Vargas has to brawl after tweaking knee

Updated: August 23, 2004, 1:50 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The plan all along was for Devin Vargas to move and box his way to an Olympic heavyweight gold medal. Then his knee went out in the first round Sunday, and Vargas tried to turn the fight into a brawl.

The decision ended up costing him an Olympic medal.

Vargas couldn't land the big punch he desperately needed against Viktar Zuyev of Belarus, dropping a 36-27 decision in the latest of a string of disappointing losses for the U.S. boxing team.

"I knew I had to knock him out or get him disqualified for holding me to win," Vargas said. "I was just trying to knock him out."

Vargas, who would have been guaranteed at least a bronze medal if he won, was holding his own until he pivoted to throw a punch late in the first round and twisted a left knee that had been bothering him ever since the team arrived in Athens.

Back in the corner after the round ended, coach Basheer Abdullah told Vargas he had no choice but to move forward and trade punches with Zuyev. The problem was, Vargas had spent the last three months in training camp learning to do just the opposite: box and move.

"I know I could have bounced on my toes and won if my knee wasn't hurt," he said. "My coach told me to just go forward and I hadn't practiced going forward."

Vargas ended up taking two standing 8-counts -- one for a low blow -- and Zuyev picked him apart with punches to the head as he plodded forward trying to land some big punches to turn the fight around.

Vargas did rock Zuyev with a right hand early in the second round. But as the American grew increasingly desperate, Zuyev managed to avoid most of his punches.

"I gave it 110 percent, but there's only so much I could do with one knee," Vargas said.

The loss left only three of the original nine boxers still in medal contention, and none of them have an easy road to the semifinal medal round. Middleweight Andre Dirrell and super heavyweight Jason Estrada both have to beat Cubans to win medals, while light heavyweight Andre Ward has to beat two-time world champion Evgeny Makarenko of Russia.

It's a tough task, made tougher by the fact that nothing the American fighters do seems to come out right.

"Right now we don't have any answers," Abdullah said.

So far, no one is beating the Cubans, and the Russians are doing pretty well, too. Two-time Olympic champion Oleg Saitov of Russia advanced with a win Sunday and three Cubans also fought their way into the semifinals, including heavyweight Odlanier Solis.

Americans once dominated Olympic boxing, but in Sydney they were shut out of gold medals for the first time in 52 years. The balance of power in amateur boxing has now shifted to Cuba and Russia and the former Soviet republics, which accounted for 42 of the 88 boxers in the quarterfinals.

Vargas thinks he knows why.

"The U.S. needs to start getting educated at computer scoring more at a lower level," Vargas said. "These kids have to start learning computer scoring at a young age. All these other countries don't have as good of boxers as us, but they know how to use the scoring."

Vargas had changed his style specifically for the Olympics. He always liked to brawl, but worked in training camp on using his left jab and moving to connect with the kind of punches that are rewarded by the judges.

Standing in the hallway outside the arena, he choked up and fought back tears as he came to the realization he wouldn't get a medal.

"I know if I was on my toes and boxing I could get the gold here," he said. "I guess it wasn't in God's plan for me to get a medal."

Vargas said he would go back to Toledo, where the football team of 8-year-olds he coaches is waiting for him, and then turn pro. He has a 2-year-old son and another one on the way, and amateur boxing doesn't pay the bills.

"I've got to go pro and make some money for my children," he said.

With medals finally at stake Sunday, the intensity level picked up at the boxing hall in the suburb of Peristeri, leading to a number of interesting bouts.

In one of them, light welterweight Manus Boonjumnong of Thailand built up an early lead and then held off a frustrated Willy Blain of France to win 20-8. Blain was the reigning world champion, but could never find his range against the lanky Thai, who credited a call from royalty with helping him win.

"The Thai king rang me this morning, which made me feel much stronger in my contest," Boonjumnong said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press