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He came into Alexander Memorial Coliseum yesterday with all the
advantages: 19-year-old legs, a crowd inspiring him with the
now-hackneyed chants of U-S-A!, the mere presence of promoter
Lou Duva at ringside promising a rich future. When boxing people
spoke of U.S. bantamweight Zahir Raheem before this day, they
described something special: a Philadelphia boxer with a
sparkling pro style and a chance to win gold. The music blared,
and he came in dancing. Why not? His opponent was Arnaldo Mesa,
a 28-year-old Cuban who had been forced to drop a weight class
to fill one of the holes left by recent defections from his
country. Mesa had no friends here. Then the fight began. Mesa
fired a left. Raheem was all alone.

And what was supposed to be the first quality U.S.-Cuba showdown
of Olympic boxing dissolved quickly into a beating. The two men
circled for 90 seconds, and then Mesa rolled in with a crushing
left hand. Raheem fell. He got to his feet and Mesa came again:
a combination, two more jolting lefts to the head. Raheem's legs
wobbled as he took a second standing eight count. "I'm O.K.,"
Raheem insisted. Referee Nikolae Constantinescu disagreed, and
with 45 seconds left in the first round he stopped the fight.
Raheem, his face a mask of anger and shame, dropped to his
knees. Then he lay facedown on the canvas and cried. When Mesa
tried to shake his hand, Raheem, sobbing, stalked out of the ring.

Yesterday, that was the American way: get beat and cry. Nobody
complained when U.S. heavyweight Nate Jones stopped Great
Britain's Fola Okesola, but when two U.S. boxers lost in the
second round, the contingent whined. After Raheem's debacle,
U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo cried conspiracy, arguing that
the ref had stopped the fight too quickly. Having examined tapes
of three previous bouts involving Cubans, Ravelo was convinced
they were getting favorable treatment. "They're getting points
out of nowhere," he said. "We knew that if there was anything
close today, we'd either get disqualified, they would take
points away from us or not get points, or they would stop it too

U.S. boxing official Marco Sarfaraz disagreed. "There's no
pattern," he said. "We haven't found a pattern yet, and we're
all watching."

No doubt there are flaws in the five-judge electronic scoring
system--three must score a punch within one second for a point
to be awarded. And yes, it's strange that the most blatant botch
of these Games involved a Cuban: On Monday featherweight Lorenzo
Aragon was knocked down twice, yet his opponent did not receive
a point for either blow, and lost.

Still, the conspiracy theory didn't hold after U.S. welterweight
Fernando Vargas lost an 8-7 slugfest to Marian Simion of
Romania. U.S. coaches insisted Vargas was not awarded points for
clean blows. "You ask why our kids turn pro?" said coach Al
Mitchell. "This is the reason." Never mind that Vargas
disappeared in Round 2 or that Simion also suffered from poor

USA Boxing president Jerry Dusenberry saw no cause to file a
protest. "Vargas has to look at himself in the second round," he
said. "He had to play catch-up in the third round. He looked a
little awkward, possibly even frustrated, maybe a little tired."

But robbed? Not this time.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Raheem (left) was on his heels for much of his bout against Mesa. [Zahir Raheem and Arnaldo Mesa boxing]