Ward and Dirrell are only Americans left

Updated: August 25, 2004, 6:14 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Just when all seemed lost for the U.S. boxing team, Andre Ward remembered what his late father said about big fights and bigger fighters.

It was a lesson some of his teammates apparently never learned.

Andre Ward and Evgeny Makarenko
APWard (left) said he spent much of the day praying about his fight and reading about David and Goliath.
"My father always told me that in big fights you have to rise to the occasion," Ward said. "That's what great fighters do."

Ward did just that Tuesday night, saving the U.S. boxing team from its most embarrassing Olympics ever by upsetting two-time world champion Evgeny Makarenko of Russia in a light heavyweight bout few gave him a chance to win.

Ward was smaller, less experienced and entered the ring to resounding boos from the crowd. By the time he left, though, he had guaranteed himself at least a bronze medal -- and quite possibly made himself a favorite for the gold.

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

That pride was seriously lacking a day earlier in a halfhearted effort by super heavyweight Jason Estrada. But Ward finally gave U.S. coaches something to smile about against a fighter who towered over him in the ring.

Ward pictured the fight as a modern day version of David vs. Goliath, then went out and played David to perfection by moving and punching, staying inside and frustrating the 6-foot-6 Russian. By the time the final seconds ticked away, he had a 23-16 decision that put him in a semifinal fight Friday against Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan.

"This victory is already behind me. I don't have time to relish it," said Ward, whose father died two years ago. "I've still got two tough fights left."

Ward and middleweight Andre Dirrell are the only two Americans left in the boxing competition, and the United States was looking at the real possibility of being shut out of medals for the first time ever in the Olympics.

But Ward made sure the team would at least tie the 1948 team -- which won one medal -- with perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament so far. Dirrell fights on Wednesday against Cuba's Yordani Despaigne.

"He patched the wound up," U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah said. "He felt the pain and gave us some relief."

Ward, who is devoutly religious, said he spent much of the day praying about his fight and reading about David and Goliath. "Everybody I fight is supposed to be bigger and stronger than me," Ward said.

The analogy was a good one for a fighter who is basically a blown-up middleweight going up against the much taller Makarenko.

Ward hadn't lost a fight in six years of amateur boxing, but he had little international experience and had never faced a fighter like Makarenko. U.S. coaches drew up detailed fight plans for other boxers, but decided to simply let Ward be himself in this fight, and use his unorthodox style to his advantage.

It worked from the opening bell on, with Ward negating the Russian's reach by moving quickly inside to throw one or two quick punches, then moving outside again. When the Russian would land, Ward would tie him up, then try to punch him coming out of the break.

"The strategy was going to be just move away from his right hand, but we decided to just let Andre be himself," Abdullah said. "He boxed a beautiful bout."

Abdullah needed a phone call from home to regain his composure from the night before, when Estrada gave little effort and said he didn't care if he won or lost.

"It was a combination of the loss and the way the U.S. athlete conducted himself after the loss," Abdullah said. "He didn't show any class, any pride or any respect. He embarrassed our country, our national governing body and the USOC."

British teenager Amir Khan, meanwhile, continued to be the sensation of the tournament, stopping Jong Sub-baik of South Korea with a flurry of punches with 23 seconds left in the first round.

A 17-year-old lightweight who is the only member of the British boxing team in Athens, Khan is the youngest boxing medalist since Floyd Patterson in 1952.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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