’84: Last great U.S. Olympic team?
The 1984 U.S. Olympic team — here represented by (standing left to right) Meldrick Taylor, Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker and Evander Holyfield, and (seated) Tyrell Biggs — won nine gold medals. Photo / THE RING
It was 25 years ago today that Bill Suitor flew into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with a jet pack on his back, kicking off the 1984 Olympic Summer Games. The next day, the first punches of the boxing competition were thrown – which means it was 25 years ago tomorrow that the most successful American Olympic boxing team in history began competing.
And in two weeks, it will have been 25 years since we waved goodbye to arguably the last great U.S. Olympic boxing team.
For people of my generation – born in the mid-’70s, unaware of what was happening on television in 1976 if it didn’t feature Big Bird, deprived of our country’s involvement in the 1980 Olympics – the ’84 boxing team was our only great team.
Sure, an argument could be made that the ’88 team flirted with the term “great.” It won three golds (and would have won four if not for the Roy Jones robbery) and faced stiffer competition than the ’84 team because of fewer boycotting nations. But Cuba was still absent, and three golds is a long way from nine. If you want to give the ’88 team four on account of Jones, then you have to give the ’84 team 10 on account of Evander Holyfield.
Bottom line: The ’84 team was undeniably great; the ’88 team was far better than any other U.S. team that followed, but still feels more like a “very good” than a “great.”
And speaking of those teams that followed, the ’92 team earned one gold and three medals overall; ’96 scored one gold and six total medals; ’00 had four medals, no golds; ’04 picked up one gold and one bronze; and ’08 captured just one medal, a bronze. With no indicators that this trend is going to reverse anytime soon, it reinforces the significance of the team that today celebrates its 25th anniversary. The ’84 team wasn’t just the last great American boxing team to date; it might be the last great American boxing team ever.
“You’re not going to see a team like that again, because kids in America don’t go into boxing anymore, at least not like they did back then,” said Doug Krikorian, one of a small handful of American newspaper writers who covered all 350-plus bouts of the ’84 Olympics from ringside at the L.A. Sports Arena. Krikorian covered the Games for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and now writes for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “Kids today go into basketball or they go into football. They don’t go into boxing. That team is the last connection to the era of American dominance in amateur boxing.”
No team from any country before or since has stormed through the competition quite like that ’84 U.S. crew did. Bantamweight Robert Shannon was the only member of the 12-man team who failed to medal. Holyfield settled for bronze after he was slapped with a ludicrous disqualification for having the gall to complete a left hook against Kevin Barry as the referee said “break.” Virgil Hill took the silver at 165 pounds. Paul Gonzales, Steve McCrory, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Jerry Page, Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Henry Tillman and Tyrell Biggs all won gold medals. And most of them racked up knockouts and shutouts along the way.
Of course, the accomplishments were undeniably tainted by the boycotts of the Soviet Union, Cuba and 14 other nations.
“It took away from it that Russia and Cuba and all those countries weren’t there,” said veteran trainer Ken Adams, who was an assistant coach on the ’84 team and served as head coach four years later in Seoul. “The competition would have been better if all those countries were there, but you can’t hold that against our fighters. All they can do is beat who’s in front of them.”
Krikorian is among those who believe the medal haul still would have been noteworthy even if all of the world’s best amateur fighters had congregated in Los Angeles.
“They would have won at least five or six gold medals anyway,” Krikorian speculated. “It was a great team. Maybe Tyrell Biggs wouldn’t have won if the Cubans were there, and Jerry Page wouldn’t have won. But Whitaker still would have beaten anyone. And Taylor too. He was so dominant at the Olympics, you were just like, ‘Who in the hell is this guy?’ And Evander was so good, he would have knocked out anybody. He got screwed out of a gold medal like you wouldn’t believe.”
Adams has an interesting take on the bogus defeat that Holyfield suffered in the light heavyweight semifinals.
“I think Evander gained more fame and publicity by that happening,” he said. “It actually was a good thing for his pro career. Instead of being just another gold medal winner out 10 gold medal winners, he had a unique story and was probably given a little extra boost. Plus he had more incentive to want to become a world champion.”
Which, as we all know, he did, sooner than any of his teammates. Five more followed: Taylor, Whitaker, Breland, Tate and Hill.
Sure, some flopped as pros. Gonzales, in particular, was a disappointment, having won the Val Barker Cup as the best boxer in the L.A. Games only to see injuries, inactivity and questionable focus keep him from winning a title in the pros. Breland, who enjoyed two alphabet title reigns at welterweight, is also generally remembered for his failings as a pro. That’s what happens when your amateur career ends with everybody comparing you to Sugar Ray Robinson.
And, this being boxing, the great ’84 team had its share of sad tales that go beyond what happened in the ring. McCrory died at age 36 of what was termed an “extended illness.” Taylor’s life and career spiraled downward following his emotionally and physically devastating defeat to Julio Cesar Chavez in 1990. Whitaker and Biggs battled drugs, though both now claim to be clean. And Holyfield, whose career earnings approached $250 million, went so overboard on his mansion and trying to fill every room with children that he is now in a state of financial ruin. And that’s to say nothing of the sad sight of him continuing to look for fights at age 46.
It all serves as a reminder of how much can change in 25 years, especially for athletes, who can only wring so much out of their bodies before they have to find some other way to make a living and define themselves. The promising kids of the class of ’84 are now a balanced mix of living legends and cautionary tales.
Twenty-five years ago, they were a baby-faced bunch introducing a new generation, one that missed out on the excitement of ’76, to Olympic boxing. They were 12 young fighters claiming more overall medals and more golds than any team that came before. And maybe time hasn’t been so kind to some of them.
But time hasn’t hurt their legacy. If anything, with each successive Olympic failure, the ’84 team’s greatness grows. Nine gold medals at a single Olympic games was an exceptional achievement at the time. With the United States earning a total of six gold medals in the six Olympic boxing competitions since, the achievement looks more exceptional every day.
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Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]