him out in 2007. Okay, he had a few more good wins after that but nobody had confidence in him after Sprott dealt with him.”
The Sydney 2000 Games did not only deliver gloom though. In the first round, a gutsy Puerto Rican light-welter was easily outscored by Uzbekistan’s Muhammad Abdullaev, who would go on to defeat Williams in the final and win gold. He’d get his revenge some years later, forging a legendary career where he became a household name, a national superstar, a four-weight world champion and financially secure for the rest of his life. His name? Miguel Cotto.