August 24, 2000


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Controversy surrounds amateur boxers

Alan Baldwin in London

Wherever amateurs box, controversy follows.

Sit-ins, walk-outs, no-shows and blatant scoring errors live in the memory long after individual fights which often acquire significance only years later when the boxer has successfully turned professional.

How many remember American bantamweight Kennedy McKinney's 1988 final win against Alexander Hristov?

Surely fewer fans than can recall, however dimly and without being sure of either the weight or names, Bulgarian Hristov's earlier fight against South Korean Byun Jong-Il.

That was the one in which New Zealand referee Keith Walker was attacked by angry Korean team officials before the protesting Byun, handed a chair after half an hour, refused to leave the ring for one hour and seven minutes.

Computerised scoring, introduced after the debacle of Seoul, caused a rumpus at Barcelona in 1992 and, to a far lesser extent, in Atlanta in 1996.

Sydney might just get lucky and usher in a rare controversy-free tournament but, somehow, that seems unlikely. The Cubans, dominant team at Atlanta, will be arriving in Australia bearing grievances by the bucketload.

Last year they walked out of the world championships in Houston in protest at the judging, depriving heavyweight Felix Savon of a likely seventh successive title.

Savon's aim in Sydney is to collect a third consecutive Olympic gold -- it could have been fourth but for Cuba's boycott of Seoul in 1988 -- and rival his heavyweight compatriot Teofilo Stevenson, who won in 1972, 1976 and 1980.

Stevenson, now the vice-president of the Cuban Boxing Federation, may be one of the greatest as well as the tallest of Olympians but his presence is less welcome these days.

The great amateur, who rejected an offer of a million dollars to fight Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, has been suspended by the world body AIBA for two years following the Houston walkout.

Last September he and the federation's president Jose Barrientos denounced in a letter what they saw as "corruption at the heart of the highest levels of AIBA".

Coach Alcides Sagarra, the most famous amateur coach in the world and mastermind of Cuba's domination of Olympic boxing since the boycotts of the 1980s, was also banned for a year.

Fortunately for him, it was retrospective and will expire before the Olympic tournament starts.

"What we want is to hear the Cuban national anthem 12 times and to see our flag raised 12 times in Sydney," said Sagarra when the squad was announced this month.

"Felix Savon is fine. We've told him 'don't pressure yourself for a third (gold) medal, don't pressure yourself to mark a record, don't get obsessed, keep calm."

Savon may also have one or two things he wants to prove.

Three years ago, AIBA president Anwar Chowdhry suggested Savon was a spent force after the Cuban was beaten controversially in Budapest.

"The day has to come when every boxer, every player has to say goodbye. There are people who do it gracefully, there are others who like to linger on beyond their capacity," the septuagenarian said of Savon at those finals.

The man Savon lost to in the final, Uzbekistan's Ruslan Chagaev, was later stripped of his title for previously fighting as a professional in the United States.

The Cuban has continued to "linger on" successfully since then and Sydney may provide his parting shot at those who suspect he is over the hill and heading for a fall.

Savon turns 33 on September 22 and, with a new age limit of 36 imposed on the Olympic boxing tournament, could in theory return one more time in 2004.

The fallout from Houston will give added edge to a tournament that has changed in some respects.

The format is now for fights of four two-minute rounds instead of three of three minutes. Medical advice has suggested that the new format is safer than the old.

The tournament has also been slimmed, with 312 qualifiers compared to 364 in Atlanta in 1996, but Olympic boxing's great redemptive qualities will be on display as ever.

Only in boxing could a man such as 29-year-old U.S. heavyweight Michael Bennett, who won the world title by walkover in Savon's absence, become a sporting hero.

Bennett, travelling in the footsteps of champions such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier, has spent a quarter of his life in jail for armed robbery.

Originally sentenced to 26 years, reduced to 15 on appeal, he served seven and was released in 1998.

"Things happen for a reason along your path," he says. "There are forks in your road and you have to choose the road that you take. Sometimes your choices aren't the best but you live with them and you die with them."

Maybe, just maybe, his story will be the one that lingers in the memory from the 2000 tournament.

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