Rings hollow

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! SportsAugust 19, 2004

ATHENS, Greece – Cassius Clay. Joe Louis. Floyd Patterson. George Foreman. The Spinks brothers. Sugar Ray Leonard. Oscar De La Hoya. Pernell Whitaker.

We could go on.

Although we don't seem to much anymore.

When it comes to tradition in Olympic boxing there is the United States of America, and there is everyone else.

Our 106 medals are twice the nearest contender (the U.S.S.R. won 53). Our 47 golds are 20 more than second-best Cuba.

And maybe most importantly, no one was better at using the Olympics to springboard young boxers into the next big professional thing.

A boxer getting a spot on our Olympic team was like a young comic getting a role on "Saturday Night Live." This was one of the signature sports of the summer games – big spotlight, big opportunity.

Which brings us to Wednesday at the Peristeri Boxing Hall, where Super Heavyweight Jason Estrada had just handily beaten Ma'afu Hawke of Tonga in a pretty entertaining bout.

And there to meet the theoretical heir to Ali, Louis and Foreman were less than a dozen journalists. The fight took place before a crowd of maybe 500.

It's the cold, hard reality of a fading sport.

Boxing has done this to itself. What was once the sweet science is now a carnival act, a sideshow, a creep show. At the pro level it is filled with cheats and biters and clowns.

A generation ago you could envision our best young athletes boxing not balling. You could see a menacing, multi-talented LeBron James turning this into his international heavyweight coming out party, being like Muhammad, not like Mike.

But who can blame James, or anyone else, for looking at this sport and running? You can earn more in basketball without getting punched in the face or Don King in your wallet.

"Parents don't want their kid to box," said USA coach Anthony Bradley, who insists there is still plenty of young talent in his sport. "They think [he'll] end up like Mike Tyson. But amateur boxing is different. It's about safety."

Estrada and his U.S. teammates are determined to help their sport at all levels. The team is 6-1 thus far, a good sign when you consider that, at the Sydney Games, the U.S. failed to win a single gold for the first time ever. It is a streak this team wants to stop dead in its tracks.

They also want to make it fun to watch.

Estrada, a likeable 23-year-old from Providence, R.I., isn't Ali's equal as a boxer, but he has a bit of showman in him. In Wednesday's fight he shuffled his feet, threw some trick punches, tried to get the crowd into it.

"I'm not here to be any kind of big bully; I'm just trying to have fun," he said. "I was that child who, when you came over the house on the holidays had the radio turned on, singing, dancing, acting the fool.

"That's what I want to do, entertain people with the sport of boxing."

Estrada is turning pro after these Games and he is already in full business mode. He knows what winning a gold medal would do for his career. He knows that, no matter how much boxing has slipped from the mainstream, restoring glory is always appealing to Americans.

It is one reason why he delayed turning pro for the past three years – to be here.

"It has always been a dream of mine to come into the Olympics, do well and win gold," he said. "It is an experience like no other. [And] yes I want to use it as a springboard. It's just a start for me."

Monday he has a huge quarterfinals showdown with longtime Cuban rival Michel Lopez Nunez – "He's good, I'm good," Estrada says. If he gets to the gold medal match, the ferocious Russian Alexander Povetkin likely awaits. "I will be a failure if I do not win the gold medal," Povetkin says.

This is good stuff. Big rivalries. Big personalities. Big showdowns.

A generation back you would have heard of these storylines long ago. Boxing would have dominated the coverage of these Games.

Now there is an empty hall and no problem getting a one-on-one interview.

Jason Estrada and his teammates are trying to change that.