The Decline of American Boxing Part 1

The Year of Triumph and Tragedy

Members of the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team in 1924

Before the 1924 Olympics, the US boxing team (above) left for Paris in good spirits. Its confidence proved to be entirely justified as it returned home with six medals, a quarter of those awarded. Many similarly impressive hauls would follow in the coming decades.

More recent American boxers have had the edge over their 1924 counterparts in posing for photographs, but have been markedly less successful in the ring. The United States won just 2 medals at the 2004 Games and just 1 in 2008. Countries such as Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Great Britain and even Thailand have won more medals over the same period.

The nadir came in London 2012 where the US men won no medals at all. National pride was only saved by the introduction of women’s boxing, and a gold for Claressa Shields.

So, when did it all start to go wrong? I think that the key event took place much earlier than might be anticipated. It was a genuine tragedy which happened in the year 1960.

Boxing light-heavyweight 1960 Olympics

It might seem an eccentric choice. After all, 1960 was the date of one of the most famous American boxing medals, a gold for Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, in Rome (above).

It was the start of a long period of dominance, which lasted until 1984, in both amateur boxing and the professional game. Every world heavyweight champion from 1960 until 1983 was from the United States. This was the glorious era of Ali and Frazier, Foreman and Spinks, all of whom had won Olympic gold medals before they turned professional.

But behind the triumphs, there were signs of danger. Just weeks before Rome, another boxer, Charlie Mohr, defended his NCAA college championship title. He suffered a brain haemorrhage and died eight days later. The NCAA would never sanction the sport again.

Before 1960, college programmes had been an important source of Olympic talent. In 1952, Americans boxers won five gold medals, including victories for Chuck Adkins and Ed Sanders. Adkins had won the NCAA title the same year, and Sanders, from the Watts district of Los Angeles, had the benefit of an athletic scholarship to Idaho State College.

Things would never be the same again. There would be no more scholarships. Even in a recent article about the revival of college boxing, there is, tellingly, a plea for donations.

At first, the loss of NCAA support did not make much difference. This was the amateur era when, except for shamateurs in the Soviet Union and its allies, few athletes received significant state funding. However, since the Cold War ended, this is no longer the case.

There is a real possibility that, if the United States does not come up with a solution, it will never find anybody to emulate the feats of Muhammad Ali. Instead, its boxers could find themselves floating and stinging as if they have just been sprayed with insecticide.

Next week: Why is US college sport so important for producing Olympic champions?

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