Friday, August 27, 2004

U.S. gold-medal hopes carried by Ward, Dirrell

By Tim Dahlberg
The Associated Press

ATHENS - Things looked bleak for the U.S. boxing team before a pair of Andres stepped up and saved the Americans from further Olympic embarrassment.

Now Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell have a bigger task - bring home some gold medals for a team that wasn't supposed to win any.

"Hopefully we can bring some pride back to the USA," Ward said.

Ward and Dirrell get the chance to do just that today when they fight in separate semifinal bouts, with the winners advancing to gold medal fights. As the last two Americans left from nine who started, they hope to leave Athens with more than just the bronze medals they're guaranteed.

"I think my chances for a gold are excellent," Dirrell said.

The U.S. team was reeling from a series of losses and in danger of being shut out of Olympic boxing medals for the first time ever before Ward turned things around with an upset win over two-time light heavyweight world champion Evgeny Makarenko of Russia.

Then Dirrell beating Cuba's Yordani Despaigne by one point to the delight of beleaguered U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah.

"I feel like a new person," Abdullah said. "I thank these two young athletes for giving me this feeling."

Americans used to dominate Olympic boxing, but the balance of power has shifted to Cuba, Russia and former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Cuba has eight boxers in the semifinals, while the Russians have six and the former Soviet republics another nine. They all will leave with some kind of medal, because bronzes are given to both semifinal losers.

Britain, meanwhile, has the one fighter it brought to Athens in the semifinals, and 17-year-old Amir Khan has been the sensation of the competition so far. The lightweight stopped one fighter on the mercy rule, then battered a Korean into submission in the first round.

The U.S. team was shut out of gold medals four years ago in Sydney, the first time that had happened in 52 years. The losses continued to mount in Athens until the two Andres came through.

"It's the biggest tournament in the world and we failed to showcase our skills," Abdullah said. "It's been a roller coaster ride."

Dirrell, 20, has the first chance to get to a gold-medal fight when he meets Gennadiy Golovkin of Kazakhstan in a middleweight semifinal. He fought Golovkin last year and knows his style well.

"I beat him by one point when I wasn't in shape. I can't wait to get him now," Dirrell said.

Ward follows in a light heavyweight fight against Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan, where his biggest danger might be thinking about his win over Makarenko in the quarterfinals.

A gold medal by either Ward or Dirrell would take some of the pressure off the U.S. boxing program, which critics say hasn't adapted to the computerized scoring system that was put in place in 1992 after Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of a gold medal in Seoul in '88.

Since that time, the United States - which has won 47 Olympic boxing gold medals - has won only two golds.

Oscar De La Hoya won one in 1992, and David Reid won another with a one-punch knockout in a fight he was losing badly four years later.

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