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Spence gets second life after appeal, but USA Boxing still in shambles

LONDON – Because this is Olympic boxing, nothing much makes sense. And so Friday night Errol Spence, the last American fighter remaining in these Games, left the ExCel Centre certain he had lost only to be told hours later that he had, in fact, won.

The reversal came about not because amateur boxing's ruling body determined Spence had gotten the better of his opponent, India's Krishan Vikas, but because Vikas should have had points deducted for a number of fouls and intentionally spitting out his mouthpiece during the bout.

"I am going to make the most of this second chance I have been given," Spence said in a statement released by USA Boxing.

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Errol Spence's arm was raised despite the decision initially going against him. (Reuters)

Because this is Olympic boxing, an event the U.S. once dominated, the result is a symbol of just how far the once-mighty program has fallen. These days it takes an executive ruling to get past the Round of 32.

Yes, Spence is still alive, but that doesn't hide the reality that USA Boxing has become a fiasco beyond repair.

Never was that more clear than in the words of the team's head coach, Basheer Adbullah who stood in those few minutes after Spence's apparent defeat and said of the American boxing program: "The system is broken."

It's been broken for years. It was broken in Beijing, which had been the worst American boxing performance before this one. At least then the U.S. won a bronze. This time it might not even get that.

From some of the Americans on Friday came the usual complaints about shoddy officiating, and there certainly was that. Spence seemed shocked by his loss after appearing to pummel Vikas with legal punches. Yet when the scores were posted, the punches weren't counted.

As the ring announcer read the final tally – 13-11 – the referee standing between both fighters initially lifted Spence's left arm in victory, only to yank it down and raise Vikas'.

Moments later, Leverette, who had been in Spence's corner, stormed through the mixed zone and raged about the amateur scoring system.

"We all see it," he shouted, before adding that Olympic and USA Boxing will be destroyed "if they don't clean it up."

But the U.S. program is already in shambles. Once again USA Boxing went into the Olympics as the most dysfunctional of all American Olympic teams. Abdullah, who seems like one of the more sensible men to come around the program in some time, was only hired in May and some of his assistants were added even later than that.

Such late timing kept him from developing any kind of plan going into Olympics, though the results probably wouldn't have been any better even if he had been around for a year. The American problem goes much deeper than lousy judging, a tricky scoring system or a coaching staff hired at the last second.

The problem is in the way American amateur boxing is set up. Young fighters work with personal coaches, often their fathers, who train them to shoot for professional careers. That, after all, is where the money is. They tell their children to swing hard and punch to knock people out. The only problem is those same kids first have to go through an amateur system which puts a value on hits that land in a certain punching zone. Rare is the Olympic knockout.

And while those fathers and personal coaches know they can't coach to the international rules, they don't want to give up control. They don't want to send their fighters to Colorado Springs. They don't want someone else interfering with their years of teaching.

American boxing officials tried a residential program before the Beijing games and the experience was a disaster. Personal coaches undermined the Olympic coaches, and in turn the Olympic coaches tried their best to keep the personal coaches away. It went so poorly that the program was dropped.

Then came London and what might be the biggest collapse of all.

"USA Boxing has to decide what we want to do with this program," said Abdullah, who probably won't be around in 2016 because the organization seems to change direction about every two years. "Do we want to turn this program into a quality program, a winning program? Or do we continue to support the same broken system? In my opinion – and I know I'm going to get a lot of hate mail for this and Facebook messages – but we continue to cater to personal coaches.

"That's not our problem. Personal coaches wouldn't have solved our problems today. We got to develop a system and everybody has got to commit to the system. We've got to come up with tactical plans and mold and develop a program … from top to bottom."

Yet how? USA Boxing is not a wealthy organization. Its best representative is a public relations director who doubles as a mother to the fighters when the team is away from home. Training stipends for the top boxers are small. Young American fighters realize it is far more lucrative to turn pro than stick with the Olympic program. Those who do come to the Olympics usually do so knowing they are going to turn pro at the end of the games.

This differs from fighters in many other countries who make being a boxer for the national team a career, eschewing the fleeting glitz of a professional career.

"The talent pool is there," Abdullah said. "It's there from top to bottom. We have the talent; we don't have a tactical plan in place."

But is the will? Does anyone want to fund the American boxing team? Does anyone care? Do young fighters even strive for the Olympics anymore? Do their fathers? Can anyone create a sustainable program they way they do in Great Britain or China or India?

The rot is deep now. Earlier on Friday, the U.S.'s only three-time Olympian, Raushee Warren, lost when he grew too tentative in his fight with Nordine Oubaali of France. It marked a third Olympics of disappointment for Warren whose Beijing defeat came when he mixed up the scores and thought he was ahead.

He leaves USA Boxing without a medal, as may all the men. On Friday night, he shook his head and said: "We have the girls."

Yes, maybe the American women can do what most of the men cannot. Maybe because this is the first time women's boxing has been an Olympic sport things will be different for the three U.S. females. The dysfunction won't have time to settle in.

But for the men who slumped out of the ExCel Centere on Friday night there is a long, long way to go before American boxing will matter again. It took an appeal just to get one man to the Round of 16.

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