Judges' fingers do walking right into Griffin dead end

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BADALONA, Spain -- Well, it could be worse. Don King could be running the Olympic boxing tournament.

In fact, that is about the only way it could be worse.

"Write your congressmen!" a man named Bob Jordan was screaming here yesterday afternoon at the boxing arena. "Tell them to stop foreign aid! It'll just cost you 29 cents -- and without our money, these jerkwater shirtpocket countries will just dry up and go away!"

Ah, the sweet sounds of the fistic science. What would the Games be without them?

Amateur boxing has never been in the same sleazy league as the pro game. But traditionally, Olympic boxing still produces the Games' most controversial moments. And although last week's early bouts passed without incident, the sport mounted a comeback over the weekend. A big comeback.

Jordan was screaming because he is the patron and sponsor of Eric Griffin, a light flyweight of 106 pounds and great talent. Griffin trains in an abandoned drugstore near the home of Jordan, a businessman in Tennessee. Griffin is a four-time world champion. He was practically a gold medal lock here. But then he came to Barcelona. And you'll never guess what happened next.

Actually, you will have no trouble guessing. Jordan thought the judges and officials of those "jerkwater shirtpocket" countries had jobbed his man Griffin. But it was a lot more complicated than that. Every day, the Olympics have a heartbreak story. Not like this one, though. Follow closely, if you can:

Saturday afternoon, Griffin lost his preliminary round fight to a Spaniard named Rafael Lozano Munoz, even though the judges said he had won the bout. Then, yesterday morning, Griffin lost the appeal of the fight that he won but actually lost.

And it all happened because ... are you ready for this? The five judges couldn't play Nintendo fast enough.

"It's crazy," Griffin said.

The whole thing would be hilarious if it weren't so stupid. What other sport could invent a system where, even if all five judges of a bout agree a certain fighter has won, the certain fighter can lose? Only boxing.

You can thank the Olympics' new computerized scoring system, which works very much like a Nintendo game. The five judges sit below the ring apron, each with a computer touch pad in front of them. Their thumbs rest on two buttons. Whenever boxer A lands a punch, the judge punches button A. Whenever boxer B lands a punch, the judge presses button B. The idea is that this way, judges can't arbitrarily give any fighter a victory. The buttons provide hard data.

Here is the catch, though: When the five judges are playing their little Nintendo game, three of them must press the same button within one second of each other. Otherwise, it doesn't count as a "confirmed" punch.

And a lot of Griffin's punches didn't. Every judge working the bout between Griffin and Lozano pressed more Griffin buttons than Lozano buttons. They just didn't press the Griffin buttons simultaneously, within the one second window, for a "confirmed" punch.

So while each judge had Griffin winning individually -- a Canadian judge even had him landing 26 punches to his opponents' 17 -- the computer had Griffin losing on "confirmed" punches, six to five.

"I don't understand," Griffin said. "I thought a computer couldn't lie. If the computers don't work, something's wrong."

He is right. Something was. But it wasn't the computers. It was the men who had their fingers on the buttons. Randy Gordon, the New York state athletic commissioner, is here as an Olympic spectator. And the way he figures it, some of the middle-aged boxing judges here have very slow reaction times. They did not press their buttons quickly enough when they saw a Griffin punch. So by the time these judges pressed their buttons, the one-second window to connect with at least two other judges had passed by.

Or as Gordon so eloquently expressed it, in a phrase dear to every Silicon Valley programmer's heart: "If I give you a computer and you're incompetent, it becomes just as incompetent as you are."

Griffin already had figured that out, of course. He and U.S. boxing officials thought they might have a shot at getting the computer "decision" reversed -- he even woke up at 6 a.m. to do his normal running -- but they should have known better. Hey, this is boxing. You will see Evander Holyfield doing Shakespeare in drag before you will get boxing officials to admit making a mistake.

So that left Griffin standing in the concrete hallway of the Pavello Club Joventut, the spartan boxing arena here. He was confused and angry, and you couldn't blame him. To be charitable, the man does not have a lot of options. Griffin does not have a high school diploma or even an equivalency certificate. He can read "some," said Jordan. When asked to spell his son's name, Griffin slowly rattled off some letters and said, "Well, it's something like that." Reporters later tracked down the name: Exavnear.

"Boxing was his ticket out," Jordan said, "his chance for success. Because he's so small, people think he's a kid. But he's 24 years old."

Griffin can still continue his fight career as a professional, of course. But an Olympic medal would have translated into perhaps a $50,000 purse for his first pro fight. And now? Well, he may follow in the footsteps of Roy Jones, the U.S. fighter who lost a controversial decision at the Seoul Games. He's had 19 or 20 pro fights without getting a sniff of a title shot. Lou Duva, the manager of Holyfield, sees the same fate for Griffin.

"He's the Roy Jones of 1992, and that don't mean nothing," said Duva, in the endearing way that fight people have. "Who gives him a bonus now? Nobody. He's a $300 fighter."

How familiar. Four years ago in Seoul, boxing almost stunk itself completely out of the Olympics. Every day, something dreadful happened. There were riots, rotten decisions and attacks on referees -- by other boxing officials. In response, the International Olympic Committee gave the boxing federation what amounted to a standing eight count. Shape up, the IOC said, or boxing will no longer be an Olympic sport. Barcelona was supposed to be a major test for the keepers of amateur boxing.

You can ask Eric Griffin if they are getting a passing grade.

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