One USA Boxing team stands above the rest

Photo July 26, 1976: Ray Leonard, (left) and Limazov Valbry during a match between the USA and USSR at the Montreal Olympics.
(Keystone/Getty Images)

Some in boxing still cling to the notion that Olympic success will result in big professional paydays.

But if that’s true, so is the reverse. And, given that, the cast of the 2008 U.S. team ought to consider a career of flipping burgers, because that undoubtedly will be more lucrative than the fight game for these guys.

This is the worst U.S. team in more than 50 years, perhaps ever.

It wasn’t all that long ago, though, that the “Dream Team” nickname could have been used for the U.S. boxing team.

As recently as 1996, the U.S. produced an Olympic class that included Floyd Mayweather Jr., Fernando Vargas, Antonio Tarver, David Reid and David Diaz, who all went on to varying levels of professional stardom.

The real boxing “Dream Team,” though, came in 1976, when a group led by Sugar Ray Leonard not only won five gold medals, a silver and a bronze, it also produced five future professional world champions, including three heavyweights, as well as two Hall of Famers.

It may be the greatest Olympic boxing team for any country in the history of the Games. Unless, that is, historians regard the 1984 U.S. squad as a better team.

That group won nine gold medals, a silver and a bronze. Six of those men went on to become professional champions and one, Pernell Whitaker, is already in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Whitaker, though, won’t be alone. He’ll undoubtedly by joined by teammate Evander Holyfield, who won a bronze at 178 pounds in 1984. The middleweight on that team, Virgil Hill, has held world titles at light heavyweight and cruiserweight, compiled a 26-5 mark in world championship bouts and seems a good bet to be enshrined in the Hall in Canastota, N.Y.

If Hill makes it – and he should – that would give the 1984 squad one more Hall of Famer than then 1976 class.

Leonard, who parlayed his success on that 1976 team into a lucrative professional career, said it is all but impossible to choose one over the other as the best American squad.

“You look at our team and up and down the lineup, we had guys who could fight,” he said. “Without really thinking about it a lot, I’d say our team was (the best). But when you hear the names of the guys who fought on that ’84 team, whew, I’ll tell you, it’s hard to pick. I’m not really sure, honestly.”

Let’s take a look at the two teams in a variety of different ways to try to determine which deserves to be called the best ever:

Medal haul: In 1976, Leo Randolph (112 pounds), Howard Davis Jr. (132), Leonard (139), Michael Spinks (165) and Leon Spinks (178) won gold medals. Charles Mooney (119) won a silver. Johnny Tate (heavyweight) won a bronze. In 1984, Paul Gonzales (106), Steve McCrory (112), Meldrick Taylor (125), Whitaker (132), Jerry Page (139), Mark Breland (147), Frank Tate (156), Henry Tillman (201) and Tyrell Biggs (super heavyweight) won gold. Hill (165) won a silver and Holyfield, who was disqualified in the semifinals, won a bronze at 178. Even though the 1984 team had an extra class – there was no 201-pound division in 1976 – it performed better in the medal count. But the Soviet Union and Cuba boycotted in 1984, making it an easier path to medal for the 1984 class. Edge: 1984.

Professional success: Even though Davis was voted Outstanding Boxer in the 1976 Games, it was clear Leonard was the future star. He went on to fulfill his promise by winning recognized (either WBA, WBC, WBO or IBF) titles at 147, 154, 160, 168 and 175 pounds. Also on that 1976 team, Randolph, the Spinks brothers and Tate went on to win world championships. Leonard was long regarded as the best fighter in the world and had landmark victories over greats such as Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Wilfred Benitez. Michael Spinks is regarded as one of the four greatest light heavyweight champions. Members of the 1984 class who won world titles were Taylor, Whitaker, Breland, Tate, Hill and Holyfield. Whitaker for a while was regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game and had numerous significant victories. Holyfield won a cruiserweight belt and is a four-time heavyweight title holder. Taylor was a major player for part of his career. Hill was vastly underrated at light heavyweight. Edge: 1984.

Head to head: For the purposes of this category, I pitted the weight class representatives against each other and picked who I thought would win if both were amateurs. I didn’t count Henry Tillman, the 1984 team’s 201-pounder, since that class didn’t exist in 1976. In this competition, I gave wins to 1976 at 106 (Louis Curtis over Gonzales), 112 (Randolph over McCrory), 119 (Mooney over Robert Shannon), 132 (Davis over Whitaker in the toughest fight to call), 139 (Leonard over Page), 165 (Michael Spinks over Hill) and heavyweight (Tate over Tyrell Biggs). I went with 1984 at 125 (Taylor over Davey Lee Armstrong), 147 (Breland over Clint Jackson), 156 (Tate over Charles Walker Jr.) and 178 (Holyfield over Leon Spinks). If they were matched as pros, I’d have easily taken Whitaker over Davis, who was a professional disappointment. Edge: 1976.

Star power: Leonard was a star of the highest order and perhaps the biggest star in the post-Muhammad Ali boxing world. The Spinks brothers were also huge stars, Michael for upsetting Larry Holmes to win the heavyweight title and Leon for upsetting Ali to win the heavyweight crown in just his eighth pro fight. Holyfield became the biggest star from the 1984 team. As great as he was, Whitaker was never fully appreciated as a professional and wasn’t a big attraction. Edge: 1976.

Impact: In the three Olympiads prior to 1976, the U.S. had won only four gold medals and had produced just two stars, heavyweights Joe Frazier (1964) and George Foreman (1968). In that same span, the Soviet Union had won eight gold medals and Cuba won two and there was no bigger amateur star than Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson. In 1976, not only did the U.S. turn it around, they did so by beating the Soviets and Cubans for four of their five gold medals. Edge: 1976.

Conclusion: A reasonable case could be made for either squad, but the 1976 team faced tougher competition in the Games than the 1984 team did, which tilts the balance in favor of the 1976 team. And if you think getting an Olympic berth was easy in 1976, consider that to make the team Davis had to beat Aaron Pryor in the Olympic Trials after having beaten Hearns at the National AAU championship. The 1976 U.S. Olympic team is the best in the Games’ history.