USA Boxing needs to get its ex-greats, like Sugar Ray Leonard, involved in the program (AP file photo)The performance of the American boxing team in the London Olympics was, sadly, predictable. American boxers have won only three gold medals in the last six Olympiads, but the 2012 team failed to win a medal of any kind.
No American team had ever before failed to earn a medal.
It doesn't have to be this way, of course. But it's going to take an overhaul of USA Boxing and a commitment from a lot of different directions to make it right.
Anthony Bartkowski, the executive director of USA Boxing, in an interview with the Troy Record pointed to the improvement of other countries' boxing programs as one of the reasons for the decline of the Americans.
The entire playing field has advanced. Other countries have developed in all sports, not just boxing. We used to have to train for one Russian, but when the Soviet Union broke up, it became 13. Then there's the Asian direction. … All countries competing with us have grown.
They have in basketball, as well. And guess what? The Americans are as dominant as ever in basketball.
Yes, other countries have gotten better in amateur boxing, but the thing that Bartkowski didn't say was that USA Boxing has gotten worse. Far worse.
It can be fixed, however. Here's how:
1. Raise money -- All the ideas in the world aren't worth a thing if there isn't enough money to pull them off. USA Boxing needs to hire an elite fundraiser who should leverage the personalities of some American greats of the past. Get ex-gold medalists like George Foreman (1968), Sugar Ray Leonard (1976) and Oscar De La Hoya (1992) involved in meeting with businesses and wealthy individuals and getting them to donate to USA Boxing. Nothing is more critical than raising a lot of money.
2. Improving the amateur coaching -- The first thing that has to happen is more and better coaches need to be hired. It's not just for the national team, either, that this is true. Coaches have to be trained around the country. The people who are training the 10-, and 12- and 14-year-old kids who wander into a gym have to know what they're doing. Now, sadly, many of them do not. USA Boxing needs to hire an expert person as its Director of Coaching. That person needs to appoint eight regional coaching directors who will be responsible for things such as recruiting and training coaches in their areas. Use the same teaching methods everywhere so fighters will be familiar with what is expected of them as they advance through the program. There need to be full-time coaches at the top who handle the national team. Those coaches need to travel the country preaching the gospel of USA Boxing while working to recruit both coaches and athletes.
USA Boxing should heavily promote successes like Claressa Shields (AP)3. Greatly expand the marketing and public relations effort -- USA Boxing's failure is largely a marketing effort. In June, when several members of the 2012 American team walked into the media center at the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight in Las Vegas, they were virtually anonymous to the media covering that match. USA Boxing needs to hire several leading marketing and p.r. people on a full-time basis to get the message out that Americans care about amateur boxing and desire to succeed in the Olympics. Increase awareness among the public. Embrace the successes. Gold medalist Claressa Shields of the women's team should be omnipresent in the weeks and months after she returns home from London, and she should sing the praises of amateur boxing and USA Boxing in particular. Someone ought to be on the phone with producers for The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman about getting Shields on their shows as soon as possible. Doing that makes the point to potential Olympians that it's a big deal to win a gold and that Americans will celebrate it with you.
4. Vastly increase the amount of international events the elite-level fighters attend -- Dual meets in which the top boxing countries are involved should be attended regularly. The new fundraiser should work with businesses to try to host the events in the U.S. and get television for them, if possible. Las Vegas casinos, for example, might be interested if an elite international field was assembled and television was scheduled. But it is impossible to succeed on an international level if the American fighters aren't getting a sense for what the competition is like long before they arrive at the Olympics.
5. Recruit athletes -- This is going to involve strengthening the Golden Gloves programs around the country. It's going to mean bringing boxing back into the Boys & Girls Clubs. USA Boxing needs a presence in all of the major markets where boxing is traditionally big. Athletes who are looking elsewhere because boxing isn't cool any more need to be shown that, yes, boxing is cool. That could involve the alumni. Do you think that 1996 bronze medalist Floyd Mayweather Jr. couldn't get kids to sign up to box in Las Vegas, where he lives, and in Detroit, in his home state of Michigan? Of course he could, but someone needs to ask him. And even someone like Mike Tyson, who fought in the amateur program but failed to make the Olympics, would be a massive asset.
Take the headgear off fighters like 2004 gold medalist Andre Ward (AP file photo)6. Lobby AIBA to remove mandatory headgear -- Head gear are mandatory in the Olympics, though studies haven't shown them to make the sport any safer. American fans will take to amateur boxing more if it looks a bit more like the pro game. Taking the headgear away will increase fighter identity and make it easier to promote young stars. That should have the trickle down effect of making boxing more appealing to the youth.
7. Create a scholarship program -- Have a program in which a designated number of American amateurs -- the top four each year, say -- earn college scholarships. This ties in with the fundraising requirement, obviously, but if boxing officials could show parents that there is a chance that their sons could win a college scholarship, more of them would push their children toward boxing.
8. Simply the method for qualifying for the Olympic team -- It's a mess and needs to be clarified so that fighters, fans and media know what is required without having to hire a lawyer to interpret a long and muddied set of rules.
Famous alums such as the Oscar De La Hoya, should be used to aid USA Boxing (AP file)9. Piggyback with the pros -- Amateur boxing is critical for the continued success of professional boxing. So the head of USA Boxing needs to work closely with major promoters like Golden Boy and Top Rank. This can be exposure to media at those fights, assistance in recruiting, help with coaching and more. And, certainly, if a qualify fighter emerges in the amateur program, celebrate his success. Bring him to the big pro fights and have him introduced to the crowd as a celebrity.
10. Rankings -- This is part of the need to improve the marketing and p.r. push, but make sure the amateur rankings in each weight class are published in the local newspapers and on major websites. It's a part of creating an identity for the fighters and a sense of urgency for fans who want to follow their favorites on the path to the Olympics.
By no means is it going to be easy. It's going to be difficult to raise money and to get the right coaches and athletes involved in the program. One thing, though, is for certain:
If we do nothing, Americans are going to remember the years when we won a single bronze medal, as in 2008, as the good old days.