Commentary

Contrasting the way Olympic gold medalists made their debuts

Graham Houston looks at five fighters who used their Olympic pedigree to help launch their professional careers.

Originally Published: August 22, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Oscar De La HoyaBob Thomas/Getty ImagesSimply Golden: Oscar De La Hoya used his gold medal in Barcelona to help catapult him into the public spotlight.
Sugar Ray Leonard's gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics launched a professional career that was high-profile from the outset.

Here's a look at how some other future champs won their gold medals and the contrasting ways in which they made their pro starts.

Floyd Patterson -- Middleweight gold medalist, Helsinki Games, 1952

Patterson was just 17 years old when he breezed through four opponents in the Olympics, knocking out Romanian Vasile Tita in 74 seconds in the middleweight final. "It was over so fast, it was hard to realize it," Patterson said in his autobiography "Victory Over Myself."

Patterson's astonishing hand speed overwhelmed his European opponents. "He has faster hands than a subway pickpocket and they cause more suffering," Red Smith wrote in The New York Times.

When Patterson turned professional with veteran manager Cus D'Amato, he appeared in a scheduled six-round semifinal at New York's old St. Nicholas Arena. The Sept. 12, 1952 fight was against a journeyman named Eddie Godbold, who had just five wins in 19 bouts.

"By designating Godbold as the sacrificial lamb, matchmaker Billy Brown and manager Cus D'Amato exercised the ultimate in caution," Lewis Burton wrote in The New York Journal-American. Some might say that nothing much has changed throughout the years. Burton described the match as "a guaranteed knockout" for the Olympic gold medalist, and he was right. Patterson dropped Godbold three times and stopped him in the fourth round, but, as boxing writer Jack Newcombe writes in "Floyd Patterson: An Original Life Story," a Godbold right hand knocked out Patterson's mouthpiece in the newcomer's unimpressive debut. Patterson, Newcombe wrote, struggled to get his combinations off against a mauling, spoiling veteran.

"He didn't want to fight much," a disappointed Patterson said afterward.

Cassius Clay -- Light heavyweight gold medalist, Rome Games, 1960

The Muhammad Ali years of glory were a long way off when an 18-year-old Clay outclassed much-more-experienced opponents in winning his gold medal in Rome.

[+] EnlargeCassius Clay/Muhammad Ali
AP PhotoClay, right, outclassed high-caliber opponents on his way to capturing gold in the 1960 Olympics.
Clay defeated Empire Games gold medalist Tony Madigan of Australia in the semifinals, while in the final he outscored and almost stopped Polish European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski. Those were impressive victories over durable, high-caliber, seasoned opponents.

Although Clay had difficulty in the first two rounds against the southpaw style of Pietrzykowski, a veteran of more than 230 bouts, he unleashed a series of rapid-fire punches in the third and final round that slashed through his opponent's defenses and had the Polish boxer bloodied and reeling.

Clay's professional career was launched in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 29, 1960, when he outclassed the West Virginia journeyman Tunney Hunsaker for a unanimous six-round decision victory.

As had been the case with Patterson's first pro fight, Clay was by all accounts not particularly impressive in his debut. But he won comfortably enough while bloodying Hunsaker's nose and all but closing one of his eyes.

The fight attracted a crowd of 6,181 and was the main event in conjunction with the closed-circuit telecast from Madison Square Garden of a welterweight title bout between Federico Thompson and Gaspar Ortega.

Although Clay went on to greatness under his original name and then as Muhammad Ali, Hunsaker had secured a spot in ring history as the first professional opponent of the future legend. Indeed, Hunsaker claimed to sportswriter Stephen Brunt (author of "Facing Ali") that he emerged unbeaten on two TV shows -- "To Tell the Truth" (U.S.) and "The Fame Game" (Canada) -- and in each of them, the panelists failed to guess the boxer's claim to celebrity.

Joe Frazier -- Heavyweight gold medalist, Tokyo Games, 1964

Beaten by the blubbery-but-agile Buster Mathis in the Olympic trials, Frazier got his big chance when his conqueror suffered a broken finger. Then, irony of ironies, Frazier broke the thumb of his left hand while hammering the former Soviet Union's Vadim Yemelyanov in two rounds in the Olympic semifinals.

[+] EnlargeJoe Frazier
AP PhotoJoe Frazier, right, overcame a broken left thumb to capture gold at the 1964 Olympics.
"Although my thumb was throbbing with pain, I didn't say a word about it to the coaches or my teammates," Frazier told writer Phil Pepe in "Smokin' Joe: The Autobiography." He didn't want to risk being declared unfit to box.

Frazier threw more right hands than usual in winning a 3-2 decision over tall German Hans Huber in the Olympic final. "With the limitations of my left hand, it wasn't an easy fight," he recalled. "But I went out there acting like I wanted to win."

When Frazier made his pro debut -- after two operations on the thumb -- against a boxer from Lancaster, Pa., named Woody Goss, it was on the undercard of a show at the Convention Center in Philadelphia headlined by popular local welterweight Stanley "Kitten" Hayward on Aug. 16, 1965.

"There wasn't much fanfare, maybe about 3,000 people in the building," longtime Philadelphia promoter and boxing historian Russell Peltz told ESPN.com.

Frazier predictably stopped Goss in the first round. The New York Times gave just two paragraphs to the mismatch; the big boxing story in the newspaper that day was a piece on Buster Mathis' being introduced to the New York press that was accompanied by a picture of Mathis posing with former champion Floyd Patterson. Frazier later admitted he was somewhat bitter that even though he had won the gold medal, Mathis was getting the media attention.

Of course, Smokin' Joe went on to put everything right. His future achievements included what for him must have been a highly satisfactory knockout win over Mathis at Madison Square Garden.

George Foreman -- Heavyweight gold medalist, Mexico City Games, 1968

The Olympic image everyone has of Foreman is of Big George waving a miniature American flag after battering the former Soviet Union's Ionas Chepulis. The media considered it to be a breath of fresh air after the Black Power protest of athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." However, Foreman wrote in his autobiography "By George" that there was nothing political about his gesture: "… I meant it in a way that was much bigger than ordinary patriotism. It was about identity. An American -- that's who I was. I was waving the flag as much for myself as for my country."

Foreman was just 19, relatively inexperienced but very strong, when he won the gold medal. Perhaps because of the mainstream popularity engendered by the flag-waving in Mexico City, Foreman's professional debut attracted considerable attention, even though it was on the undercard of the Joe Frazier-Jerry Quarry fight at Madison Square Garden on June 23, 1969. That night, Foreman beat up a smaller, outweighed opponent named Don Waldheim in three rounds, but his performance was not enthusiastically received and he left the ring to boos.

Perhaps the crowd's reaction was a combination of displeasure at Foreman's rawness and the weakness of Waldheim's resistance. Foreman looked "about three years away from being a tutored, knowledgeable fighter," The New York Times reported. "You can only please some of the people some of the time," Foreman said philosophically.

Oscar De La Hoya -- Lightweight gold medalist, Barcelona Games, 1992

De La Hoya's gold-medal success had a special poignancy when he dropped to one knee, made the sign of the cross and pointed to the sky to acknowledge his late mother, Cecilia, who had died from cancer two years earlier.

Unlike Patterson, Clay, Frazier and Foreman, De La Hoya had to contend with the electronic scoring method in which each of five judges pushes a button when he feels that a scoring blow has been landed. De La Hoya cannily mastered the system of getting points on the board. He "concentrated on landing hard, loud shots from the outside -- easy to see and more likely to draw a score," author Tim Kawakami wrote in the De La Hoya biography "Golden Boy."

With his good looks, appealing personality and hard-hitting style, De La Hoya always was destined for stardom as a professional boxer. The Olympic gold medal, joined with the human-interest aspect of his success (he had promised his mother he would win the gold), provided a perfect launching pad.

De La Hoya's debut, on Nov. 23, 1992 at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, was televised regionally on a network known as Prime Ticket that served Southern California subscribers. Everything went according to plan as he blew out a woefully overmatched opponent named Lamar Williams in the opening round. De La Hoya entered the ring wearing a sombrero and carrying a Mexican flag in one hand and an American one in the other, as his trunks with the stars and stripes and Mexican flag colors emphasized his cross-cultural heritage.

"Williams simply didn't want to know [about De La Hoya's power], and spent his brief time in the ring with De La Hoya either trying to cover up or on the floor," I reported in Boxing Monthly. Still, the crowd seemed to enjoy watching De La Hoya's engaging in 102 seconds of target practice.

"He feared me -- I saw it in his eyes," De La Hoya said afterward. With refreshing candor, he added, "I believe I need tougher opponents."

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.