2008 U.S. Olympians: Opponents too soft?
Gary Russell Jr., a 2008 U.S. Olympian, faces veteran Mauricio Pastrana in a six-round featherweight main event on the Thursday “Fight Night Club” card at Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles. In the co-feature, Nestor Rocha fights Benji Garcia in a six-round bantamweight matchup. The card will be televised on Fox Sports Net (tape delayed) and streamed live on RingTV.com and Ustream beginning at 8 p.m.
Gary Russell Jr. was an accomplished amateur and one of the Unites States’ best hopes for a medal in the 2008 Olympics. Sadly, he collapsed in his dorm room after reportedly dehydrating himself trying to make weight and missed the official weigh-in, disqualifying him from the competition.
And the rest of the nine-man U.S. team, dubbed by some as the worst in the nation’s history, didn’t do much better. Only heavyweight Deontay Wilder medaled (bronze) in the Beijing Games.
Of course, everyone gets a clean slate once the Games are over. The seven members of the team who turned professional could look forward to making their marks in a new arena and get paid for it. The two who remained amateur hope to give the Olympics another try.
So how are the seven professionals doing almost two years after the 2008 Games? Depends how you look at it.
They are a combined 52-0 (with 38 knockouts), which is impressive. However, they’ve fought an average of only 7.4 fights each since turning pro, meaning they haven’t been particularly active. And the ability level of their opponents generally has been low, meaning they might not be given the opportunity to grow as quickly as they might with meaningful opposition.
Trainer/TV analyst Teddy Atlas, who has covered the past three Olympics, said he watches one- or two-round blowouts involving Olympians and thinks, “Why bother?”
Atlas used Demetrius Andrade — the fighter he believed to be the top prospect coming out of the Olympics — as an example of an Olympian who hasn’t done himself any favors with the opponents he’s faced.
“I haven’t seen the development in his first year(-plus) as a pro,” Atlas said. “Part of it is very soft opposition, which is a double-edged sword. You build your record up but you’re also not putting the kid into an honest position. You’re not going to bring the best out of him if you don’t force him to face legitimate opposition.
“ÔÇª I think you should start upgrading the level of opponent after five, six fights, something like that. Remember, these kids had 200, 250 amateur fights. I mean, c’mon. They’ve fought the best amateur fighters in the world. They don’t have to fight guys who are sub-sub-subpar. What will happen? It usually takes about three years [to fight for a title] for these guys, five for guys without as much amateur experience. I’m gonna guess that they’ll grab titles; there are a lot of soft titles.
“They also might get to a place, though, where they’re going from the wading pool to the ocean. And they’re gonna say, ‘SÔÇöt, no one told there were going to be waves in here.’ I think they’re talented. I see speed, that kind of thing. Are they pro fighters? I don’t know.”
By contrast, Atlas used gold medalists Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya as examples of Olympians who progressed quickly because they challenged themselves early.
Leonard was already fighting contenders less than two years after turning pro, including Randy Shields in his 15th fight, and beat Hall of Famer Wilfredo Benitez to win the welterweight title less than three years into his career.
De La Hoya won a title in only his 12th fight — stopping Jimmi Bredahl — and had three belts in two weight divisions in less than three years.
Of course, most Olympians aren’t as talented as Leonard and De La Hoya. Still, they demonstrated that a fast pace and quality opponents can work to a fighter’s advantage.
“Go back to Leonard, which I know is going back a ways,” said Atlas, referring to the 1976 Olympics. “He [and his handlers] knew his ability. He fought very good fighters as he built up to 10-round fights. They knew they didn’t have to fight guys who are made of cotton candy. They knew it would serve him. And guess what? He was ready when he fought a guy like Benitez. It worked for him.
“The same can be said of De La Hoya. I’m the not the head of the De La Hoya Fan Club but you have to give the guy credit. Look at the guys he fought early in his career. It worked for him. Leonard and De La Hoya had pretty good careers.”
Long-time Goossen Tutor matchmaker Tom Brown has two of the 2008 Olympians — Shawn Estrada and Javier Molina, both of whom have been slowed by injuries — and has handled the past two U.S. gold-medal winners, David Reid and Andre Ward.
Brown understands what Atlas is saying. He agrees that early blowouts against unworthy opponents does the Olympian no good, particularly if he doesn’t fight often.
However, he is more concerned with the number of fights than the quality of opposition, at least early in a fighter’s career. In an ideal world, he said, he’d like to have his fighters emulate Mike Tyson, who fought 19 times in his first 12 months as a pro.
“That’s the kind of activity a kid needs early,” he said. “Even if he fights guys like Teddy is describing, it’s the activity. Strapping on eight-ounce gloves, doing the ring walk, getting used to everything, the whole pro game. It’s all about learning. I’ve always said I want a young guy to emulate Tyson, but injuries always prevented me from doing it.”
Reid had his droopy eye so he had to be rushed. Ward had knee and hand problems and was moved slowly. And, again, both Estrada (back, hand) and Molina (hand) have lost valuable time.
Ward was neither overly active nor seriously tested in his first 24 months as a pro, although his 10 opponents over that time had a combined record of 60-19-4. And we know how this story has turned out: Ward is one of the sport’s brightest young stars.
Brown said that pace, although partly dictated by injuries, was perfect for Ward, who had more than 100 amateur fights.
“His trainer Virgil Hunter, who has been with him forever, had a real hard time weaning him off the amateur rat-a-tat-tat stuff,” he said. “He was working his tail off when he needed to slow down a bit and throw hard punches. It took a long time. So the plan for him worked perfectly.
“ÔÇª Yes, sometimes fighters need to be challenged more but I don’t want to rip any promoters or matchmakers because I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
No matter the situation, though, we all want to see the Olympians face a legitmate challenge — for them and for us.
Including pro record
Luis Yanez (4-0, 0 KOs): Least active of 2008 Olympians
Rau’shee Warren: Attempting to become first American to compete in three Olympics.
Gary Russell Jr. (10-0, 7 KOs): Stepping up to face veteran Mauricio Pastrana on Thursday.
Raynell Williams: Also attempting to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
Sadam Ali (8-0, 4 KOs): With Russell, perhaps best of group in pro ranks so far.
Javier Molina (3-0, 3 KOs): Returns from hand injury on Aug. 13.
Demetrius Andrade (10-0, 7 KOs: Perhaps most talented of group.
Shawn Estrada (6-0, 6 KOs): Returns from multiple injuries on upcoming Friday Night Fights.
Deontay Wilder (11-0, 11 KOs): The rawest of bunch has undeniable power.