Dirrell bloodied Cuban opponent

Updated: August 25, 2004, 5:17 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Andre Dirrell already honored his grandfather by getting a tattoo of his face on his back. Pretty soon he'll be able to share an Olympic medal with him, too.

Dirrell assured the United States of at least two boxing medals Wednesday by narrowly beating Cuba's Yordani Despaigne to advance to the Olympic middleweight semifinals. The win came in front of his grandfather and boxing coach, who celebrated his 64th birthday in Athens last week.

"I'm aiming to please my grandfather," Dirrell said. "Besides the money, the gold medal and everything, I want to make him happy. This is what he said was his birthday present."

With his family members cheering him on from the stands, Dirrell bloodied the Cuban's face in the third round and held on for a 12-11 win in a cautiously fought bout. The win guaranteed him at least a bronze medal and, coupled with Andre Ward's win a day earlier, gave the United States two real possibilities for gold medals.

"I knew I could outbox him," Dirrell said. "I was extra nervous because the Cubans are great boxers."

Dirrell wasn't too bad himself, coming from behind in the third round with a flurry to take the lead and then listening to his grandfather and other family members when they told him to get on his toes and stay away to keep the lead with 25 seconds left.

"We knew it was going to be a chess match," U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah said. "He was very patient and he played the chess match and won it tonight."

Dirrell, whose grandfather began teaching him to box at the age of 10 and then refused to let him quit the sport two years later, advanced to a semifinal match Friday against Gennadiy Golovkin of Kazakhstan.

More importantly, he put a smile on the face of his grandfather, Leon Lawson, a former bodyguard and sparring partner for Muhammad Ali.

Dirrell had a tattoo of his grandfather's face put on his right shoulder last month to thank him for years of making him train for his Olympic moment.

"I figured he was on my back this long that I would put a real one on my back," Dirrell said with a smile.

Dirrell came into the Olympics as the most highly touted member of a team that wasn't expected to fare too well in Athens. The 20-year-old from Flint, Mich., looked the part in moving easily through his first two fights, but the matchup against the tough Cuban was his real test.

Dirrell beat Despaigne easily in a test match in the same ring in May, when the Cuban came at him aggressively and he was able to land counterpunches at will. The Cubans adjusted their tactics this time, trying to draw Dirrell forward, but the move had been anticipated by the American coaches.

The result was a slow-moving bout, fought in little spurts and basically decided by a combination of punches that scored three quick points for Dirrell in the third round.

"At the end of the second round I told my coaches, `I'm not getting all my points," Dirrell said. "They said, `Just stick to your game plan.' I knew he was bothered by the bleeding in his eye but I was just real cautious."

Despaigne refused Dirrell's offer of a hug after the decision was announced, shaking hands with the American's coaches and leaving. Dirrell then stood in the middle of the ring and blew kisses to all four sides.

The loss was a rare one for the potent Cuban team, which advanced eight boxers to the semifinals, more than any other country. Six Russians also advanced, including middleweight world silver medalist Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov.

The U.S. team, meanwhile, is down to its two Andres, who both came up big to keep the team from being shut out for the first time ever in the Olympics. Andre Ward started it on Tuesday by beating two-time Russian world champion Evgeny Makarenko, and Dirrell followed it with his win over the Cuban.

Both wins brought looks of relief to the faces of a beleaguered U.S. coaching staff, which had watched some other members of the team give less than stellar performances when it mattered most.

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

The U.S. team didn't win a gold medal in Sydney for the first time in 52 years, but Abdullah has high hopes for each of his Andres.

"If we take home a gold and a silver or something like that I would be happy with that," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press