Commentary

The modest value of Beijing bling

No gold? No problem! Eric Raskin writes that coming up short in Beijing will have little impact on an Olympian's career once he turns pro.

Originally Published: August 11, 2008
By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com

Ray LeonardAP PhotoWould Sugar Ray Leonard, left, have found fame and fortune as a professional had he not won gold at the '76 Olympics?
Imagine an exceptionally talented amateur fighter, one with blazing hand speed, legitimate knockout power and, as a bonus, the kind of rosy-cheeked smile you simply can't teach.

He goes to the Olympics and loses a controversial decision in the opening round because his blurs of combination punches get him nowhere under the modern computer scoring system. He comes home to no fanfare, modest interest from promoters and a lot to prove before any of the networks are prepared to offer him a penny.

I've just described Sugar Ray Leonard, if he'd been born 32 years later.

Leonard, who of course won a gold medal in Montreal in '76 and became the defining non-heavyweight fighter of his time, doesn't deny the likelihood of that generation-jumping fictional scenario.

If I was fighting when they implemented these scoring systems, you wouldn't be talking to me now -- I wouldn't be a gold-medal winner. I think this scoring system is utterly ridiculous.

-- Sugar Ray Leonard, on the problems with today's amateur scoring system

"If I was fighting when they implemented these scoring systems, you wouldn't be talking to me now -- I wouldn't be a gold-medal winner," Leonard told ESPN.com. "I think this scoring system is utterly ridiculous."

But it's just one of the many problems that have gradually transformed the Olympic Games from the ultimate launching pad to professional stardom into an almost irrelevant competition.

Another major hindrance began in 2000, when Olympic boxing was relegated to the CNBC and MSNBC networks and mainstream America wasn't going to see these young fighters in action without purposely seeking out boxing.

Compounding the dilemma, the 2000 team in Sydney failed to win a gold medal, becoming the first such American boxing team since 1948.

Still, basking in the afterglow of the then-thriving '96 class, the Olympians came home to hefty signing bonuses and to plenty of interest from HBO and Showtime.

Rocky Juarez and Jeff Lacy, along with Mexican Olympian Francisco "Panchito" Bojado, signed to make their pro debuts on Showtime.

Meanwhile, five members of the U.S. team turned pro at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 27, 2001, with HBO televising (while three more Olympians turned pro on the off-TV undercard). Then-fledgling promoter Lou DiBella put that card together. And though the night was a success, DiBella gradually discovered that he'd shown more financial interest in these Olympic prospects than was advisable.

"I realized very early on after the 2000 Olympic experiment, where both networks went wild signing Olympians, that the Olympics don't mean very much," DiBella said.

Though Jermain Taylor eventually became middleweight champion of the world and made DiBella Entertainment's investment in him fruitful, and Jose Navarro has had a reasonably successful career as a junior bantamweight contender, the rest of DiBella's Olympians were flops.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Williams
Al Bello /Getty imagesRicardo Williams, who won a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, never materialized as a pro.
The names Michael Bennett, Clarence Vinson, Jerson Ravelo and Paolo Vidoz barely ring a bell anymore for fight fans, and Ricardo Williams Jr. stands out as a classic cautionary tale on giving an undisciplined young man too much, too soon. Williams, a silver medalist and supposedly the most gifted prospect on the 2000 team, lost twice in his first 12 fights before serving a 31-month prison stretch for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

With the '04 U.S. Olympic team not exactly conjuring up memories of the '76 or '84 medal hauls (just one gold and one bronze), and with the failures of '00 fresh in everyone's minds, interest from promoters and networks plummeted following the Athens Games.

"The biggest drop-off ever was between 2000 and 2004," DiBella said. "In the old days, when a fighter won the medal, the medal was so valuable, from a marketing standpoint and a network standpoint, the kid hit your radar and people would get into a bidding war over him. That's not true anymore.

"I mean, if you win a gold medal, someone's going to pay you -- someone. But that money's not going to make you Ray Leonard or Oscar De La Hoya, even Jermain Taylor, or even Jeff Lacy or Rocky Juarez, because they all got the benefits of a time when the networks adopted the kid. That's over. As a promoter, you have to believe in the fighter, and you have to believe in a long-term investment in the fighter."

When scouting amateurs, DiBella's emphasis is now on fighters with styles to succeed in the pros. How they do in the Olympics -- or whether they even go to the Olympics -- hardly enters into the equation. In 2004, DiBella knew going into the Games that he liked Andre Berto, and the fact that the hard-punching welterweight didn't even make the U.S. team (he represented Haiti) and failed to medal didn't matter.

"I already know who I like [from the '08 team], and what happens in the Olympics isn't going to change my mind," DiBella said. "I like them because I like how they fight. Even if we're lucky enough to have a bunch of kids medal, I can't see myself going after more than one kid with a medal."

And just how many American Olympians will medal?

Under the current scoring system, whereby three of the five ringside judges need to push a button within one second of each other to award a point to a fighter, it will come down to who's the best at throwing clean, easily visible punches one at a time. It will largely come down not to talent, but to experience using these rules.

The American flyweight representative, Rau'Shee Warren, has both talent and experience, as he'll be the first two-time U.S. Olympian in more than three decades. He and welterweight Demetrius Andrade are widely considered America's safest bets for a medal.

The shame is that even if they win gold, they'll do so in relative anonymity.

"The boxing at the Olympics doesn't receive as much print or television coverage as it used to, so that kind of throws a wrench into the excitement as far as viewership is concerned," Leonard said. "In '76, boxing, gymnastics and track and field were the top sports."

Not anymore, and you can debate all day whether NBC made it a second-class sport by airing it on second-class cable networks, or whether the rules of Olympic boxing drained the excitement from the sport and forced NBC's hand.

Thanks to the wonder of DVRs, I'll be watching it all unfold, some of it at regular speed, much of it in fast-forward. I'm excited about developing opinions on these future pros and watching them strive for the ultimate amateur achievement.

But I know better than to expect to see the next Sugar Ray Leonard light up my TV screen.

And I'd better be watching the opening round closely, because if a reasonable facsimile of Sugar Ray is out there, that might be as far as he goes.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.