When Going Pro Is More Precious Than Gold

New York Times, NY
Aug 20 2004

When Going Pro Is More Precious Than Gold



A HALF-HOUR after Rock Allen lost to Boris Georgiev of Bulgaria to
end a dismal day for United States boxers, the 5-foot-7 Allen, a
light welterweight from Philadelphia, faced the media music.

The United States had lost two of three bouts yesterday. Earlier,
Lorenzo Aragon of Cuba was better than Vanes Martirosyan, an
18-year-old welterweight from California by way of Armenia. After
initial days of competition that seemed to trumpet the return of
American boxing to international prominence, the team is teetering.

Suddenly, what had seemed like an enthralling story of a young United
States team beating the odds had turned into a familiar story of
experienced amateur fighters from Cuba and Eastern Europe beating up
on game, but inexperienced, American boxers.

Basheer Abdullah, the United States team’s head coach, was anxious
before Martirosyan’s bout. “I wanted that bout bad because I thought
if we got that victory against the Cuban, it would motivate the rest
of the athletes,” he said. His young boxing team, like the young
United States men’s basketball team, is fluent in the sport but
uncomfortable in international rules.

After his defeat, Allen said, “He was just a better amateur fighter,”
making a point of saying Georgiev was a better amateur, implying that
if they meet as pros the story may be different. “I have more of a
pro style,” Allen said. “By me having a pro style, it’s hard to
really adapt to the amateur game.”

We’ll probably never know. In yet another example here of the
mishmash of sports cultures, Allen will soon turn pro. Georgiev,
meanwhile, will likely beat up on another young American boxer at the
2008 Games in China.

Against seasoned Cuban and Bulgarian fighters familiar with the
nuances of how to exploit the computerized scoring system,
Martirosyan and Allen were outmatched.

“They’re well schooled on how to position themselves, where the
judges are at,” Abdullah said. “They have a system and they stick
within the system. They’re very disciplined boxers.”

There is no rush in a 10-round professional fight; Olympic boxing is
hurry, hurry, hurry. From the opening bell, the opponent rushes in
and throws the kinds of flurries that register on the computer. One
fighter builds up points and spends the rest of the fight running.
When a fighter falls behind, as Martirosyan and Allen did yesterday,
catching up, short of a knockout, is next to impossible.

Not all the American boxers have professional careers on their minds.
After his loss yesterday, Martirosyan surprised a few questioners
when he said he wanted to remain an amateur. “I’ll be back in 2008,”
he said. “Who knows?”

“I love amateurs so much,” he said. “I just love being in the ring.
You put me out there right now, just to spar, I’ll go out there and

Someone wondered why Martirosyan would put off making money as a
professional fighter. That’s what American Olympic boxers do: they
turn pro and use Olympic stature as leverage to sign a better

Martirosyan said money wasn’t the prevailing factor with his family.
“We don’t really think about the money or whether to go
professional,” he said. “My dad just wants me to be happy, and I’m
happy when I’m in the ring.”

This was the first time I’d ever heard an American Olympic boxer even
suggest that he would hang around for the next Games. But he said he
loved the amateur environment.

“What I love about it is the fans, the people,” he said. Amateur
boxing, he said, doesn’t require “taking your head gear off and
getting hurt, because you can get hurt in the pros.”

“Amateurs, you go out there and you have fun,” he added. “You come
out, you’re O.K. You can walk instead of getting carried out on a
stretcher. Professionals, man, you can get hit with a punch that can
change your life.”

Allen, on the other hand, seems to want to turn pro immediately.

Soon, the Olympic boxing site will be crawling – and I mean that
literally – with boxing agents and promoters looking to scoop up
talent for the brutal pro fight game.

The Cubans, and perhaps to a lesser extent the Bulgarians, don’t have
to deal with these temptations, with these pressure enticements. The
Cubans in particular are forever amateurs.

“A lot of these guys here, they stick around,” Allen said. “You’re
going to see them in 2008 and 2012. Our guys, after the Olympic
Games, we always turn pro.”

The Cubans will not.

“A gold medal in Cuba – they take pride in representing their country
and wearing their colors,” Abdullah said. “Some of our athletes have
other opportunities, like track and field, boxing. They can make the
big money. They know if they fall short here, it’s not over.”

Well-compensated basketball players and tennis players have stumbled
in Athens. Now boxing has to go back to the drawing board.

We’re going to need a larger board.