Several decades ago, the United States Olympic boxing team was not only the class of the world, but also a star-building factory.
In 1976, Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, and Michael and Leon Spinks were amongst a team that brought home seven medals, including five gold. In 1984, Pernell Whitaker, Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland were on a team with 11 medal winners, including nine gold, albeit in the Soviet-boycotted Los Angeles games.
Lately? Not so much. The 2004 squad brought home just two medals, a gold by Andre Ward a bronze by Andre Dirrell, and in 2008, there was but one, a bronze from surprise heavyweight medalist Deontay Wilder.
This failure at the Olympic level reflects a larger problem with boxing and its diminished roots in the United States. The sport's hold on the nation's youth is minimal, and its amateur program is floundering. The best athletes in the country flock to the gridiron or the basketball hardwood, not to the canvas of the squared circle.
One program is out to try to change this. Enter All-American Heavyweights (AAH), founded by Michael King, former CEO of the King World Productions television syndication company and a former part owner of the New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils.
All-American Heavyweights is a full-service boxing developmental academy with a unique, multi-pronged and perhaps revolutionary approach -- and big plans to boost boxing in the U.S.
The team at AAH aims to bring boxing up to speed with the latest technology and training methods which have helped athletes in every other sport flourish at the highest levels.
King refers to AAH as the biggest sponsor of the sport at the amateur level in this country. AAH isn't just providing shorts and gloves with a logo, but rather, it is investing in a comprehensive developmental program, housed at a 25,000-square foot academy known as "The Rock", in California.
"We have housing, and we feed them all their meals, which are 100 percent nutritionally balanced for them specifically," King said. AAH provides everything a world class athlete would need, including strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapy services, a state of the art video and media center, a sports psychologist, and more.
That might not be groundbreaking in, say, the NFL, but things are different in boxing. "It's a sport which hasn't changed in 50 years," King said. Therefore, the first goal of AAH in boxing is clear. "Bring it into the 21st century."
Advancing the training and developmental methods of boxing is one thing, but without the right athletes, it wouldn't matter much either way. That's why AAH attempts to recruit strong athletes from other sporting disciplines, and mold them into the next class of amateur and Olympic fighters, and potential stars.
AAH believes this approach is particularly viable in the heavyweight division for two reasons, or two sides of the same story. First, appropriately sized, unpolished athletic diamonds can be found by the handful coming out of top NCAA programs every year, and second, the talent pool within the heavyweight division in boxing today is thin.
Take the case of Dominic Breazeale. A few short years ago, he was a two-year starting quarterback at the University of Northern Colorado, a Division I-AA program. AAH reached out to him, and once Breazeale knew the NFL wasn't calling, he decided to try the sweet science.
At 6-foot-7-inches and 255 pounds, Breazeale has the build and athletic capabilities that could make him an instant force in the heavyweight division. In his first international competition, the Americas qualifying event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in May, he took home a silver medal and stamped his ticket to the 2012 Olympics in London.
He's not just going along for the ride, he has plans to bring home a gold medal. "Gold is the goal," Breazale said. "I'm not going there to get a bronze medal and say I pulled it off. I'm going to London prepared to get the gold medal."
Before working with AAH, Breazeale had never so much as laced up a pair of boxing gloves, let alone harbored gold medal aspirations for the Olympics.
"All-American Heavyweights is great. We have a gym here that's state of the art, everything we could ask for. If there's anything we need, we can ask for it and eventually it's there in the gym. We've got great personnel, personal conditioning coaches, you have all of the equipment, cardio, weights, machines... you name it."
The Rock isn't your standard issue, sweat-soaked boxing gym, where you can pick up an old pair of hand wraps and go to work on an even older heavy bag, held together by a few perilously worn pieces of duct tape. It's a world class training facility with every technological edge and amenity.
"As a boxer, it helps to make me complete, and gives me a whole new sense of confidence going into the ring," Breazeale said.
"I'm definitely prepared for anything in the ring or out of the ring. I'm confident in my boxing skills, my trainer in the corner, the strength and conditioning... I'm in the best shape I possibly can be. I know if I have to dig down deep in the third round, I definitely have it there in the gas tank. All of the components they have provided [are] absolutely phenomenal."
AAH, which has worked with over 800 athletes in four years, has already shown it has a winning formula in place with Breazeale headed to London. The entire U.S. Olympic boxing team even participated in a month-long training camp at its facilities prior to the Americas qualifier, and six of seven Americans competing in the event earned a berth to London.
With three boxers already qualified, the squad is now tied for the second largest team of any country, with nine of 10 weight classes represented.
AAH utilizes a network of scouts to keep tabs not only on NCAA athletes, but also on athletes in alternative sporting leagues, such as the Arena Football League. They've even found support with some prominent coaches in the collegiate ranks.
"Athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they have ever been, but only a small amount go on from Division I to the NBA, or NFL, or any other sport," King said.
Even on a national championship caliber NCAA football program, only a handful of players on a roster with over 100 members will ever reach the next level. That leaves a deep pool of untapped athletic gold out there, and AAH is enthusiastic about its chances to mine a few gems from the lot.
However, All-American Heavyweights doesn't just look for top athletes. Just as AAH offers its fighters a complete package, it is looking for the complete package too, in the form of well-rounded, clean-cut and intelligent role models it can sell to the public, and, more importantly, to potential sponsors who could help bring the sport back to network television.
King believes that's what they have with Breazeale. "He's a great, great human being. He's a future community leader. He's an honorable and terrific husband, and a great father," King said. "Not only is he 6-foot-7 and 255, in phenomenal shape, and a handsome kid, he's an articulate college graduate. Doesn't that put a different face on this sport?"
So why are King and his AAH program pouring so much time, effort and funds into boxing? While he does strive to return the sport to its "glory days", he also wants to be there when it pays off down the line.
"We see ourselves as a promoter," King said, when asked what AAH's role would be working with professional fighters which it has developed."We're going to take all of the things we've learned in the entertainment business, and bring it to the sport."
"It's pretty simple, we need a star, and we need publicity. Out of sight, out of mind," King said, referring to a major reason for why more young athletes don't take up the sport from an early age. "When you start seeing the major sponsors come in, you start seeing the networks follow. When you start with these programs more regularly, you'll have millions of kids looking to come and be the next gold medalist."
If a fighter such as Breazeale is able to breakthrough at London and bring home a medal, and who knows, maybe a heavyweight championship down the line, the AAH team could use its promotional muscle and marketing know how to turn him not just into a successful boxer, but a tipping point in that struggle to get more talented athletes into the ring.
AAH is looking to create a perpetual cycle within the sport. Great training and development leads to success. Successful athletes and role models bring in sponsors, which raises the sport's profile and provides inspiration and motivation to the next generation, who can do it all over again.
The goals are lofty, to be certain. "We can be part of the greatest turnaround in the history of modern sport," King said. "Resurrecting the United States Olympic boxing program and bringing the heavyweight championship belt back to the United States of America."
Boxing may never be what it once was, particularly in the United States. However, the system that AAH is putting into place is a step in the right direction, and a unique concept which hasn't been previously attempted for the sport in this country.
Whether or not success is reached at the highest levels remains to be seen, as the first true test comes in London. Be sure to tune in -- that is, if you can even find the Olympic boxing schedule on television.
Sources: Dominic Breazeale Interview with ProBoxing-Fans.com, Michael King Interview, AIBA.org
Jake Emen runs the boxing news website ProBoxing-Fans.com. You can find more of his writing, along with interviews, rankings and breaking news stories at the site, or you can follow ProBoxing-Fans.com on Twitter, @ProBoxingFans.
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