U.S. boxers in the hands of amateurs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Antonio Tarver walked into an ambush Wednesday afternoon. His appointed guardians had let their guard down.

America's most ballyhooed Olympic boxer, the favorite in the light heavyweight division, narrowly escaped a first-round bout with Russia's Dmitri Vybornov at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

One of the reasons was neglect. Another was sloppiness. USA Boxing allowed its leading medal contender to enter the ring utterly unprepared for a fight he might easily have lost.

The U.S. coaches had prepared no scouting report on Vybornov. They had studied no videotape. They did not even know that Vybornov is left-handed, like Tarver, and they consequently failed to supply their fighter with southpaw sparring partners.

They probably should be fired on principle.

Vybornov was not some secret weapon the Russians had hidden in Siberia to spring on the unsuspecting Americans. He was the bronze medalist at the 1996 European Championships. He was a known quantity. But U.S. coach Al Mitchell didn't do his homework, and he didn't even bring a dog to blame.

''This is the first round, and nine out of 10 we never met them before and we don't have anything on them,'' Mitchell said. ''The key is to get by the first round, and then we get tapes.''

Now there's a novel idea. Imagine a football coach formulating his game plan in the second quarter, and you have a rough idea of Mitchell's modus operandi for these Olympics. Until further notice, the U.S. team will be fighting by the seat of its pants.

Nothing new there. U.S. middleweight Anthony Hembrick was disqualified in the 1988 Summer Games because he failed to appear on time for his first-round bout. The U.S. team was coached by different men in Korea, but the fundamental problem remains the same: American amateur boxing continues to be run by amateurs.

Figuring on the fly

Mitchell says the number of countries competing in the Olympics makes comprehensive preparation nearly impossible. Expense, too, is always an issue with USA Boxing. Yet you would think the organization would see some advantage in scouting the European Championships, or in taking the trouble to obtain any available videotape. You would think, at the very least, someone would have been able to tell Tarver with which fist Vybornov leads.

Instead, Tarver had to figure things out on the fly, which is a perilous position in a three-round bout. He would outpoint Vybornov in the electronic scoring, 5-2, but he went into the last round clinging to a 1-point lead (3-2).

''I felt everything slipping away,'' Tarver said. ''I threw my boxing game away and started to fight, which is my last resort. . . . I felt I wasn't performing up to my capabilities, and I felt a little desperate in there.''

Any fight between left-handers is inherently awkward, but Tarver was unable to deliver his left because of a disturbing hitch in his swing.

''I thought his performance was lousy,'' Mitchell said. ''He's a control boxer, and he came out of style. . . . You haven't seen the real Tony.''

Tarver entered the arena to the theme from Rocky, to a standing ovation, with a crowd full of his fellow Americans chanting ''USA.'' He left the ring afterward to widespread booing. The bout was that bad.

''I feel that I have to win a couple of (fans) back, but we plan on doing that,'' Tarver said. ''I'm going to get back to the drawing board. I know I can box. I know I can win. You could say I wasn't focused tonight. I wasn't there.''

Mitchell suggested Tarver's performance suffered from the enormous expectations that have surrounded him since he went undefeated in 1995.

''When 50 million people tell you you're going to win the gold medal,'' Mitchell said, ''you're going to listen.''

''It sounds good,'' Tarver said of his coach's statement, ''but I haven't personally paid it any attention. I don't think what people say will get me to the gold medal stand.''

Antonio Tarver's fate is in his own hands. He is, it appears, the only one he can count on.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 25, 1996.