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Original Issue

Ring In The New

The Olympic Festival showcased a crop of tough young U.S. boxers

Amateur boxing officials are mostly low-tech guys who don't know from computers and who think that a mouse is something you get under your eye. So there was some culture shock last week when, at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles, the computer was introduced to the sport in this country. It was a desperate move for men who thought a laptop was something you took a point deduction for, but desperate times call for desperate actions. The boxing scoring at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul was so, shall we say, whimsical, that something had to be done to prevent a repetition of the soccer-style riots that marred some of the matches there. So after Seoul the International Amateur Boxing Association called in the computer people to devise an automated system to score bouts. As a result, in major amateur fights, all stiff jabs, powerful hooks and nasty uppercuts will be tallied by microprocessor.

Naturally this generated some confusion before the Festival boxing began. Told that the five judges would be recording each punch into a computer, super heavyweight Larry Donald expressed skepticism that the judges, punching hand-held keypads, could possibly match his hand speed. But most folks thought that bringing amateur boxing into the computer age was a good idea.

So did it work? Sort of. Certainly some of the scoring seemed a little weird. For instance, it was hard to believe that a margin of 44-15 indicated in any way the competitiveness of one of the gold medal matches. Even 132-pound champion Oscar De La Hoya, who got the 44, thought his lightweight bout with Patrice Brooks was closer than that.

It wasn't until the heavyweight final that controversy finally reared its head, but at least nobody could blame it on the new technology. What happened in John Bray's brawl with Melvin Foster was strictly human error.

Bray, who does what he calls "spousal work" for Superior Investigations in the Los Angeles area ("It involves being really sneaky, basically," he says of his job tracking unfaithful husbands and wives), was justifying his reputation as a big puncher in the second round, hammering Foster for a standing eight count and a knockdown. Though it looked like an easy win for the U.S. amateur champ, Bray had been down this road before. In the USA-Cuba dual meet earlier this year at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was handily beating the world's top-ranked amateur heavyweight, Fèlix Savón of Cuba, when, in the second round, Bray began mugging and taunting his opponent. Savón nearly took his head off in the final minutes and won 5-0. And so it was at the Olympic Festival. Bray got overconfident in the third round, and Foster, the Golden Gloves champion and no small puncher himself, quickly hammered him for two standing eight counts.

In amateur boxing, three standing eight counts in the same round stops the fight, and referee Gene Reese was moving in to do just that as Foster again pounded Bray against the ropes. But before Reese could start the count, Bray threw a monstrous right hand and floored Foster, who quickly got back up. Reese, no computer, decided to give the count to Foster; he certainly looked like he needed it more. Seconds later, Bray pummeled Foster in a corner, and Reese halted the bout.

Surely you didn't think electronic scoring was going to eradicate the confusion in boxing?

All the same, U.S. boxing officials were generally cheered by what they saw at the Olympic Festival. The 12 winners, who have elected to go to Sydney for the world championships in November (the losers will attend the Pan American Games in Cuba in August) and who will thereafter be vying for berths at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, constitute a formidable array of talent. "This team is stronger than any Olympic team we've ever had," says Dick Pettigrew, the U.S. coach for the world championships.

The lower weights are richest in talent. Starting with Eric Griffin at light flyweight (106 pounds) and going through Tim Austin (112), Sean Fletcher (119), Ivan Robinson (125) and De La Hoya (132), there are five gold medal contenders for the worlds—and, possibly, for Barcelona. "They're more experienced," says Pettigrew, explaining, as diplomatically as he can, the difference between this group and the 1988 U.S. Olympic team that won three gold medals, three silver and two bronze in Seoul. "You look at Griffin, he's a two-time world champion, for goodness sakes."

Although De La Hoya is the rising star of the team—he's undefeated since 1987—the 23-year-old Griffin is the quietly established force on the team's low end. Griffin came within a urine test of upsetting 1988 silver medal winner Michael Carbajal for a spot on the Seoul Olympic team. Carbajal had beaten Griffin in a close decision at the trials, setting up a rematch in the box-off two weeks later, but in the interim Griffin tested positive for marijuana and was disqualified. "I would have beaten him in the box-offs," says Griffin. "In my opinion, I beat him in the trials."

Of his failed drug test, Griffin says, "I wasn't a bad kid. I was never in trouble. But everybody's not perfect, either." Because of that mistake, he lost more than an Olympic trip. His longtime sponsor, computer executive Bob Jordan, was so upset that he ended his relationship with Griffin—the only father-son relationship the boxer had ever known. It appeared that Griffin was about to return to a career of washing dishes in Houston, something he had done since he left home at the age of 16. "Sometimes I was a bus-boy," he says. "A cook once."

Eventually Griffin decided his ambitions were higher than that, and two months later he asked Jordan to take him back. Jordan agreed on the condition that Griffin submit to random drug tests. Griffin also cut down on his partying, adopted a regimen of 200 push-ups a day and lots of work on the heavy bag, and soon he took control of the light flyweight division. Griffin and Jordan became a father-son team again. "I never knew my real father," Griffin says. "My parents separated when I was a baby. But I understand I have stepbrothers and stepsisters. Someday I would like to meet them, maybe after I win a gold medal, and show them who I am and what I am."

After beating Bradley Martinez for the Olympic Festival title, Griffin could tell his relatives that he may be on the way to repeating as world champion.

Austin, 20, who beat John Herrera of Corpus Christi, Texas, in the flyweight final, had similar good news, though he had even fewer people to deliver it to. Austin's family history is sadder than Griffin's. His mother died in late 1986, and the following June he had to defend his Junior Olympics title. "I was fighting pretty good, but then it [his mother's death] just got to me," he recalls. "I was in a haze. I was all confused." He finished second. Life outside the ring, back in Cincinnati, was even more bewildering for a 16-year-old who had lost his mother. "I was used to her waking me up in the morning, being there when I got home from school," he says.

Before Austin could get used to life without his mother, his father died. That was in 1988. Again, life outside the ring became more difficult than life within. "I tried to push through it, but I couldn't," he says. "It got to me. I quit school."

What keeps Austin going these days is not the prospect of an Olympic gold medal—he has an excellent chance for one—but his one-year-old daughter, Takima. "The sunshine of my life," he says. "When I think of her, the haze and confusion just go away. And do you know what's the most amazing thing? This little girl looks just like my mother."

Only in boxing could you find, division by division, so many young men who are so disenfranchised, so battered by bad luck and circumstance, yet so determined to reverse their fate. Move up 20 pounds and you have De La Hoya, whose mother, Cecilia, died last fall. Her last words to the 18-year-old fighter were a request that he win the Olympic gold medal for her. De La Hoya is fully expected to contend for that honor, and he imagines himself returning to the cemetery to say, "Here it is, Mom. I did it for you."

Not all is poignancy on the world championship team, though. You don't have to jump all the way to the heavyweight division to find a blithe spirit, but recent history teaches that it's a good place to look for one. Bray, 21, continues the tradition of hard-punching good humor associated most recently with the ageless George Foreman. Bray is already back at his surveillance work, dogging unfaithful spouses and having lots of luck, at least with those who dally early. "I've never been caught, and I've been doing a lot of surveillance, a lot of camera work, hiding in bushes, that kind of thing," he says. "My only problem is, sometimes I'm sitting up in my car, a Ford Bronco with tinted windows—it's great for camera surveillance but not so good for speed chases—and I'm waiting for them to leave and, well, I'm not so used to staying up late. I'll wake up the next morning, and the sun's coming through those tinted windows. Other than that, I'm pretty good."

Last week, as a beaten fighter who came back to win, Bray was better than good. "Showed a little more of a man, didn't it?" says Pettigrew of Bray's improbable victory.

This burgeoning manhood is what should be remembered of the boxers at the Festival. It was on display in the 106-pound bouts as well as in the heavyweight matches, an entire range of young men from scattered families, all trying to become somebody. And developing maturity among its participants is something that amateur boxing is better at than scoring—computerized or not.



In his wild heavyweight win over Foster, Bray (right) was, at times, right on the money.



Just when Foster appeared to have won it, Bray (left) sent him wobbling to the canvas.



Griffin (left), a one-time dishwasher, cleaned up on Martinez in the light flyweight division.