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A six-pack with real punch

The U.S. won half a dozen world titles in the last big pre-Olympic fights

Teofilo Stevenson, his regal air enhanced by a placid smile, drifted through a post-midnight gathering following the World Championships' Challenge last Friday night in the Los Angeles Sports Arena. When Cuba's super-heavyweight came across his American rival, Tyrell Biggs, Stevenson, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, nodded and gently patted the current world amateur champion on the back several times. Then he walked away without having uttered a word.

Was the enigmatic Stevenson consoling Biggs, who earlier in the evening had been booed by his countrymen after he'd defeated Francesco Damiani of Italy? Or was it simply a show of affection? Or was the aging Stevenson telling Biggs, whom Stevenson has beaten in their two fights, that Biggs's performance against Damiani had in no way shaken Stevenson's intention to win an unprecedented fourth gold medal in August, when the Olympic boxing competition will take place in the very same Sports Arena? "I don't know what he meant," Biggs said. "He just kept patting me."

As Stevenson's gesture was hard to read, so was the significance of the night's 14 bouts in the last major international amateur boxing event before the Olympics. In organizing the second World Championships' Challenge, International Amateur Boxing Association officials tried to match the winners of last year's tournament, held partly in Reno and partly in Tokyo, with the winners of the World Cup, which was staged in Rome last October. The victor in each weight division would be crowned a world amateur champion. Of the 28 boxers on hand, four of whom took part in non-title exhibitions, 18 were either world champions or World Cup titlists, and 23 were ranked in the Top 5 in their international weight categories.

But AIBA ratings are taken about as seriously as speed limits are by L.A. motorists. This is particularly so in an Olympic year. The importance of the tournament was further diminished when the U.S.S.R. refused to participate because tournament officials wouldn't accede to the condition that Yuri Alexandrov, the No. 5-rated 119-pounder, be given a title fight. Still, the results of the bouts gave the U.S. six amateur world champions for the first time and, perhaps more important, one more title than Cuba, whose national team the U.S. has never beaten in a dual meet.

Three of the American victories were especially impressive. Pernell (Pete) Whitaker, a 132-pounder from Norfolk, Va., continued his domination of his class with a 3-2 decision over Ramon Goire of Cuba, who had decked Whitaker in the second of the three rounds. At 156 pounds, Detroit's Frank Tate decisioned world champion Shawn O'Sullivan, a Canadian who was suffering from the flu, and Ricky (Wonderful) Womack of Detroit stopped Pablo Romero of Cuba in the first round for the 178-pound crown. Biggs, 147-pound Mark Breland—fresh from winning a record fifth consecutive New York Golden Gloves title—and 119-pounder Floyd Favors of Capitol Heights, Md., retained their crowns.

Cuba won five world championships, with standouts Pedro Reyes (112 pounds) and Adolfo Horta (125) knocking out Steve McCrory of Detroit, the brother of WBC welterweight champ Milton, and Bernard Gray of Boynton Beach, Fla., respectively. Canada's 201-pounder, Willie deWit, who won a decision over substitute Henry Tillman of Los Angeles (he stood in for an injured Italian), was the only fighter from a country other than the U.S. and Cuba to win a bout.

U.S. coach Pat Nappi was pleased with the evening's results, but resisted comparing this aggregation to the 1976 U.S. team that won five gold medals in Montreal. "We don't need what happened to our hockey team this year," he explained in reference to the unduly high expectations that burdened the U.S. hockey team at Sarajevo.

Although far from being the deepest division, the super-heavyweight is the most intriguing one. Stevenson is currently ranked behind Damiani and Biggs, but many experts feel that at 33 Stevenson has enough left to win one last gold medal. In an exhibition bout against Biagio Chianese of Italy, a late substitute for America's injured Craig Payne, Stevenson buffeted the 6'2", 258-pound Chianese enough to score a 5-0 victory. Though at 220 pounds the 6'4" Stevenson looked trimmer than he did in February, when he defeated Biggs in a U.S.-Cuba tournament in Reno, he no longer has the cobra-quick righthand punch that knocked out Duane Bobick in Munich in 1972 and John Tate in Montreal in 1976. "I didn't even feel his punches," said Chianese, numbed nonetheless.

Stevenson won't admit it—"I do not describe myself," he said at a press conference—but as his straight right has slowed, he has concentrated on his body punching. In 1982 he severely bruised two of Biggs's ribs with a right hand before knocking him out with another right to the head. In February he again knocked Biggs down with a right in the vicinity of the belt line to win the third and decisive round of a close fight.

"The pressure got to Tyrell, and he kind of collapsed in the third round," says Emanuel Steward, who trains Thomas Hearns and Milt McCrory and has been in Biggs's corner this year. "Tyrell learned a lot. He knows he can beat the man. Stevenson is my favorite heavyweight other than Ali. He was the most perfectly balanced fighter I ever saw. But he has slowed tremendously."

Like Ali, Biggs can float like a butterfly—but unfortunately he also stings like one. Plus, he lacks the confidence most champions have. "I feel I probably can beat any super-heavyweight in the world," Biggs said last week. Or: "I am probably the greatest."

Against the 6'1", 220-pound Damiani, a shaggy-haired brawler who has a Kirk Douglas chin and the nose of his favorite heavyweight, Gerry Cooney, Biggs jabbed effectively and made Damiani miss. Yet the crowd of 6,403 applauded Damiani and booed Biggs when the 4-1 decision was announced. Perhaps the knockout-hungry L.A. fans, accustomed as they are to pro fights, were unfamiliar with the tactics and scoring employed in amateur boxing, which stresses the number—not necessarily the power—of punches landed.

"Mi hanno fregato" (I wuz robbed), said Damiani, who lost a 3-2 decision to Biggs in their 1982 World Championship bout in Munich.

Biggs was more hurt by the booing than by Damiani's punches. "What do they want from me?" he said. "I fought my fight. I don't want to make this a racial thing.... Maybe they just didn't enjoy the fight."

The boxers enjoyed Los Angeles. They stayed at the well-appointed Century Plaza Hotel and trained at a new high-tech gym off Sunset Strip called Quest-star. Actor Gene Hackman, who took a break from his own workout to watch the U.S. team train, was immediately spotted by Womack, who called out to the villain of Superman, "Lex Luthor! How you doin'?" The Italians took especial joy in the place, kissing the hands of skimpily Danskinned women. Chianese, whose training habits are a standing joke in the Italian contingent, even participated in an aerobics class before quitting in frustration after less than a minute.

Whitaker might have felt inclined to do the same against Goire. "He gave me the worst two rounds of my life," said Whitaker, a brash southpaw who has beaten Cuba's two-time Olympic champ, Angel Herrera, in each of their last four meetings. In the third round the boxers slugged for an extra 10 seconds because the bell was drowned out by the cheering. Before the fight Whitaker had said, "I'm looking for a standing ovation," and after his 3-2 decision, he got it.

Breland, whom Steward calls "the most talented boxer I've ever worked with," scored a 5-0 decision over iron-jawed Luciano Bruno. More significant, Breland suffered no pain in his right hand, which was operated on last June to repair a damaged tendon.

Womack, who had split with Romero in two previous fights, decided in the first round that this night the two-time world champion "was an impostor, and I had to get him out of there." A perfect Womack right put down Romero, who spars with Stevenson. After a wobbly Romero took a standing eight count and was knocked down again, the referee stopped the bout. "Continuing would have been very, very damaging to his health," Womack said.

Injuries clearly concern Stevenson, who, in one of the few definitive statements he made last week, said, "I have my health. Everything else is secondary." The only thing that got as much as a rise out of him was the cumulative effect of repeated questions about his chances for the fourth gold. Finally relenting, Stevenson said, "I've always believed I can do it. And I will do it." Now, Tyrell, you know what the pats were about.



Biggs (left) won the fight, but Damiani won the fan applause.


Stevenson's speed wasn't on exhibit versus the jabbing Chianese.


After his victory, Womack was 178 pounds of joy.