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There was barely a minute gone in his semifinal bout and already
he was down on the canvas, propping himself up on his elbows,
trying to shake the cobwebs from his head. U.S. 165-pound boxer
Rhoshii Wells, America's longest shot of the night at Georgia
Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum, had heard about the
paralyzing punches that Cuba's Ariel Hernandez throws. Now he
had felt one. Hernandez, the two-time world champion, had
dropped Wells with a thudding overhand right. Then Hernandez
looked down at Wells, glowering.

This was Cuba's night at the fights. And Hernandez--who closed
out his 17-8 rout of Wells by showboating around the ring, hands
at his sides, for parts of the third round--underscored that.
Throughout this tournament the American team had been privately
measuring its progress by counting how many boxers it still had
in contention, then comparing that number with the number of
Cuban survivors. While all four Cubans who fought in last
night's semifinals advanced--none easier than Cuban heavyweight
Felix Savon, on a walkover against Germany's injured Luan
Krasniqi--American fighters went 0-3 in their attempts to reach
the gold medal round.

At 201 pounds, Nate Jones of Chicago lost a 16-10 decision to
David Defiagbon of Canada, who staggered Jones 90 seconds into
their fight. And at 132 pounds, Terrance Cauthen of Philadelphia
fell 15-12 to Tontcho Tontchev of Bulgaria. All three U.S.
fighters finish with bronze medals. "That ain't what I wanted,"
Wells said.

Three other Americans--125-pounder Floyd Mayweather, world
champion 178-pounder Antonio Tarver and 156-pounder David
Reid--fight their semifinals today, with Mayweather facing the
stiffest test: a match against two-time world champion Serafim
Todorov of Bulgaria.

Of the Americans who fought last night, Cauthen came the closest
to winning, but even he was pushed out of his game early. A
lackluster first round forced him to abandon any thought of
outboxing Tontchev and reduced Cauthen to brawling. Though
slugging it out isn't Cauthen's strength--"As you can see, I
still have all my teeth," he joked before the bout--he was game.
The second round proved to be the gem of the fight, a series of
toe-to-toe exchanges that featured both fighters trading looping
hook shots that boomed off their headgear and ribs.

While Cauthen complained that last night's judges were stingier
about scoring his hook--the punch that had carried him to
victory in his earlier bouts--the decision was the correct one.
U.S. coach Al Mitchell said Cauthen's mistake was his failure to
adjust. Mitchell knew the hook wasn't being counted because
round-by-round scores are available on ringside TVs, and he told
Cauthen about the ineffective punch at the end of the second
round. "Terrance just didn't listen," said Mitchell. Cauthen,
sitting beside him and already red-eyed from crying, just
shrugged. Cauthen could have been speaking for Jones and Wells,
too, when he said, "When you're constantly playing catch-up,
it's hard."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Cauthen (left) didn't make Tontchev eat enough leather and ended up losing 15-12. [Terrance Cauthen and Tontcho Tontchev]