Ron Borges wins BWAA award
Boxing Monthly is delighted to publish online for the first time Ron Borges' article 'Seriously?' from our August 2016 issue. Borges' piece was recently awarded first place in the Boxing News story category at the Boxing Writers Association of America's prestigious annual awards...
SERIOUSLY? By Ron Borges
So, it came to pass that professionals made it into Rio 2016. RON BORGES reflects on a ‘monumentally absurd’ decision that may have long-term implications...
The absurdity of allowing professionals to box against amateurs in the Olympic Games should be self-evident, but if it is not, former fringe champion Hassan N’Dam reminded us all of that fact during the final Olympic qualifying tournament in Venezuela in July.
N’Dam is a 32-year-old who has boxed professionally for 11 years. He twice briefly held interim world middleweight titles and recently lost a third shot at one in a one-sided loss to another fringe champion, David Lemieux. He is a professional, and there is honour in that, but he is nothing special.
Yet N’Dam, a former Olympian who boxed at the 2004 Games in Athens for Cameroon, destroyed the dreams of a
21-year-old American amateur named Jonathan Esquivel by outpointing him in N’Dam’s first Olympic-style fight in
12 years. Although the fight was close on the scorecards, it was like watching a spelling competition between a professor and his student.
To match present and former world champions against amateur fighters is banned in places that have functioning boxing commissions because it would create potentially dangerous mismatches. Yet such fights are now welcome in the Olympics.
It is a money-driven, ill-conceived idea so far out of touch with reality that the World Boxing Council has threatened professionals ranked among its top 15 fighters in a weight class with being banned from the WBC ratings (and hence WBC world title fights) for two years if they participate in the Olympics.
Forward thinking is not always a part of the sanctioning bodies’ approach, but in this case WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman deserves praise for taking a stand against an idea so addle-headed one wonders if the International Olympic Committee or AIBA (International Boxing Association) members who approved it had themselves been sparring without headgear.
There is a reason why young fighters box nondescript opponents in four-round and six-round fights after turning professional. The reason is that newly minted professionals have much to learn about boxing, and if they are overmatched, those lessons will be painfully administered and could be career, and in some sad cases life, altering.
That is a fact, subject to no debate. Experience counts in boxing because, unlike most sports, mistakes do not simply result in moments of defeat and embarrassment. In the ring, they can become concussive events in which the lights go dim.
Yet of the 88 federations that gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland to vote on AIBA’s proposal, 84 approved the change. The other four abstained. None dare speak out in opposition for fear of retaliation against its fighters in international competition.
As with most dictatorships, the vote was nearly unanimous because fear ruled the day.
But fear doesn’t make that decision right, or even sane.
“This is a momentous occasion for AIBA, Olympic boxing and for our sport as a whole and represents another great leap forward in the evolution of boxing,’’ AIBA president Ching-Kuo Wu proclaimed after the vote was announced.
Many in boxing believe it was something else: the next step in AIBA’s ongoing efforts to take over professional boxing by tying up amateurs and then controlling them when they turn professional. That is a debate for another day. What is at stake now is something more fundamental.
That vote was far from a “momentous occasion’’ for Olympic boxing. It was instead a monumentally absurd occasion that was a great leap off a cliff, because amateur boxers do not belong in the ring with experienced professionals. That is particularly true now that AIBA also has chosen to take the headgear off Olympians, making them more vulnerable to being sent into the dark room by someone like former junior welterweight champion Amir Khan, who is one of few pro boxers to come out in favor of the decision.
“If I am permitted, as per rules and from my promoter, then I would love to compete for Pakistan,’’ said Khan, who won a silver medal for Great Britain in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and will not compete in Rio. “I will be very happy if I can compete in the Olympics. I want to serve Pakistan.” One would think Khan would have recovered by now from the devastating knockout he suffered at the hands of Canelo Alvarez in April, but apparently not.
While most slots had already been awarded for Rio when the vote was taken, interested professionals were allowed into the final qualifier that began on 3 July in Venezuela. That’s where N’Dam shattered the Olympic dreams of a young American light-heavyweight after having once lived out his own dream 12 years earlier.
That decision led undefeated IBF heavyweight champion and 2012 Olympic gold medallist Anthony Joshua (17-0, 17 KOs) to remark that AIBA’s decision was both dangerous and highly unfair to amateurs like Esquivel. The very idea of an amateur boxer facing someone like long-time unified heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko was, in Joshua’s assessment, patently absurd.
“I wouldn't do it because I'm really close with a lot of my Olympic friends,” Joshua said before successfully defending the IBF title by stopping Dominic Breazeale on 25 June. “There are guys in the Great Britain squad now preparing for 2020 in Tokyo and I don’t want to take that opportunity away from them.
“I can understand why the governing body [AIBA] wanted to do it, because they're getting amateurs to an elite level and then they’re going professional. But I just think there are so many rules and regulations it would be difficult.
“It wouldn't kill amateur boxing. People would be interested because some kid from Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan who no one knows is fighting Wladimir Klitschko, then all the Klitschko fans worldwide are now drawn to the amateurs. But with all the experience Klitschko has, fighting someone from Uzbekistan who nobody knows, it would be very dangerous for the opponent.
“If pros had been allowed back in 2012, it would have prevented me winning the gold. They would have been more seasoned. I wasn’t seasoned at all. I just had strength and a bit of fitness. So a seasoned pro would have beaten me, and it would have prevented me doing it, so that’s why I wouldn't go.”
That was a well-reasoned and fair-minded response from a gold medallist who has quickly risen to world champion yet well understands the difference between the fighter he was in London in 2012 and the one he has become four years and 17 professional fights later.
While not many professionals are likely to enter the Olympics, Khan sounded ready and even Manny Pacquiao expressed an interest before deciding the demands of his budding political career in the Philippines precluded him from doing so. Imagine Pacquiao, a world champion in eight weight classes, stepping in against some 19-year-old kid from Merseyside?Mercy me!
Unified light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev also expressed interest in representing Russia at the Games but his promoter, Kathy Duva, quickly squashed the idea, citing professional concerns as well as private ones.
“There’s no chance that’s happening,” Duva said immediately after Kovalev suggested the idea interested him. “It wouldn’t happen this year. It’s just not possible. He has a contract for a fight in July and then [again] later in the year, so no chance, not even a discussion. I don’t even want to think about what he’d do to an amateur. It’s absurd.”
Of course it is. This being boxing, that’s why it’s happening.
“Professional vs amateur boxers is a real crime,’’ said Julio Cesar Chavez, the greatest Mexican fighter in boxing history.
“It is attacking the very roots of boxing. It endangers the lives and careers of young, talented [amateur] boxers.”
Chavez didn’t stand alone with that opinion. Far from it. Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes not only opposes the idea of pros competing in the Olympics, he feels it is equally ill advised for amateurs to box without headguards. In both cases, the issue is safety.
“Amateurs should not fight professionals,’’ Holmes said flatly. “It won’t be a fair fight. I would not do it. Removing the headgear from amateurs is a huge mistake, too. The idea is to make boxing safer, not to let them get hurt due to commercial interests.”
Holmes argued these decisions were commercially based ones designed to bring AIBA greater power in professional boxing rather than an innocent effort to help amateurs or the Olympic Games. Holmes always was one of the smartest fighters around and he is equally smart in retirement.
But there is potentially a far darker side to this. It is the terror all fighters face but few talk about.
“All it’s going to take is one 17-year-old kid from Sweden fighting an American 30-year-old current world champion who puts the poor kid into a coma and then everyone will ask: ‘Why did you allow that to happen?’ ’’ sagely added former cruiserweight and heavyweight champion David Haye.
“Why would you allow that 17-year-old boy to fight this 30-year-old man who has already won the Olympics 10 years ago? What’s the point?”
AIBA’s semi-professional World Series of Boxing gaining a foothold in the pro game is the point. Beyond that, there is no point. Meanwhile, there is another disaster for boxing waiting to happen soon at an Olympics.
If one recalls the wild swings of now-heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder when he was a raw Olympian who won a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, less than three years after having first walked into a boxing gym, the thought of such a kid in the ring with someone like Holmes or Klitschko should boggle the mind.
There were some advocates of the idea, however, and one was perhaps the greatest amateur boxer in history, Vasyl Lomachenko. A two-time gold medallist, Lomachenko was 396-1 as an amateur before turning professional after the London Games.
Lomachenko demanded a world title fight in his professional debut. His promoter, Bob Arum, denied the request but did get Lomachenko a shot at the WBO featherweight title in his second fight. He lost to an overweight Orlando Salido and looked tentative until late in the match.
That was all the seasoning Lomachenko needed, however. Lomachenko went on to win the vacated WBO title one fight later to tie the record for fastest rise to world champion, but he also had nearly 400 amateur fights and was 26 when he turned pro, which is late by normal standards. He is hardly a measuring stick in this debate. Yet he, too, was not ready to face a seasoned Salido when he first turned professional.
“The idea of having professional boxers in the Olympics, I am all for it,’’ Lomachenko argued. “I like the idea. If you take any other sport — basketball, tennis, any other sport — they support professional athletes and they participate in the Olympic Games and it makes it that much stronger.
“I think in the 2020 Olympics there will be a lot more [professional] fighters because they will have a lot of time to prepare, but I do not think the big stars in boxing, like Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather, will take the risks in the Olympic Games. When they go to the Games, there is a chance the amateur can win and they won’t want to take the risk.
“I wouldn’t be scared and would just be glad, because all of my boxing career I was always saying that if you want to be the best you have to fight the best.
“If someone [had] told me that in the 2012 Olympics there would be professional fighters fighting, I would be very happy. It would be a big challenge for me. But you can’t forget, just because you are a professional fighter doesn’t mean you can beat the amateurs. It’s a different fight. We have three rounds [in the amateurs] and then you have to fight every day, five or six times. It is completely different preparation.
“And don't forget the most important thing: You have to weigh in every day before the bouts. You can’t do what Salido did [coming in over the featherweight limit but still being allowed to fight].
“You can’t weigh in at 126 then come out at 147. It’s not going to happen. Maybe for one bout, but then next day you have to step in and get from 147 to 126? It is a completely different game, and this is probably the main thing, when you have to be in your weight class six days in a row.’’
While a minority of professionals agreed with Lomachenko that boxing in the Olympics is an opportunity, not a risk, the majority argued forcefully against the idea from its inception. One of them was Carl Frampton, who perhaps put the entire matter into its proper place when he said: “Pro boxers being allowed to fight in Olympics is ridiculous. They’re two different sports. It’s like a badminton player playing tennis.
“AIBA have got worse since I was an amateur, and that’s hard to believe. What about the amateurs who’ve been dreaming of the Olympics for years, have yet to qualify, and some pro takes their spot at the last minute?”
What indeed? Go ask young Jonathan Esquivel, who will be watching the Games on television with his hopes dashed this summer while a 32-year-old former two-time world champion named Hassan N’Dam steps into an Olympic ring. If that’s the Olympic ideal, somewhere up on Mt. Olympus the ancient Greeks are wondering what happened.