Olympics 2016: Five reasons why U.S. men's boxing has been so bad

Combat columnist

RIO DE JANEIRO – The United States has won 49 gold medals in men’s Olympic boxing competition, more golds than the entire medal total of all other countries but Cuba, Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

Cuba has won 67 total Olympic medals, including 34 gold. Great Britain has 53 total Olympic medals, including 17 gold. And the Soviet Union has 51 total medals, including 14 gold.

The United States has 110 total boxing medals, which are 43 more than runner-up Cuba. The Americans have more than twice as many medals as anyone else. It’s important to note that in 1904, the U.S. was the only country that sent a team, so its 19 medals that year unfairly inflate the country’s overall totals.

Even when subtracting that haul from the U.S. count, however, the Americans still have won 91 medals, 24 more than any other country.

Shakur Stevenson is a medal threat for the U.S. at Rio. (AP)
Shakur Stevenson is a medal threat for the U.S. at Rio. (AP)

But that’s no thanks to the recent American teams, which in the past 20 years – over five Olympiads – have won a combined total of 12 medals.

Including Oscar De La Hoya’s 1992 team that won one gold, one silver and one bronze, the American men have accumulated just 16 boxing medals in the past six Olympics.

A cynic would note that the American team in Rio has already matched the 2012 team’s medal total in London, though it is important to point out that boxing begins here on Saturday. The American team in London became the first U.S. squad to fail to win a boxing medal.

It’s a stunning reversal of fortune that begs the simple question: Why?

There is no easy answer, of course. Part of it is simply that the competition is deeper, and more countries are sending more physically gifted and better-coached competitors than they had previously.

But there are five major areas that seem to be the primary cause for the American male boxers’ decline in dominance.

Coaching: The U.S. doesn’t have a centralized coaching system. The elite fighters don’t learn and train under the same coach year after year. Each of them has their own personal coach, some of whom remain very involved up to and including the Olympics.

In some cases, these personal coaches undermine the Olympic coaches, giving strategy that differs from what the Olympic coaches are providing.

If the U.S. had a full-time national coach and a staff of assistants, it would provide more consistent teaching and development. There could be a concerted effort to help prepare boxers for the games.

It’s not easy to change a boxer’s style, and it certainly can’t be done in a few months. But having a full-time, year-round program with the same coaches would go a long way to ensuring that.

Carlos Balderas Jr. also is representing the U.S. in Rio. (Getty Images)
Carlos Balderas Jr. also is representing the U.S. in Rio. (Getty Images)

Television: Amateur boxing is no longer a big thing on American television. It used to be a regular staple and all sorts of international amateur competitions were broadcast.

In the 1970s, the U.S. would schedule meets with Cuba, which were huge ratings draws. Not only did that allow the fighters to hone their skills, it made the sport more attractive to would-be athletes.

The broadcasts got people interested in the team. As the interest increased, so did the quality of athletes.

Other sports: Men’s basketball is now one of the most, if not the most, popular sports in the Olympics. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 1970s, at a time when the U.S. was producing gold medalists like Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Spinks, the NBA Finals weren’t broadcast live on national television.

If you wanted to watch the NBA Finals in 1976, the year the greatest U.S. Olympic boxing team ever cleaned up in Montreal, you had to stay up until 11:30 p.m., after the late local news, to catch them. They were on tape delay.

The arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979 and Michael Jordan in 1984 made a major shift. Basketball zoomed in popularity and many of the best athletes in the U.S. began looking at a career in the sport.

It was more lucrative, it got more exposure and there wasn’t the fear of becoming punch drunk.

Style: American sports fans enjoy power. Remember Nike’s famous “Chicks dig the long ball” ad? In baseball, people are drawn to the home run hitters and the pitchers who can throw a ball so hard it would threaten a brick wall.

Big hitters in the NFL are revered. Long-drivers in golf often become superstars. American fans have a passion for power.

And so American boxers largely fight that way. But it’s antithetical to the best way to win an Olympic medal.

A significant portion of pro boxing is scored based upon the power of the punch. It’s not rewarded at all in amateur boxing. A knockdown punch is scored no differently than a light, flicking jab to the nose. Judges weight them equally in the amateurs.

Amateur boxers who have very fast hands and can flick fast combinations that make contact are always going to do the best.

But American fight fans enjoy the brawling and the big punches, and that’s how the majority of Americans fight.

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The competition: It’s unfair to peg it all as poor performance by the Americans. There is little doubt that the competition has greatly improved.

Vasyl Lomachenko of Ukraine was 396-1 as an amateur. He won Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012 and won the amateur world championships in 2009 and 2011. His only amateur loss came in the 2007 World Championships in Chicago, when he was beaten in the finale by Albert Selimov.

He’s got an unusually strong record, but the point is that other nations that weren’t particularly strong in boxing before 1992 have become factors since.

The U.S. qualified only six men for this year’s boxing competition, but Shakur Stevenson, Gary Antuanne Russell and Antonio Vargas all are considered medal threats.

U.S. assistant Augie Sanchez said he believes that all of the fighters, including light flyweight Nico Miguel Hernandez, lightweight Carlos Balderas Jr. and middleweight Charles Conwell, have the ability to medal.

Success breeds success, and there is no doubt that if this team does well, it will have an impact upon the 2020 and 2024 teams.

But USA Boxing also needs to take a serious look at making changes to its program to maximize the abilities of its athletes.

MEN’S U.S. OLYMPIC BOXING RESULTS SINCE 1984

2012 London

Gold: 0

Silver: 0

Bronze: 0

Total: 0

2008 Beijing

Gold: 0

Silver: 0

Bronze: 1, Deontay Wilder, heavyweight.

Total: 1

2004 Athens

Gold: 1, Andre Ward, light heavyweight.

Silver: 0

Bronze: 1, Andre Dirrell, middleweight.

Total: 2

2000 Sydney

Gold: 0

Silver: 2, Rocky Juarez, featherweight; Ricardo Williams, light welterweight.

Bronze: 2, Clarence Vinson, bantamweight; Jermain Taylor, light middleweight.

Total: 4

1996 Atlanta

Gold: 1, David Reid, light middleweight.

Silver: 0

Bronze: 5, Floyd Mayweather, featherweight; Terence Cauthen, lightweight; Rhoshii Wells, middleweight; Antonio Tarver, light heavyweight; Nate Jones, heavyweight, bronze.

Total: 6

1992 Barcelona

Gold: 1, Oscar De La Hoya, lightweight.

Silver:  1, Chris Byrd, middleweight.

Bronze: 1, Tim Austin, flyweight

Total: 3

1988 Seoul

Gold: 4, Kennedy McKinney, bantamweight; Andrew Maynard, light heavyweight; Ray Mercer, heavyweight; Riddick Bowe, super heavyweight.

Silver: 2, Michael Carbajal, light flyweight; Roy Jones Jr., light middleweight.

Bronze: 2, Romallis Ellis, lightweight; Kenneth Gould, welterweight.

Total: 8

1984 Los Angeles

Gold: 9, Paul Gonzales, light flyweight; Steve McCrory, flyweight; Meldrick Taylor, featherweight; Pernell Whitaker, lightweight; Jerry Page, light welterweight; Mark Breland, welterweight, gold; Frank Tate, light middleweight; Henry Tillman, heavyweight; Tyrell Biggs, super heavyweight.

Silver: 2, Virgil Hill, middleweight; Evander Holyfield, light heavyweight.

Bronze: 0

Total: 11

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